With media attention understandably focussed elsewhere, last week’s Government response to
the Augar Review on Higher Education (in England) has largely passed by unnoticed. It’s also getting on for three years since the Review was published! Arguing for more ‘value for money’ from the HE sector, Augar’s real aim (like the Tories) real aim, is to reduce student numbers (link below).
But in its response the government says it
- will reduce the salary level that students begin to repay their loans and extend the period of repayment
- consult over minimum qualification requirements for entering university
Reducing the earnings cap. from £27,295 to £25,000, and increase the write-off period for student loans from 30 to 40 years, will affect students starting university next year. This has been justified by government as necessary to reduce pressure on the national debt, but as the Institute for Fiscal studies rightly observes
While under the current system, only around a quarter can expect to repay their loans in full, more than 60% can expect to repay under the new system. This is partly due to substantially higher lifetime repayments by students with low and middling earnings and partly due to less interest being accumulated on loans. The long-run benefit for the taxpayer will be modest at around £1 billion per cohort of university entrants, as higher repayments by borrowers with low or middling earnings will be mostly offset by lower repayments of high-earning borrowers.
But in many other respects Augar has been overtaken by the Skills for Jobs White Paper. This seeks to establish new higher level technical vocational qualifications in FE colleges, awarded through the Institute of Apprenticeships, which young people will be encouraged to move on to after completing T-levels. (link below)
Those opting for the new higher level technical qualifications -the first of which will be announced shortly, will be able to apply for Lifelong Learning Entitlements. Government is also consulting on the exact nature of these – but like with higher education, they will take the form of loans, paid back in similar fashion.
All of these initiatives are based on assumptions that there will be a raft of well-paid technical jobs in the future, alongside those available to traditional graduates. Though neither Skills for Jobs or Augar provide any real example of this. As with Augar, the real aim is to reduce the size of the university sector.
There will certainly be a demand for a knowledge rich technological/AI informed elite, but not everybody will need to be a computer programmer(!) More will be destined for low paid, low skilled employment in new personal services industries like retail and care. Besides, technological knowledge changes so quickly that it is likely to be out of date by the time a student enters the workplace. On the contrary, many argue that more workers will be ‘deskilled’ as automation expands. Rather than upwards mobility, more will be pushed down.
Laying down minimal qualification requirements (it’s been reported as 5 GCSEs and 2 A levels) ostensibly to reduce student numbers will only prevent many adults and ‘mature’ students entering HE. Almost all school leavers applying through UCAS have these.
As the chart below indicates, despite the fees, school leavers will continue to flock to university as security against an increasingly uncertain future and the failure, at so far, of alternative routes.
Covid has only intensified this trend.