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HEPI Blog on Onward report – A Question of Degree

  • 8 January 2019
  • By Jonathan Woodhead

A guest blog kindly contributed by  Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Adviser at Birkbeck, University of London

The launch of Onward’s contribution to the higher education debate today with their report A Question of Degree is certainly an interesting one. While I personally look forward to reading more of Onward’s work in other areas in future, the timing of this report with the publication of the Augar Review on Post-18 Funding around the corner, could not be more prescient.

Will Tanner, the author of the report was a close adviser to the Prime Minister during her time at the Home Office and later worked in No.10 so it would not be surprising if this latest report was ‘flying a kite’ in terms of the direction of travel for the Augar Review.

Unfortunately some of Will Tanner’s analysis is a little bit confused and like many not familiar with the complexity of the UK higher education sector makes a number of assumptions.

Where the report does get it right is looking at the impact student loans are having in terms of the workforce and take home pay. A graduate on just over £25,000 a year will have a tax rate of 42% if you were to include student loan contributions. This is simplistic but the point is that those graduates will not feel well off at this stage of their careers. A policy that could put more money in the pocket of graduates when they are earning could indeed be popular and give a slight boost to spending power.

The report goes on to make a number of revelations about how few graduates pay back their student loan and that particular subjects (such as those in the arts) have a poor wage return.  For many of us in the university sector this is well known and it is for a number of reasons – many students study ‘passion courses’ such as Photography, Fine Art or Dance – because they enjoy it and some may even be good at it and not because they have a sudden wish to go into merchant banking. The whole thrust of the Coalition’s 2012 reforms was that Arts and Humanities would be supported equally as well under the higher fee and student loan book regime as well as protecting Science and Engineering. This has held up pretty well so far.

It is crucially important however that aspirant students are made aware of the outcome of degree choices and where that might lead. This is all part of where having an informed consumer within a market works. This is now happening more and more with the Longitudinal Employment Outcomes data now available and the recently published Teaching Excellence Framework ratings. Getting young (and older people) to study technical and vocational courses is critical as we build a post-Brexit workforce and that is where we need a flexible approach, including part-time degrees and degree apprenticeships. I hope Augar can develop this approach.

One of the major flaws with restricting funding to subjects such as Creative Arts (although others are mentioned too) is that it counters the market view and consumer choice which has hitherto been central to higher education thinking. Can you have a thousand flowers bloom but only that they grow in a certain part of the garden?

Finally, the exclusive polling that reveals 44% of people believe ’there are too many students going to university’ is a little meaningless. Universities now cover a wide range of vocational, professional and high-level courses most of which cannot be covered at FE level. If the question were asked would you give up your son or daughter’s university place to someone else? I suspect the answer might be quite different.

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