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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Augar and augury

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.

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What’s wrong with politicians in HE?

By Rob Cuthbert

The June general election disrupted normal business at Westminster in almost every sense: the summer silly season may be suspended altogether, despite the annual three-month holiday for Parliament. The unexpected election result had something to do with the mobilisation of the student and young persons’ vote by the Labour Party, probably connected to their promise to abolish tuition fees and even cancel all student debt. The storm brewing since the election was sparked into life by the intervention of Lord Adonis, self-styled architect of the fees policy and director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair. It captured all the worst features of politicians in HE in one episode: selective attention to issues; pursuing personal interests in the guise of caring about the issue; selective memory; rewriting history; not taking advice from people who actually know how a policy might work; and – worst of all to academics – contempt for evidence.

Andrew Adonis, returning to comment on HE after some years away, wrote a scathing but completely misguided piece about fees for The Times on 28 June 2017. ‘Goodbye tuition fees. They were a sensible idea wrecked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s decision to treble them overnight, and by the greed and complacency of vice-chancellors who thought they were a licence to print money’. His motive was apparently to protect his ‘legacy’ as ‘the moving force behind Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to introduce … top-up fees … The intention was that fees would vary between £1000 and £3000 depending on the cost and benefit of each course. But the VCs formed a cartel and almost universally charged £3000.’

Adonis and most other politicians in the Westminster bubble have conveniently forgotten that it was always obvious, well before the vote on £3000 fees back in 2004, that virtually all universities would be charging the maximum £3000, as a Guardian report from 13 January 2004 makes clear: ‘Today’s survey of 53 of the 89 university vice-chancellors in England, carried out by EducationGuardian.co.uk, reveals that, in practice, variability will be minimal while the fee ceiling remains at £3,000, though elite universities are already lobbying for that cap to be swiftly lifted.’ But Adonis is clearly a man who harbours grudges over the long term, predicting that fees would soon be abolished and ‘VCs need to start planning for real austerity. The flow of money from £9000 fees will soon dry up. They could set an example and halve their salaries.

Adonis had stamped his foot and ‘thcreamed and thcreamed until he made himthelf thick’, in the style of Violet-Elizabeth Bott. Despite knowledgeable HE commentators pointing out how wrong he was about almost everything, his ideas ‘gained traction’, as they say in the Westminster bubble. Pretty soon Damian Green, the Deputy Prime Minister, was having to backtrack from an ill-advised response in a wide-ranging interview when he suggested that the whole fees policy needed review.

Conservative commentator George Trefgarne on 26 June 2017 blogged for Reaction, asking ‘Why is nobody in the Conservative Party talking about the broken student loan system?’ Then on 5 July the Institute for Fiscal Studies put out their Briefing Note (BN211), Higher Education funding in England: past, present and options for the future, seized on by the media with front page headlines blaring that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt. Steve Jones (Manchester) blogged for WonkHE on 6 July 2017 ‘Are headline writers getting it wrong on fees?’. The answer was mostly yes, but his argument was much too sensible to ‘gain traction’ when Westminster was already in full-blown panic mode.

Mark Leach of WonkHE had offered a primer on 22 May 2017: ‘The Pros and Cons of Abolishing Tuition fees’ after Andrew McGettigan gave his own version on 12 May 2017, in the run-up to the general election, ‘The cost of abolishing tuition fees’. McGettigan got back on the case with his Critical Education blog on 5 July 2017, ‘IFS on tuition fees’, pointing out that the IFS arguments were sound, but inconvenient for Minister Jo Johnson, who had spent most of the previous few days arguing that the HE finance system was not broke and therefore he shouldn’t fix it. SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott wrote in The Guardian on 4 July 2017: ‘why are we not taking seriously a key message that came out of the campaign? Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees in England, initially seen as off-the-wall, gained enormous traction. This is hardly surprising given the prospects faced by graduates – escalating debt, doubtful job prospects in a declining post-Brexit economy and decent homes out of reach.’ His piece was titled ‘The end of tuition fees is on the horizon – universities must get ready’.

Adonis wasn’t finished – indeed, he was hardly getting started. He wrote in The Guardian on 7 July 2017 under the headline ‘I put up tuition fees. It’s now clear they have to be scrapped’, saying ‘Debts of £50,000 are far more than I envisaged, and make the system unworkable’. Martin Harris (former director of the Office for Fair Access) weighed in, writing to The Guardian on 9 July 2017:

‘Andrew Adonis is right that the current fee regime cannot survive, but he understates the success of the £3k fee which he devised and which Charles Clarke introduced after the 2003 election … Adonis is unfair in attributing to vice-chancellors the decision to raise fees to £9k. This was a political diktat …  Ministers were clearly told how universities would behave when presented with a fee regime which would in effect label their courses first, second or third class by price. … Since then, a series of decisions by Conservative ministers have made matters worse, especially the abandonment of the categorical promise that tuition fee debt would never increase in real terms. The current regime certainly has to go. But we need to revisit something like the Adonis/Clarke scheme rather than totally abolishing fees. Abolition will inevitably lead to a cap on student numbers and thus to fewer poorer students entering universities.’

Nick Hillman of HEPI added his three penn’orth in a blog on 13 July 2017: ‘Lord Adonis now says the whole system of funding teaching in universities via tuition fees is wrong and should be junked altogether. More than that, he has taken to lashing out at Vice-Chancellors, called for an investigation of tuition fees by the Competition and Markets Authority and is now battling away with academics on how they spend the summer on Twitter.’ Hillman said Adonis was ‘intellectually incoherent … intellectually weak. … [and making] false linkages: ‘it is silly to draw a direct line between higher tuition fees and the current levels of remuneration.’ However Jo Johnson was ready to endorse part of the Adonis rant, saying, “There are legitimate concerns about the rate at which vice chancellor pay has been growing. I think it is hard for students at a time when they have concerns over value for money and want to see real evidence of value for money from their tuition fees”.

Undaunted, Adonis made multiple media appearances, no doubt delighted to be once again in the political spotlight and feeling that his political bandwagon was gathering speed. As John Elledge of CityMetric wrote for the New Statesman on 4 July 2017: ‘Maybe scrapping tuition fees would be regressive. Perhaps we should do it anyway’, arguing that ‘Supporters of fees may be right on the policy – but they’re way off on the politics.’ Adonis even attacked the Times Higher Education for allegedly not exposing the issue of VCs’ salaries, a ludicrous comment revealing his ignorance of years of evidence in THE to the contrary.

The evidence-based debate on the pros and cons of tuition fees continued, but in a different universe. The 11 May blog for WonkHE by Gavan Conlon of London Economics, a longstanding expert commentator in this territory, argued that abolishing fees is fundamentally regressive. Christopher Newfield (University of California at Santa Barbara) blogged for WonkHE on 15 May 2017 about why abolishing tuition fees is a good idea. It was a scholarly values-based argument which built on his recent book The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2016). The common argument in the US is that if public funding goes down, tuition fees go up, but Jason Delisle of the American Enterprise Institute argued for the ‘Bennett hypothesis’ – former US Secretary for Education Bill Bennett said that tuition fees increase until they exhaust the availability of public funds for student support. The long-term trend in the US shows a strong correlation of declining public support with rising tuition, but Delisle argued, in a report released on 1 June 2017, that colleges’ natural explanation should not be taken for granted. Becky Supiano interviewed Delisle for the Chronicle of Higher Education on 1 June 2017.

WonkHE’s weekly briefing on 5 June noted ‘New research from Claire Callender and Geoff Mason … at the UCL Institute of Education … The paper argues that tuition fees debt deters poorer and ethnic minority students from applying to university … The findings challenge the argument that the recent (post-fee increase) growth in full-time HE participation by 18-year-olds from all social classes proves that fees are not a deterrent. UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge has responded to the paper with a blog criticising the methodology of the report. Dandridge argues that the study’s conclusions do not follow from its survey results and that the survey implies “that student loans are just like other domestic forms of debt such as credit card loans. This is far from the truth”.’

This was conveniently close to the arguments that Minister Jo Johnson had been making, since Dandridge was then unveiled by Johnson as the first chief executive of the Office for Students. It was however somewhat removed from the view of a significant number of her own current employers: later surveys would reveal a third of VCs wished to see substantial change to the fees regime.  Andrew Adonis described Dandridge’s appointment as ‘producer capture’, which exercised OfS Chair Michael Barber enough to write to The Guardian on 10 July 2017 saying ‘Don’t dismiss the Office for Students’ – a clash between two former heads of Tony Blair’s No 10 Policy Unit. At least Barber, the author of ‘deliverology’, is showing early signs of realising the limitations of target-setting in his approach as OfS Chair. Adonis, on the other hand, is showing much of what seems to be wrong with politicians in HE. His memory of events and version of history is selective, his evidence is flawed, his arguments are intellectually weak and incoherent, he seems to be too concerned to ‘protect his legacy’, and he has struck an almost Trumpian note in attacking rather than listening to anyone who disagrees with him.

The fee abolitionists are an unlikely combination of more-means-worse elitism and leftist utopian economics, and as Jo Johnson continues to promote market solutions he remains onside with the for-profit providers scenting new opportunities. Abolishing loan-backed fees would be devastating for those private sector providers, and that alone makes abolition unlikely for the present government, even before we get to the economic cost. If Adonis gets his wish for reform, the messy politics might lead to closures of public sector institutions, with less diversity, fewer opportunities for disadvantaged students, new lowest-common-denominator for-profit providers offering courses with less gainful employment for graduates, continuing student debt, and growing dissatisfaction among disenfranchised would-be students. But you can be sure that when the next crisis arrives, the politicians will be blaming HE, the opposition, the media, or anyone – except themselves.

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

Paul Temple


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The student experience in England: changing for the better and the worse?

By Paul Temple

When the present English tuition fee regime was being planned, there were plenty of voices from inside universities warning that it would change the nature of the relationship between students and their universities for the worse. Students would, it was feared, become customers, rather than junior partners in an academic enterprise. Indeed, this was what the Government’s 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, seemed to look forward to: “Better informed students will take their custom to the places offering good value for money” (para 2.24) – in other words, they would, it was hoped, act like normal consumers. Has this happened? Continue reading