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Augar and augury

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By Rob Cuthbert

This is written just as Boris Johnson is declared the new leader of the Conservative Party and therefore the new occupant of No 10 Downing Street. All of the jockeying for prime ministerial position has made our national Brexit-obsessed politics even more bizarre than before but, not far below the surface, some semblance of normal policymaking struggles to carry on, not least in higher education. When the much-delayed Augar report finally appeared on 30 May 2019 it had even more than the usual treatment from the policy wonks.

The good news was that at least the Report aimed to take in the whole of post-18 education, and it started by setting out eight principles:

  1. Post-18 education benefits society, the economy, and individuals.
  2. Everyone should have the opportunity to be educated after the age of 18.
  3. The decline in numbers of those getting post-18 education needs to be reversed.
  4. The cost of post-18 education should be shared between taxpayers, employers and learners.
  5. Organisations providing education and training must be accountable for the public subsidy they receive.
  6. Government has a responsibility to ensure that its investment in tertiary education is appropriately spent and directed.
  7. Post-18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces.
  8. Post-18 education needs to be forward looking.

It seems to be a rule that national reports identify a steadily increasing number of purposes for post-18 education. Robbins needed only four; Dearing had five. Augar has six:

  • Promote citizens’ ability to realise their full potential, economically and more broadly.
  • Provision of a suitably skilled workforce.
  • Support innovation through research and development, commercial ideas and global talent.
  • Contribute scholarship and debate that sustain and enrich society through knowledge, ideas, culture and creativity.
  • Contribute to growth by virtue of post-18 institutions’ direct contributions to the economy.
  • Play a core civic role in the regeneration, culture, sustainability, and heritage of the communities in which they are based.

So far so good; then the bunfighting begins: “We make recommendations intended to encourage universities to bear down on low value degrees and to incentivise them to increase the provision of courses better aligned with the economy’s needs … Universities should find further efficiency savings over the coming years, maximum fees for students should be reduced to £7,500 a year, and more of the taxpayer funding should come through grants directed to disadvantaged students and to high value and high cost subjects. “ (p10) ‘Low value’ degrees?! How shall we define them? Augar seemed to identify value only (for students) with graduate earnings, and (for everyone else) with ‘courses better aligned with the economy’s needs’.

The traditionalists were quickly into the fray. Indeed, the Russell Group got its retaliation in first (20 March 2019) – “Reports suggest the Prime Minister’s review of post-18 education and funding could recommend cutting tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 or even lower. We are concerned such a cut would not be fully compensated and could have a devastating impact on our universities.” It was therefore ready to cut and paste its response on the day of publication: “It is imperative the next Prime Minister provides students, businesses and universities with a cast-iron guarantee that, in the event of a fee cut, teaching grants will fully cover the funding shortfall and meet future demand for higher education places.”

Nick Hillman of HEPI blogged on the same day with ‘ten points to note’ as ‘lunchtime takeaways’. Debbie McVitty on 29 May 2019 offered the ‘essential overview’ of Augar, and her WonkHE colleagues followed up with their usual assiduity. David Kernohan argued for WonkHE on 3 June that the underpinning evidence for a £7500 fee level was weak, and he was back on 6 June 2019 “unable to find the evidence that backs up Augar’s rationale for recommending the end of the foundation year.” “Whether or not there is any evidence that providers are seeing the foundation year as a cash cow, or that it offers a poor deal for students, we are not getting to see it. The data that does exist does not support the Augar conclusions, even when it is directly cited as doing so.” Mark Corney (independent) pointed out the logical errors in the Augar proposal to end support for Foundation Years in his blog for HEPI on 21 June 2019, saying that abolishing Foundation Years would not lead to a surge in Access to HE course enrolments.

David Midgley (Cambridge) supplied a balanced précis on the CDBU website on 5 June 2019; Lizzy Woodfield (Aston) provided a useful analysis for WonkHE on 3 June 2019 of the impact on widening participation for her university, but slowly the economists and the accountants took over. Gavin Conlon and Maike Halterbeck of London Economics had already blogged for WonkHE on 30 May 2019 about winners and losers from the Augar Review. Andrew Bush (KPMG) wrote about how Augar analysed costs, for WonkHE on 10 June 2019. An Institute for Fiscal Studies Note on 30 May 2019 argued that the “Augar Review aims to rebalance funding to FE and give government more control over HE funding”, authored by IFS regulars Jack Britton, Laura van der Erve and Paul Johnson.

The financial arguments were subject to increasing critique, with Greg Walker of MillionPlus supplying a well-considered analysis on the HEPI blog on 15 July 2019 – ‘Does Augar present evidence-based policy or policy-based evidence?’ – suggesting that the HE fees cut was intended and inevitable. Tim Blackman (Middlesex) then argued (for WonkHE on 4 June 2019) that Augar is technocratic rather than visionary: “Augar navigates awkwardly between the pros and cons of planning or market forces as the drivers of tertiary education … I get the impression the authors would have liked to have gone further with reintroducing more planning. They point out that some of the most problematic features of how universities behave are a product of marketisation, and make recommendations for rejuvenating further education colleges that amount to national planning of the sector. Why not the same planning paradigm for higher education? The answer would appear to be that sticking with the market conveniently allows Augar to claim that academic autonomy has been protected despite an agenda of major change and austerity.”

In similar vein, Mark Leach of WonkHE, arguing on 3 June that the true challenge in Augar was bridging the gulf between FE and HE, identified the chasm between the two: “One way to read the underlying narrative of the Augar report is that it represents an indictment of two parallel education policy approaches, pursued by multiple, and politically different, governments over the last fifteen or so years. These parallel approaches have treated higher education and further education in radically divergent and – the report implies – radically incompatible ways. In short, the parallel policy approaches can be summed up as follows: The government has pushed higher education towards a more market-like system, which Augar says has gone so far as to become dysfunctional (with symptoms ranging from the total lack of price competition to grade inflation, unconditional offers and other much-discussed system problems). But he also says that, in parallel, further education has been subjected by governments to a policy of intense, highly bureaucratic central planning, tinkering and micro-management, which has also become dysfunctional.”

Thus the commentariat has already supplied analyses an order of magnitude beyond the Review’s 200 pages. So far, so much like normal policymaking – a Review based on considerable thought and analysis, by a significant group, taking positions and making proposals which have properly been subject to much comment and counter-analysis. But in our current abnormal times we can have no confidence that the Review will even be taken into consideration by the about-to-be-formed new administration. Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds and Universities minister Chris Skidmore have perhaps done better than most at trying to maintain some kind of business as usual, with a comparatively low profile in the choose-your-side battles to become the next prime minister. However there can be no certainty that either will still be in post even by the end of the week, and the Augar Review itself was very much a creation of No 10 during Theresa May’s tenure.

No doubt this encouraged Liz Morrish on her Academic Irregularities blog on 11 June 2019 to pronounce that Augar was ‘dead on arrival’, concluding that “Augar has thrown universities to the wolves of a rather rigged market at this point. Nobody – neither staff nor student – can enter a university with any certainty that their career or course of study will be fulfilled without interruption or derailment.” For Morrish, Augar is likely to be no more than background mood music, while the new Johnson administration decides anew what to do with post-18 education – although we can expect, as usual with national reviews, that the government will choose the proposals that suit its purpose, while ignoring the rest of what is, as usual, presented as a package deal. No-one will be betting against a £7500 fee, but no-one will expect the Treasury to stump up the balance lost in the fees cut, especially since so many spending promises have already been made by prime ministerial contenders in recent weeks – none of them for post-18 education.

John Morgan reported on 11 July 2019 for Times Higher Education that former education secretary Justine Greening had said it was “inconceivable” that the new Prime Minister would adopt the Augar review plans. She “believes that the model she explored in government of funding English universities through a graduate contribution plus a “skills levy” on employers could be taken up by the next prime minister.” Her plan would abolish tuition fees and loans: “I think it’s probably the only higher education bill that could get through Parliament.” This is because she says the Augar review’s recommendations were “hugely regressive” in increasing the burden on low- and middle-earning graduates, while lowering it for those on higher incomes: “I find it inconceivable that any future Conservative government that cares about … progressive funding of higher education and social mobility could take that kind of proposal forward”. It is possible to take a very different perspective on Augar, as Nick Barr (LSE) did in declaring it progressive rather than regressive, simply because it proposed to redress the balance between FE and HE. But Greening’s comments are directed more towards heading off the Labour Party’s putative promises on tuition fees, returning to a pre-Augar position which re-institutionalises the chasm between the HE market and the micromanagement and planning of FE. An augur was “a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were”. (Wikipedia) The media’s augurs have for months been studying the noises Boris Johnson has made, the groups he is travelling in, his direction of flight, and what kind of bird he will turn out to be. The Tory press will announce the eagle has landed; he may of course turn out to be a different bird. A cuckoo, temporarily occupying a place where he doesn’t belong? A swallow who cannot make the summer on his own? Or a parrot, saying only what it has heard someone say before? We may hope that a bird in No 10 is worth two in the prime ministerial hustings, but no-one in HE should be counting chickens before a new policy hatches.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert
rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner,Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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