Despite its publication seemingly caught up in a Brexit gridlock, the higher education sector is braced for the highly anticipated Augar Review of post-18 education.
Launched by the Prime Minister just over a year ago to tackle concerns over high tuition fees and spiralling repayments rates, the review is set to make a number of wide ranging – and potentially sector shocking – recommendations that send a tough message to universities about value for money.
Numerous leaks from the inquiry and rumours over its potential recommendations have been shared over the last couple of months, but it remains to be seen if Augar will set out radical, long-term higher education reform, or if his review will fall flat on arrival.
What’s Augar got in store?
The most attention-grabbing rumour is that the review is expected to recommend a cut in tuition fees. Reports suggest this would vary depending on the degree, with prices potentially falling as low as £6,500 for most students on arts and humanities courses, and STEM subjects more than doubling to £13,500 or more. This premium level is intended to reflect both the costs involved in running an intensive laboratory-based subject such as medicine, and the additional earnings expected by graduates.
Estimates have put the cost of such a cut at around £3 billion. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t settled well with the sector, with heads of universities warning of the devastating impact this would have on teaching and research, particularly as the extent of any replacement funding from government remains unclear.
Besides issues with funding, the sector has suggested this would create a ‘two-tier’ system, with lower funding and consequently lower status for courses in the arts and humanities compared to other subjects. This would also have consequences for social mobility, with poorer students being pushed away from more expensive degrees and onto cheaper courses.
The Russell Group has recently come out to warn this approach would lead to a de facto cap on student numbers, particularly if the funding gap isn’t covered by the Treasury. This argument is likely to face a strong push back from government, with recently appointed Universities Minister Chris Skidmore being clear on his opposition to a cap. However, if courses come under pressure due to cuts in funding, this could become a reality for many universities in England.
In addition to fee cuts, the Augar Review team is rumoured to be considering a minimum A-level grade threshold for student loans, with students who fail to achieve three Ds at A-level becoming ineligible. Similarly, this has been branded as a further blow to disadvantaged students, with MillionPlus, a group representing almost half of the UK university sector, criticising the move as a “cap on aspiration”. Vice-chancellors have also argued this would reduce disadvantaged student numbers “by the back door”, going directly against the DfE’s, and the Prime Ministers’ own, social mobility agenda.
How likely is this?
A headline cut in fees will be seen as an important outcome by No.10, with political commentators viewing the decision to launch a review as an attempt to reconcile the Conservatives’ poor electoral performance in 2017 among young people. As such, the government will be under pressure to agree proposals that reduce the overall cost for students, or come up with a ‘retail offer’, to compete with Labour’s pledge to abolish fees in a general election. However, the Treasury is unlikely to be keen to provide additional funding for universities at a time of uncertainty about future public finances post-Brexit.
It’s clear that universities are expecting this to be a challenging review. Arts institutions are most likely to be holding their breath, with ministers having been dismissive of their role since the review was launched. With the additional pressure from Brexit, the creative industries are feeling particularly at risk.
Beyond the arts, any cut in tuition fees could have a considerable impact on scientific research and teaching, reducing the government’s chances of meeting its target for research and development spending, and undermining its own Industrial Strategy. Again, with Brexit looming on the horizon, the drive to deliver growth and improve productivity is more important than ever, and universities have a major part to play.
Whatever Augar decides to recommend, he has been set a difficult task of finding attractive solutions without incurring significant additional government expenditure or a loss of income for universities. With tuition fees the most politically contentious issue being considered, the sector seems likely to face tough questions about the value for money they offer for students, while continuing to face pressure to widen access for disadvantaged groups.
Skidmore has attempted to reassure the sector by stating that any funding changes would be subject to consultation and introduced gradually, offering longer-term opportunities to influence the government’s final approach. While there has been a strong sector-wide lobby to date, HE providers now need to consider their individual positions within this debate and ensure they can demonstrate the value of their specific provision and the need to protect funding for, and access to, their courses.