Inevitably the Augar Review headlines were dominated by universities – the proposed tuition fee cut from £9,250 to £7,500, extending the repayment term from 30 to 40 years and reducing the loan repayment threshold from £25k to £23k. Together with a strong condemnation of "low value degrees" and for universities chasing "bums on seats" rather than providing the most appropriate courses for students.
Many headline writers and commentators may not have read much further. Initial reactions suggested that HE readers had also gone straight to the HE chapters and recommendations, leaving FE to theirs. It wasn’t clear who had read the whole thing.
The right questions
Except perhaps the (outgoing) prime minister. Theresa May had, after all, commissioned the whole thing in the first place and even launched it at a college in Derby. And Augar has dutifully done what she asked him to do – reviewing "the complex organism that is tertiary education in England..." He also thanked her in his introduction "above all, for asking the right question".
The many headlines and higher education summaries include the postscript that there is "more money" and/or "good news" for FE. However, at the institutional level reactions are bound to be much more complex. Some universities will be affected much more than others – a combination of hits to what Augar considers to be "low value" or over supplied provision plus restrictive changes to apprenticeships, foundation years and potentially to entry tariffs.
Colleges generally do come out better in terms of Augar’s recommendations – to increase base funding, protecting the "college" title, resources for both capital and staff. Given this support, many in FE might have preferred Augar to have been given a "post-16" rather than a "post-18" focus as it’s the lack of parity with schools that has hit the sector harder in recent years. But for individual colleges there will also be many questions and concerns about Augar’s post-18 agenda.
Augar offers a clear mission and "a stronger technical and vocational education system at sub-degree levels to meet structural skills shortages". This is built around core provision at levels 3, 4 and 5 and in subjects with the most economic value. The decline of this provision contributes to "the UK’s weak productivity performance".
Many in FE will know that we have been here before. Augar quotes both Foster (2005) and the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (2013), repeating their calls for a focus on the "most economically valuable provision". It also echoes the more recent report from the Lords' Economic Affairs Committee last year – Treating Students Fairly.
But Augar also notes that "FE colleges have become providers of everything to everyone" and there is some way to go to get from where we are to where we need to be. As a result we have a range of proposals for "reforming and refunding" the FE sector. Largely these are to fill what Augar describes as the "missing middle" of higher technical education. This is a "tertiary review" after all.
The panel notes that England is an outlier by international standards with low and still declining proportions of learners studying at level 4 and 5 and a very long way behind the OECD average. Current incentives for learners and providers "are stacked in favour of the provision and take-up of three-year full-time undergraduate degrees and against the provision and take-up of level 4/5 courses – and of part-time and adult study generally".
Many colleges may not like such a shift in focus. They know that there isn’t much provision at level 4 and level 5 and building an entire mission on it will feel risky. The role of employers – obviously vital – is unpredictable and unclear. Increased labour market demand and meaningful employer engagement are also uncertain. Others will fear the review’s recommendations for further "rationalisation" – particularly in large urban areas – where according to the panel the "number of FECs is still too high".
Again this is familiar territory. The last 20 years have seen numerous attempts to do exactly this – by government, by the market and by particularly ambitious and expansionist colleges. It is reasonably safe to say that not many have gone well.
Augar’s plea for new college resources comes mainly on the basis of expanding activity in higher and not further education. His main recommendations essentially shift resources from one part of HE to another explicitly handing the lead to the Office for Students in an overdue rationalising of the regulators. So if colleges want to benefit they will have to change.
Policymakers will also have more work to do. This is a messy part of the system. It is strewn with many past failures. In weak funding incentives and poor regulatory design but also in qualifications and institutions. Augar is not the first attempt to fill this gap between FE and HE. From Polytechnics to CoVEs and from National Skills Academies to National Colleges, we know it is hard to sustain the interest and commitment of governments. Institutes of Technology may be the right answer or they may be the latest in a long list of failed initiatives to fill Augar’s "missing middle".
Who really wants to fill it? Colleges keen for more resource and status? Universities threatened by new cuts and restrictions elsewhere? New hybrid institutions or alliances between the two? The Augar Review is right to diagnose the problem and it offers several steps in the right direction.
It takes the "fiscal illusions" of the current student loan system and its biases to one form of higher education and forces it into a more diverse, flexible and broader tertiary system. But that’s not the whole job. We still need to think more about the qualifications, pathways and institutions that must make up a more diverse higher education system. That’s a long way from just funding FE better.
Andy Westwood is vice-dean for social responsibility at the University of Manchester. He is also a visiting professor of further and higher education at the University of Wolverhampton