This is a guest blog from Professor Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford and Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education
What are the implications of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (the Augar report) for equal access in UK higher education and further education? Will its firm advocacy of further education and changes to levels 2-5 below university degrees, lead to more equal opportunity between students from different backgrounds? What does the report say about widening participation in higher education?
Ways of creating more equal opportunity
There are three ways that government, institutions and society can create more equal social opportunity through tertiary education:
1. Alternate pathways: create diverse routes of entry and progression in post-school education, including second chances, and plural pathways into the most sought-after institutions. Single track systems, such as one big end of school examination and nothing else, are more readily dominated by affluent families with the best resources with which to compete.
2. Less hierarchy: Reducing the resource/prestige gap between top institutions and other institutions means there is less at stake in competition and it is easier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access different points in the hierarchy. This does not require the downgrading of leading universities provided that the social esteem of further education, and the second and third tier universities, is lifted (levelling up rather than levelling down lifts quality overall).
3. Modify academic selection: For some disadvantaged students with the drive to succeed, academic selection alone is inappropriate. Contextualised admissions enable background factors to be taken into account, modifying entrance scores. In some cases non-competitive mechanisms like foundation years are the way in.
So how then does the Augar report stack up in relation to these three methods?
Up to a point the Augar committee does an excellent job of pluralising the pathways.
The report wants to fundamentally strengthen vocational and technical education, and upgrade further education colleges as a national system. It proposes protection of the FE college title, simplified funding, tuition loans and maintenance grants support parallel to those in higher education, a renovated and planned capital works programme, and the reversal of cuts to adult skills training. All this offers better non-university options than does the present policy, primarily focused on an eclectic market of independent training providers with low esteem. The proposed lifelong learning entitlement at levels 4-6 brings second chances to everyone. These are good policy ideas. We can hope they survive the storm of opposition generated by some of the higher education proposals.
On the other hand, with the exception of the lifelong learning entitlement, Augar’s new road building largely stops at the university gate. The report does not explore the nuts and bolts of FE/HE articulation and it frowns and sneers at lower tier universities, seen as boosting their student numbers and funding via ‘low-value’ courses, even ‘enticing’ some students who should never have been admitted. The proposal to cut unit university funding by 11 per cent over four years will hurt lower tier universities the most. There is nothing in the report about opening up social access to the Russell Group.
Augar takes concrete steps to lift the esteem of non-university institutions and their qualifications. If implemented this would be a sea change in the map of alternatives and the most important boost for further education in many years. On the other hand, above level 5 there would be no change to the hierarchy, and the intense social competition for upper level higher education opportunities would continue unabated.
The review committee wants to increase the share of enrolments at levels 4-5. The extent to which the proposed improvements in college funding and infrastructure would translate into greater social demand is unclear. It is unlikely that STEM-based programmes at levels 4-5 would grow substantially as Augar hopes, though if the report was implemented there might be growth in STEM at higher levels. All else being equal, university degrees have greater cachet. Though as noted, the review does nothing for the standing of lower tier institutions in higher education, it is difficult to see the overall growth of participation in higher education being reversed. The genie can’t be forced back into the bottle.
Modify academic selection
The report has a page on contextualised admissions but the argument is less clear here than in the rest of the report and there are no recommendations. Mostly Augar seems wedded to conventional selection. The report is harsh about the admission of students with low scores, suggesting that some universities do this solely to boost numbers without regard for the allegedly low value of the degrees to the individual and the economy. Unless universities get their house in order, says the report, a minimum academic requirement could be imposed.
The committee is also cynical about foundation years. In an unfortunate remark, it finds that ‘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’. Foundation years have proven to be the best platform for degree completion by first generation students, with success rates significantly above those achieved by students from Access to Higher Education programmes offered outside universities.
The Augar report takes a real step forward for social access by foregrounding a stronger Further Education sector and filling the ground between school leaving and higher education with a modernised scaffolding of sub-degree participation, supported by more credible infrastructure, renovated funding and student support. It also provides a structure of lifelong education extending into degree programmes. If implemented, over time this would reduce the incidence of non-participation in the UK and increase the extent to which working and other adults move through the post-school sectors in the course of their lives.
These are gains in access not in equal opportunity. More educated human capital does not automatically trigger more jobs or higher wages. Augar does not dig deep into class and regional inequalities and the barriers to social mobility. It notes the middle class stranglehold on the Russell Group only in passing and does not mention the role of high fee independent schooling. The shift to maintenance grants (albeit at the low level of £3000) would help poorer student and the report wants more spent on widening participation, including redistribution to universities with large numbers of disadvantaged students. It rightly states that individual measures of student background should replace POLAR data. Yet it is queasy about the logical consequences of a thoroughgoing WP approach, which necessarily must take in students without the conventional academic entry qualifications.
Throughout, the Augar report consistently judges the value of both courses and graduates in terms of salaries, aside from a sprinkling of gestures to social value. It emphasises that low tariff students in low tariff universities are more likely to have low rates of return. It strongly asserts that there are too many graduates. Full implementation of the spirit of Augar would not only reduce university student numbers, the reduction would fall disproportionately on the clientele of widening participation, contradicting the report’s support for the Office for Students WP agenda. The inescapable conclusion is that Augar imagines the middle class in the universities and the rest in further education, with some exceptions either way.
The report tries to reduce the inequality of this vision by imagining the non higher education part of higher education as similar to the successful second sectors in Germany and elsewhere. These are closer to parity of esteem with research universities than is UK further education. But the Augar report does not do enough to achieve that kind of institutional equality. Not only does it leave the UK university hierarchy, steeper than its continental equivalents, untouched; if a second tertiary sector was to gain near parity in UK, much of it would need to happen at degree level. The German, Dutch, Irish and other tertiary institutions that are not research universities nevertheless provide degrees at scale, and increasingly are themselves labelled as ‘universities’. Augar wants to have less degrees.
Rather than being egalitarian Augar strangely combines old elitism and abstract modernism. The UK lacks the strong manufacturing sector that underpins, partly finances and employs graduates of the German Fachhochschulen and German sub-degree vocational education. In optimistic moments Augar imagines both could be translated into the UK. They can’t.