Today is the launch of the much awaited review into post-18 education and funding – or the Augar review. It’s a 216 page report with a lot in it. You’ll have read about the proposed cut to student fees already, so I will leave that to other commentators. There is also a big unknown as to how far implementation of the fee cut would squeeze widening participation budgets – but that would rely on how far the treasury would actually follow through on the proposal to fully fund the lost income from lower fees.
Putting that aside, here are four proposals in Augar that would have big impacts on efforts to widen participation.
1 The (re)introduction of maintenance grants
The report suggestions that maintenance grants would be offered to the most disadvantaged students at a minimum of £3,000 a year, to replace some of the maintenance loans currently available. Unlike previous grants these would be available on equal terms to those studying at FE colleges as well as HE, as part of the review’s wider aim of adjusting inequalities between the two forms of education.
There are a number of good justifications for bringing maintenance grants back, including the social justice argument that the most disadvantaged students should not have to leave university with the largest debts, as under the current system.
The report also points out this shift to grants might not be that expensive for the tax payer, as many of those receiving the grant were not forecast to earn enough in the future to repay their full loan anyway.
Despite the surprisingly small financial impact, it is important that maintenance grants rather than loans will help with perceptions of debt, which the review’s panel concludes (based on a wide range of research) has served to deter applications from disadvantaged students. Relatedly the panel also has various recommendations for changing the terminology of higher education funding away from debts and loans towards a ‘Student Contribution System’.
2. A shift in funding towards disadvantaged students
We have known for a while that Augar would recommend a cut in fees to £7,500, but that it would recommend making up the funding with teaching grants. One of the key aims of this change is to give taxpayers more control over where the money goes. The report argues this should mean the government can channel spending towards:
- subjects that align with the Industrial Strategy
- and supporting disadvantaged students
This second point would be achieved through increasing the Student Premium, which is a part of the teaching grant that goes to universities specifically for supporting disadvantaged students (£277m was allocated this way in 2018/9).
There is a strong case to be made for giving greater resource to universities that support disadvantaged students. As the report points out, there is a known greater cost to educating disadvantaged students, which is far greater than the money currently allocated by the funding system. Directing significant funding in this way would help institutions that do more of the socially valuable task of educating the most disadvantaged students, and would help redress the extra challenges they face as a result.
While Augar does not make this point, it could also help redress overall inequalities within higher education, and serve to reduce the existing funding gap between elite and non-elite institutions, which would have it’s own benefits for social mobility.
Indeed, reducing the gap between elite and non-elite institutions was one of the three ways that Professor Simon Marginson argued that a higher education system could push for greater social mobility – so it doesn’t seem worth passing over.
Finally, a point that I have seldom heard made, though it seems obvious, is that directing serious funding to disadvantaged students provides a financial incentive for institutions to have fairer access.
The review also makes a strong case that more robust measures need to be used to identify students whose institutions receive Student Premium funding. The two currently used measures (POLAR and prior attainment) have some pretty basic flaws for the direction of public money.
What Augar fails to do is recommend how much funding should be directed towards a Student Premium. This is unfortunate as there is a strong case to be made for substantial funding to be directed in this way. At least an evaluation of the level that would be required to meet extra teaching and support challenges would be welcome.
3. Removal of funding from University foundation year – instead shifting to lower cost Access to HE Diplomas
The most challenging aspect of Augar for WP practitioners is probably the sceptical view of foundation years, where students who fall short of their offer grades are given a chance to take an extra year of study getting prepared for the course. These have been a growing tool for university widening participation. As the review notes, the use of such years has tripled in five years, from around 10,000 to 30,000 students in 2017/18.
However, the report is very negative about these courses, which it argues should only be used for courses with specialist requirements such as Medicine:
It is hard not to conclude that universities are using foundation years to create four-year degrees in order to entice students who do not otherwise meet their standard entry criteria. Most recruiters to these programmes are medium or lower entry tariff institutions, typically universities with a high proportion of students from poorer backgrounds.
This view is combined with a comparison of Access to HE diplomas provided by Further Education Colleges, which the review argues are better value for taxpayer and for students – chiefly because the fees charged are lower. The review recommends that student finance is withdrawn from foundation year courses, which it says should be replaced with (cheaper) Access Diplomas.
4. No immediate move to a “3Ds” style grade cap – but the suggestion that it could be done in the future if contextualised
One area which will have the sector breathing a sigh of relief, was the climb down from the leaked proposal to set a minimum “3Ds” grade requirement for access to finance for higher education. There is still a strong thread through the report discussing the problem of low attaining ‘students who will not benefit from a degree’, and the clear belief that most of these students would be better off doing courses at level 4 and 5 in further education colleges.
However, the report admits that a hard grade threshold would have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students and so would go against widening participation efforts. The suggested solution to this is a minimum threshold adjusted for student background using UCAS’s Multiple Equality Measure (MEM). This would allow for setting a minimum threshold (and potentially blocking the progression to higher education of 10s of thousands of students), but doing so in a way that wouldn’t penalise disadvantaged students more than others.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the complexity of such a system, where students over 25 would be exempt, and where different qualifications would have to be assessed together, the report admits that such an intervention would represent a significant impingement on university autonomy, a challenge to the Robbins principle that all who could benefit from access to higher education and that different thresholds to university finance would represent a major political challenge. Instead it opts for the idea that the government should keep the option up its sleeve in case the sector fails to get its act together.
If you accept the underlying belief that 10s of thousands of students are not benefiting from higher education, this proposal does at least have the merit of filtering them out in a way which would not impact on disproportionately on the most disadvantaged students. While it may be tempting to ignore this proposal as too complicated to be implemented and unlikely to happen, it reflects a mediated response to a very real concern – that 10s of thousands of students going into higher education are not benefiting from it. We either need to disprove this allegation or think of ways to prevent it happening without impacting on the mission to make sure access to higher education is fair.
Augar is a mixed bag – with a lot of interesting (if sometimes challenging) ideas and there are plenty of other proposals in there that will have major implications for widening participation. Feel free to point them out in the comments below.