The Augar report on post-18 learning has been long awaited. The first government sponsored review of higher education since Robbins, it’s two hundred or so pages were published in the week the Prime Minister who commissioned it resigned and as universities start to wind down, or at least lose their students for the summer. Perhaps this explains the low-key response to the review. It also only a series of recommendations rather than a call to action. But if there’s not much to get excited about, it does create space for promoting serious alternatives. A little later than planned, here’s some first impressions.
Like many before, the review devotes considerable time citing sector inequalities within post-18 education, comparing the ‘care’ of the university educated 50% with the neglect of those in FE and the despairs the current state of apprenticeships. But while re asserting post-18 learning as a universal right and arguing that post-18 education should be as more than just vocational development, it’s a skills agenda, but one which no longer corresponds with present day reality that is never far away ‘The country needs a population with the right mix of basic and advanced skills to support economic activity in both the private and public sectors’. (Review: 15.)
This should be taken to imply that the task of restoring the UK’s rapidly collapsing manufacturing sector is hampered by a shortage of people with intermediate/sub degree technical qualifications or doing the wrong types of apprenticeship at the wrong level. This argument is central to the current government’s ‘industrial strategy’ and creeps into Labour thinking, at least as far as its 2017 manifesto is concerned (note also, Labour’s support for a new technical route post-16). It also dovetails with a recent ONS report which assumes that because there are too many of them for the employment available, graduates are ‘over-educated’. In response and in keeping with the Government’s post-16 plan, the review seeks to reign in numbers on academic courses and encourage more to follow an extended vocational route.
Young people should be given opportunities to participate in well-funded and properly resourced FE courses below degree level if they wish. Augar and colleagues are correct to identify that increased funding and better financial support for students is necessary, though not, we’d argue, by extending the current student loan system! Albeit through a more flexible or ‘modular’ approach to promote ’lifelong learning’. Yet the review fails to provide enough concrete examples to justify any economic necessity or consider that in an occupational structure with a collapsed ‘middle’ –and as a result an ‘hourglass’ or more accurately a ‘pear-shaped’ occupational class structure, whether employers are short of appropriate workers.
On the contrary many report their employees are as likely to be ‘overqualified’ for the roles they perform. Worryingly, the report barely mentions the implications of AI or the possible implications of the fourth industrial revolution’ or ’second machine age’ on work and skills. And, rather than just ‘racing against the machine’, on the education necessary to not just survive, but also benefit from these changes.
As a result, the review cannot explain the true reasons for the increased ‘drifting up’ (the acquisition by the many of qualifications that were originally designed for the few). It’s the declining employment opportunities, as a result of the disappearance of ‘youth jobs’ previously linked to apprenticeships that’s the reason young people head off to university in huge numbers. Faced with a situation where employers are increasingly reluctant to recruit school or college leavers and one where half of new apprenticeships still go to existing employees or those over 25, young people will increasingly see university as the norm – rather than providing graduate careers, ‘going to uni’ at least increases the chance of some kind of secure employment. The implication of what’s often described as an ‘oversupply’ of graduates is that more and more jobs require a degree to obtain them, but not degree level skills to do them. Consequently, young people faced with the prospect of becoming ‘downwardly mobile’, must run faster and faster up a downwards escalator simply to stand still.
While the review notes the overlap of the two sectors, as FE colleges increasingly provide degree level qualifications or are involved in a series of franchise arrangements, it fails to recognise that HE and FE form part of the same escalator. It also glosses over the differences within HE. There is without doubt as much a status difference between elite Russell universities and some post 1994 institutions as there is between the latter and some of their neighbouring colleges.
It’s the proposal to cut in the maximum fee chargeable to HE students to £7,500 per year in tuition fees to £7500, that’s received the media attention. We should welcome this and also the recommendation to restore maintenance grants, along with the pledge that university income should be protected by an increased government contribution to teaching costs. But this contribution should, Augar recommends, be directed to courses which cost more to deliver and offer better ‘value’ to students and taxpayers. It aims to reduce funding for arts and humanities.
In other words, institutions would have their hands tied on funding while students would still graduate with tens of thousands of pounds of debt that many will still, despite the fee reduction, never fully pay off. As has been pointed out, rather than helping poorer graduates, fee reductions will benefit those with higher incomes who’ll be able to pay off their debts more rapidly. The Treasury will also benefit. Firstly, because the fees paid off more quickly can be offset against the unpaid mountain of unpaid debt, which at least in theory, will lower taxpayer liability. But secondly the thirty-year period during which loans are repayable will be extended to forty. These proposals simply tinker, rather than challenge the disastrous model introduced by David Willetts in 2012. Introduced as part of a project to ‘marketise’ Higher Education designed to price out the many, returning HE to the few. The product of a elitist and protected university sector, Willetts and his contemporaries, completely misunderstanding young people’s current situation.
We should welcome any additional resources that Augar’s review can achieve but reject his ‘value for money’ approach. This restricts any measurement of value of a course or qualification to an ‘exchange value’ rather than considering any personal and intellectual benefit to the individual or contribution to society. As well as arguing that a universal entitlement to a wide variety of courses should be available to everybody in HE, Labour’s proposals for free education post -18, would also be an essential starting point.