The Augar review is likely to call for a rebalanced approach to learning. But what is the chance of this being implemented in the current political climate?
The publication of the Augar review, commissioned by Theresa May to look at post-18 education funding, is imminent. Such is the way of the modern world that many of its recommendations were in the weekend papers. So, while we must study the details in the full report, we can still take an early view of its expected headlines.
First, let’s think about why the review was needed. The headlines are, as usual, dominated by its thinking on university tuition fees. But, for me, its central rationale is that our skills base continues to lag behind other countries. Indeed, Learning and Work Institute research shows that the UK is poised to fall even further down the international league tables by 2030 for almost any measure you pick, the result of skills improvements grinding to a halt over the past decade while other countries continue to improve.
The arguments about the impact of this on economic growth and social justice are well worn, but always worth reiterating.
What will Augar say?
The real question is what we do about this. Augar is expected to recommend a cut in tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500, with an argument about whether the Treasury should top up the difference through public spending. The answer to that depends on whether you think the current system is good value for money or not. While there are arguments on both sides, I worry that at times we risk mistaking value in the labour market (measured by wages) with value in society.
Alongside changes to tuition fees there will, according to the press reports, be recommendations to reduce the interest rate on student debt and possibly to extend the repayment period beyond the current 30 years. The latter is important: otherwise, reductions in fees and interest rates alone would be regressive as only the highest earning graduates earn enough to pay off their full fees under the current system.
There’s also a debate about whether and how to cap student numbers, perhaps through minimum grade requirements. In my view, the proportion of young people doing higher education in this country is not unusual by international standards, but the skew towards three-year, full-time undergraduate degrees is. That’s why I’m interested in the review’s expected proposal for a lifetime loan account, allowing people to borrow up to a certain amount for tertiary education throughout their lives. This new account could have the potential to break down the barriers that have led to this, and increase the diversity of higher education options. It should be a building block for a wider system of personal learning accounts for learning of all kinds.
Building ladders of progression
The leaked recommendations about reintroducing means-tested grants, more modularisation, and support for part-time degrees also chime with our submission to the review.
I’m hoping that, while it won’t grab the headlines, there’ll be lots too on how to build ladders of progression and boost learning at all levels. After all, we could have the world’s best higher education system, but that won’t do us much good as it might unless we also tackle the stalled progress in the proportion of young people qualified to levels 2 and 3. Similarly, it’s shocking that 9 million adults in England lack functional literacy or numeracy, and yet the numbers taking part in such learning have fallen by one third in the past five years.
Changes to higher education financing may free up some resources to do this but, although the review’s terms of reference required it to be cost-neutral, there’s a clear case for extra investment. We’ve shown that a £1.5 billion boost for further education and adult learning could boost the economy by £20 billion per year. In other words, we need an overall vision for lifelong learning, not just a plan for university-level education for young people.
Destined for the long grass?
What is the chance of any of this happening? After all, the review was commissioned by a prime minister who will shortly leave office. What will a new prime minister – and possibly a new chancellor and education secretary – think by the time a Spending Review comes round and decisions need to be made about implementation. Indeed, will we even get to that point, given that the uncertain parliamentary situation might mean no Spending Review or even a general election?
Such is the lot of those of us interested in any national policy at the moment. But we have to deal with life as we find it, and a number of the leading contenders to be Conservative leader have voiced their support for greater emphasis on technical education and flexibility in lifelong learning options.
Whatever the political climate, the challenges are unchanged and well analysed. It’s time to move on to solutions.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute