Last week’s Augar report divided opinion. At HEPI, we were at the more positive end of the spectrum, not least because the report addressed, in a serious way, pretty much all the points we had said it should.
We were, and remain, determined not to fall down the biggest rabbit hole that has to be avoided when commenting sensibly on public policy: being unceasingly negative and refusing to recognise serious attempts to address genuine problems. (Social care, anyone?)
This doesn’t mean we think the Augar report is perfect in all its details. The proposed end to the funding for foundation degrees seems, for example, out of kilter with other things the report is trying to achieve. It reads like a forgotten hangover from a first draft.
Moreover, despite the Prime Minister’s very warm words at the launch of the Augar report, the proposals are far from guaranteed to be implemented. The report is not even a tentative statement of government policy, like a green paper, let alone a firm one.
It is, rather, the report of an independent panel feeding into a wider government review. If Ministers choose not to implement Augar, it could not accurately be described as ‘a u-turn’ because they received the report rather than accepted it.
If policymakers do choose to implement the recommendations, however, there are two things they may wish to avoid.
The first is adopting too much of a pick-and-mix approach to the recommendations. The report is coherent and cohesive. Picking only the parts that save money while ignoring the bits that cost money would harm our education system, for example.
(Readers might suggest I am a hypocrite, given I have suggested above the recommendation on foundation years should not happen. Guilty as charged – except, I would say there’s a difference between the main recommendations and the smaller secondary ones.)
The second thing policymakers implementing Augar need to avoid if they want to make a difference is imposing a new system that simply ends up looking much the same as the old one. If that happens, the pain and opportunity cost of any reforms will have been in vain.
Yet this is clearly possible in respect of two of the biggest issues in the report: reordering funding for undergraduates; and limiting higher education institutions’ recruitment of people with low prior qualifications if they don’t quickly get their own houses in order.
The report’s recommendation on student fees is to reduce the tuition fee cap from £9,250 to £7,500. The panel envisage this funding gap being filled in by extra cash from taxpayers, ‘so that the averageper student resource to the sector stays level in cash terms.’
If that were to happen, then the flows of money will be different and someone in the centre will have to decide where the extra taxpayer funding goes. The Augar panel are fairly clear about their own priorities. They want to see a focus on:
- training for ‘socially-desirable professions such as nursing and teaching which do not command a significant earnings premium’;
- ‘high-cost and strategically important subjects’;
- ‘subjects that add social as well as economic value’; and
- ‘separate arrangements to support those specialist institutions offering the higher quality provision that might otherwise be adversely affected by these recommendations’.
This is a reasonable list, but it is also something of a catch-all. There is a strong case for each point, but once you have invented, or reinvented, specific funding streams for each, it is not clear whether you have actually effected much change to institutions’ bottom lines.
For example, if you run an institution specialising in creative arts, you could lose large sums when fees fall to £7,500. But if you then show your institution is ‘specialist’, ‘higher quality’ and has ‘social’ value, then you should be able to win back your lost income.
Or, if your institution is a larger multi-faculty institution, you might lose considerable fee income on your arts courses but win it back via your nursing, education, strategically-important and high-cost subjects.
Some people have been sceptical of exposing higher education institutions’ cross-subsidies to air. At HEPI, we have not – see here, here and here. But it is still valid to point out there are some circumstances in which removing cross-subsidies to replace them with more direct income streams may not be worth the hassle.
The challenge is that, in public policy, losers always shout louder than winners. So the losers generally have to be compensated and this often limits the scale of any change. If Augar’s reforms risked pushing institutions to the wall, it is easy to see how clever civil servants and policymakers would tweak them to resemble current funding arrangements more closely.
Similarly, the Augar review includes a recommendation to impose a lower entry tariff, if universities do not tackle low-performing courses. As many people have pointed out, this is exceptionally hard to do fairly.
The Augar panel’s recommendation for making it fair is to include various (huge) exemptions. A new entry bar would not affect aged 25 or over, for example – in other words, the majority of the population.
It would also have to be implemented in such a way, the panel say, that ‘disadvantaged students were not unfairly penalised’. They recommend ‘contextualisation … [to] address most of the concerns expressed about the proposal’.
This is carefully nuanced, as much good policymaking needs to be. But, while there probably is a sweet spot between the basic idea of a minimum entry tariff and the many ‘concerns expressed’, it may be hard to find or vanishingly small (or both).
Getting this wrong would mean either hitting potential students that aren’t meant to be hit or implementing a mouse of a policy that isn’t worth the hassle.
None of this is an argument against implementing the recommendations of the Augar review, about which I remain broadly positive. But it is a reminder that implementing detailed policies successfully is harder than devising broad outlines of policy correctly.
None of us may wish to admit it, having only recently waded through its 200+ pages but, if the Augar report is to be implemented, then we are near the start rather than close to the end of a very lengthy process.