In February 2018, the prime minister launched the government’s review of post-18 education and funding in England. It was widely reported that this was in response to the increased numbers of students that had voted for the Labour party in the previous year’s election.
The review aimed to ‘ensure that the education system for those aged 18 years and over is accessible to all, is supported by a funding system that provides value for money and works for students and taxpayers, incentivises choice and competition across the sector, and encourages the development of the skills that we need as a country.’ The review consisted of an independent panel chaired by Philip Augar and five other experts from post-18 education and business sectors.
The independent panel report was published on 30 May 2019 and set out 53 recommendations for the government to reform post-18 education.
The review recommends that the cap on the fee chargeable to higher education students at levels 4-6 be reduced to £7,500, but the per-student resource should be frozen with the government replacing the lost fee income in full by increasing the teaching grant.
The panel also called for a single lifelong learning loan allowance of £30,000 to be made available to all adults aged 18, allowing them to pay for courses at Levels 4, 5 and 6, over the course of their working lives.
To further support lifelong learning the panel recommends that students should be able to move into and out of study using loans to pay for credits, building up to full qualifications over time if they wish.
It proposes changes to the repayment terms of student loans, including an extension to the repayment period from 30 to 40 years, the removal of real in-study interest, lowering of the repayment threshold to the level of median non-graduate earnings (currently around £23,000) and a cap on lifetime repayments at 1.2 times the amount borrowed.
It also recommends the reintroduction of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students to at least £3,000 a year.
The report calls for an increase in the amount of teaching grant funding that follows disadvantaged students and a greater focus on individual level measures of disadvantage (e.g. Free school meals, household income) in allocation of funding through the student premium.
The panel recommend that institutions should award at least one interim qualification to all students who are following a Level 6 course successfully, and funding for Level 6 and above apprenticeships should normally be available only for apprentices who have not previously undertaken a publicly-supported degree.
Responses to the panel’s recommendations from organisations across the higher education and further education sectors were very mixed. While some proposals, such as the reintroduction of maintenance grants and greater provisions for flexible learning, were broadly praised others were much more controversial, including the recommended reduction to the tuition fee cap.
By far the biggest concern for universities was to ensure that the proposals did not lead to funding being directed away from higher education, with many organisations and institutions calling for the government to commit to replacing any lost income from a reduction in tuition fees. Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, claimed the fee-level recommendations “could prove to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing” unless the government guaranteed full replacement funding.
“The Augar Report should be judged by its impact on students and on the educational experience they will receive if it is implemented.” Professor Dave Phoenix, Chair of MillionPlus and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, said. “Universities and their students need long-term, sustainable funding at least at their current levels and failure to deliver this would be detrimental to student experience and opportunity.”
Josh Hardie, CBI Deputy Director-General, insisted “any change to tuition fees and the funding universities receive must not lead to a cut in higher education funding”, highlighting the vital contribution universities make to skills, innovation and research.
“The fact is the funding gap will not be closed by tinkering with graduate repayment rates, cutting hundreds of millions from our budgets or hitting smaller, skills-focused universities hardest.” Commented Professor John Latham, Chair of University Alliance and Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust said: “While it is good that the Augar Review recommends reinstating maintenance grants, its proposal to reduce tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 just tinkers around the edges of a grossly unfair system. If we are serious about creating an equitable student finance system, fees should be means-tested so that those from low income families incur the lowest debts.”
Recommendations to encourage more flexible learning were praised, with Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool claiming “these recommendations open up new avenues for more flexible study and lifelong learning, which employers and our economy need.” CBI praised the recommendation for a single lifelong learner allowance, which Josh Hardie said “could help encourage more people to step back into education at a time, pace, and location of their choice.” The emphasis placed by the Augar panel on boosting lifelong learning was also welcomed by GuildHE.
Universities UK expressed concerns about reforms to graduate repayments, including extending the repayment period from 30 to 40 years and lowering the repayment threshold to £23,000, would make the system more regressive. These changes would result in middle earners paying back £11,823 more over their lifetime, while higher earners would have to pay back less, saving almost £19,000 in repayments. GuildHE called the recommendation to extend the repayment period a “regressive and unwelcome recommendation.”
The removal of loan funding for students on foundation years sparked criticism from some. Dr Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, recommended the government should not take up this proposal as “this pathway has helped thousands of people progress to higher education and study for a degree who might not otherwise have moved up and on. This route will not be easily replaced by other provision – all this would do is hit opportunities for social mobility for those with aspiration.”
NUS praised the report for recognising the hardships and difficulties the current funding system places on today’s students, and the barriers it puts in front of prospective students, especially those from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Other recommendations and issues which concern universities that were identified by Universities UK include:
- The knock-on impact of changes for universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
- The inevitable confusion these proposals will cause for students, their families, schools and the higher education sector about what happens next and when
- Potential restrictions on access, choice and funding for courses based on narrow conceptions of value and whether the required replacement funding will be allocated in a way that allows universities to continue offering diversity and choice, or comes with strings attached
- The likelihood of greater centralisation and government directed conditions for accessing funds for widening access and participation activities, which would undermine the sector’s responsiveness to emerging challenges for disadvantaged students and impact social mobility.
On the day that the panel’s report was released, the media focused on the headline tuition fee reduction and changes to the repayment terms. The Daily Mail carried the headline “Students could be saddled with debt into their SIXTIES”, emphasising that although tuition fees were to be cut, graduates would be expected to pay until they retire. “Graduates will pay back loans into their sixties”, was the headline for the Times’ main article on the review. The i newspaper published an article emphasising that “Theresa May backs lower tuition fees after proposal made to cut them to £7,500”. Jo Johnson was featured in the Daily Telegraph, declaring “Theresa May’s tuition fees review will help higher earners most”.
The other key recommendation that drew a lot of attention was the call for reintroduction of maintenance grants, which Theresa May emphasised when introducing the report during a speech at the Policy Exchange. The Guardian highlighted how this was reversal of David Cameron’s policy to scrap them, going with the headline: “Give worse-off students £3,000 to stay in education, says report”. There was also a piece in the Times entitled “Bring back student grants, urges Theresa May”. The Independent underlined the uncertain political situation that encountered the release of the review in their headline “Theresa May tells next PM to bring back grants for poorer students and slash fees to £7,500”, showing although the report was launched by Theresa May, she will not be the one to implement its recommendations.
Martin Lewis, Founder of Moneysavingexpert.com, featured heavily in the coverage of the report, with an article in the Daily Mirror explaining what the changes would mean for students, and appearances on many news programmes giving his views on the recommendations. He claimed that the tuition fee cut and reintroduction of grants actually made the system more regressive, as both measures would benefit higher earners who are the only ones who pay back their loans in full. Combined with the lower threshold for repayments and extension to the repayment period Mr Lewis explained that this will mean “many graduates will repay more, for far longer, substantially increasing the total cost.”
The Guardian and the Financial Times gave greater focus to the changes recommended for the further education sector, with a Guardian editorial declaring that the review was “taking further education seriously”.
The government will issue a response to the panel’s report in due course outlining those proposals that they wish to carry forward, this will likely be linked to the spending review later in 2019 where their final approach shall be announced.
With the Conservative Party currently undergoing elections for a new leader, who will also become the new Prime Minister, it will be down to whoever wins to formulate government policy in regards to the review’s recommendations.