After days of intensive discussion, the strengths and weaknesses of the Augar report on post-18 education policy and funding are apparent. It is a solid review, refreshingly non-ideological in tone, but undermined by a flawed vision and wishful thinking.
Some of its proposals – and its less attractive one-liners about low-value courses and too many graduates – are likely to seep into policy. But it lacks the momentum of a great reform. It gives but it takes away, handicapped by having to be fiscally neutral.
It’s hard to see the next prime minister picking up the whole package. Politically it does not secure youth votes at scale. Policy-wise it creates as many problems as it solves.
Though the review, commissioned by Theresa May in February last year, was created to implement a headline fee-cut, and though it has restored maintenance grants, the result is middle-income families, and many graduates in nursing or teaching, would pay more in loan repayments overall.
The loans payback would start at £23,000, not £25,000 as at present, and stretch over 40, not 30 years. The consultancy London Economics estimates lifetime repayments by some lower-earning women graduates would double, while total repayments by some high-earning males would drop.
Maintenance grants, at £3,000 a year, would be modest – 23% below 2008 in terms of the consumer price index – and well short of ballooning costs in private rent. The report’s cost estimates suggest access to maintenance would be tight.
The committee is also clearly uncomfortable with widening participation, making cynical remarks about foundation courses and digs about low-tariff students in post-1992 universities, whose graduate salaries allegedly show they do not benefit. The implications are that financial returns are the only real indicator of value in higher education and that numbers should shrink.
Augar claims the UK has a graduate oversupply, but this is based on surveys of graduate expectations, not on fact. Once international students are taken out, in 2016 there were 10 OECD countries in which the percentage of first-degree graduation was higher than the UK’s 38%.
This is also where the wistful thinking comes in. Augar dreams that an oversupply of performing arts and social studies degrees will be replaced by – wait for it – a sudden expansion of Stem students at levels 4 and 5 in further education colleges. Where they will come from, and why they will want to take their Stem capabilities into sub-degree courses, is a mystery.
Augar promises to unite higher education and further education through loans funding and student support. This is absolutely right and long overdue. So is the upgrading of further education colleges, the new scaffolding for participation at levels 2-5, and proposals for modular lifelong learning and second-chance entry.
Yet in political terms, Augar sets higher education and further education against each other. He would upgrade further education by cutting university funding.
To support this, the report paints a picture of a bloated higher education sector overdue for correction. It wants an 8% cut in per-student resources by 2022-23. The standard fee has already declined by 13% in real terms since 2012. An accumulated reduction of more than one fifth cannot be contained by economies of scale.
This affects Augar’s favoured courses in Stem. In a uniform fee system, Stem depends on large-scale redistribution from fees for lower-cost subjects. So cutting resourcing in humanities cuts Stem, too. It also reduces university research.
The committee must know that research is subsidised from teaching funding. How else does the UK sustain the world’s second best science system with the seventh largest R&D spend?
It is most unfortunate that instead of building a combined approach, Augar’s zero-sum trade-off between HE and FE will generate opposition likely to bury its better proposals.
Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education