How should we judge today’s report on the review of post-18 education and funding? Just over a year ago, HEPI published ten points-of-note that the post-18 review would have to get to grips with to fix the broken parts of our education and training system. Here’s how the review stacks up against them.
1. Part-time learners
HEPI recommendation: Part-time learners have significantly decreased in number in recent years and are more likely to be debt averse. We proposed reinvigorating direct public support through a residual teaching grant paid to institutions to encourage part-time study and creating a funding model which allows for bite-size learning to allow these students to take a flexible approach.
Augar report:The report recommends module-based funding, allowing students to build up qualifications and the flexibility to shape their study to suit them. It also proposes a portion of the increased teaching grant be used to target students who have experienced socio-economic disadvantage, including part-time students.
2. Differential fees
HEPI recommendation:We believed the case for differential fees to be unpersuasive, based on the lack of consensus about which model of differential fees would be preferable and our polling of students which showed them to be sceptical of their value.
Augar report: The report does not recommend introducing differential fees. It does however, propose a new model of differential funding. This would involve lowering the fees to £7,500 and adjusting the level of government top-up depending on:
- the reasonable cost of the subject
- the social and economic value of a course to students and taxpayers
- increasing the teaching grant for disadvantaged students
It recommends research to be undertaken by the Office for Students to provide the evidence for these criteria.
This proposed new model poses questions about the role of the Office for Students in distributing these grants. Can the Office for Students be both a regulator and a major distributor of funds? This seems at odds with the changes brought about by the Higher Education Research Act of 2017.
3. Maintenance grants
HEPI recommendation: We described the abolition of maintenance grants as an error, which led to students from poorer backgrounds drawing down larger state-backed debts than other students. We also highlighted the lack on public information available to parents on the expectations that they would contribute to the living costs of students.
Augar report: Both our above points are directly quoted in the report and recommendations 7.1 and 7.2 propose bringing back maintenance grants and being explicit about the parental contribution expected. They even go further in suggesting the same maintenance grant system should be brought in for more Level 4 to Level 6 students.
4. Mixed funding model
HEPI recommendation: The current model takes a mixed funding approach, with contributions by both graduates and the taxpayer. HEPI’s research found that most students supported this mixed funding model to pay for their tuition and therefore recommended this was retained. We also recommended careful consideration before any changes are made to the interest rate, as a reduction in interest rates would be regressive, not benefitting the poorest students who have most of their loans written off.
Augar report: The report retains the mixed funding model, albeit with a number of changes including reducing the tuition fee to £7,500 but extending the repayment period to forty years after study has ended.
The report also recommends retaining the current interest rate, but proposes removing real in-study interest, so that loan balances track inflation during study.
5. Uses of tuition fees
HEPI recommendation: The HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey shows around three-quarters of students do not feel they have enough information on how their tuition fees are spent. We suggested this limits the understanding that students, policymakers and the media have of the cost base of a typical university, and should be addressed. We subsequently went on to publish a report on this topic in November 2018, entitled Where do student fees really go? Following the pound.
Augar report: Throughout the report reference is made to the need for clearer public information on how tuition fees are spent. Principle 5 explicitly sets this out, though focuses on the taxpayer rather than the student:
Principle 5. Organisations providing education and training must be accountable for the public subsidy they receive. The receipt of taxpayer funding, whether this is directly through grants or indirectly through forgiveable loans, carries with it the expectation of transparency and accountability for the purposes to which it is put and the outcomes that it delivers.
There should be no sense of entitlement.
6. Misunderstanding among applicants
HEPI recommendation: Research conducted by HEPI and Unite Students found applicants to have some significant misunderstandings about higher education, including on their expenditure, contact hours and mental health. We called for collective action to address this from schools, universities and government.
Augar report: Although the report does highlight the need to provide good information, advice and guidance to prospective students, it focuses on informing them on which route into study to take, whether this be through a developed Unistats for prospective higher education students or an equivalent to UCAS for further education. It does not address the need to provide information to correct these misunderstandings about the higher education experience.
Mark: Needs more work
7. Outreach versus spending on bursaries
HEPI recommendation: We questioned the use of such a high proportion of access spending on bursaries, arguing these are less effective than outreach activity. It is worth noting that we were not calling for the reduction of outreach spending but instead suggesting more effective allocation of these funds.
Augar report: The report found wide-ranging practice between institutions in administering outreach funding and called for better evidence on which interventions are most effective (‘we note with surprise the absence of any over-arching assessment of the impact of different approaches to widening participation and success’). But it did not specifically discuss whether bursaries are the best use of this funding.
Mark: Could do better
8. Accounting treatment of student loans
HEPI recommendation: We highlighted that lending to students did not count as public spending, due to the expectation that loans would be repaid and any debts only appearing after thirty years. We said any change to this should be led by the accounting sector but warned of the risk that it could lead to lower investment in higher education
Augar report: This item was superseded by the announcement by the Office for Students in December 2018 that the accounting treatment of student loans would change, to include the estimated amount of student loans expected not to be repaid as current public spending. While the post-18 education and funding review did not, therefore, need to take a decision on this, the ramifications of the ONS decision are clear throughout the report – most notably in the attempt to reduce the student loan write off costs from 45% to 25%.
Mark: Cannot assess
9. Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications
HEPI recommendation: We highlighted the need to get more students on from Level 2 and 3 qualifications into level 4 and 5, through developing a simpler, more flexible funding mechanism for these qualifications. We went on to publish a report in August 2018 which developed this thinking further.
Augar report: The report is clear about the need to tackle the decline in Level 4 and 5 qualifications and provides specific detail on how to create a simple but flexible funding model to encourage more students into Level 4 and 5 qualifications and increase technical education at this level.
10. Student number controls
HEPI recommendation: We argued strongly against the reintroduction of student number caps in any form, as limiting places risks students from poorer backgrounds not being able to access higher education. We also highlighted HEPI research which estimates the growing demand for higher education, leading to the need for 300,000 additional full-time undergraduate places by 2030.
Augar report: The report steers clear of directly recommending a student numbers cap, such as removing access to student loans for those with below 3 Ds at A level, as was rumoured. However, it does clearly threaten that universities need to get their recruitment practices in check if they want to avoid this issue being raised again at a later date. Recommendation 3.7 states:
Unless the sector has moved to address the problem of recruitment to courses which have poor retention, poor graduate employability and poor long term earnings benefits by 2022/23, the government should intervene. This intervention should take the form of a contextualised minimum entry threshold, a selective numbers cap or combination of both.
Mark: Half marks
If the Augar review were an undergraduate student’s work, then we’d be hard pressed not to award a First in response to our own marking criteria (but you can call that grade inflation if you like).
While the headlines today will doubtless fixate on the proposed cut to fees and its potentially adverse impact, especially on smaller and specialist institutions, this is a carefully considered report that addresses many of the issues HEPI suggested it should look at.
In short, beneath the surface there is much to recommend about Augar.