A guest blog kindly contributed by Mark Corney, a Post-16 Education and Labour Market Consultant. It follows a series of HEPI blogs on responding to the Augar report. They include pieces by Professor Tom Sperlinger on Foundation years, and Professor Simon Marginson on broader issues of fair opportunity in higher education.
The Augar Panel Report recommends ending public funding for Foundation Years which are part of Level 4-6 qualifications and replacing them with Access to HE courses which are Level 3 qualifications.
About 30,000 students are on Foundation Years and the number is rising. Nearly all, it seems, are full-time but some might be part-time. And perhaps 20,000 are under 24. Foundation Year students on integrated full-time degrees take-out fee-loans of up to £9,250. Their part-time counter-parts take-out fee-loans of up to £6,750.
By way of comparison, there are 30,400 students on Access to HE courses and the number is falling. About 1,500 are 18 and under. Crucially, however, 10,000 or so are aged 19-23. They are seeking their first full Level 3 through Access to HE courses. They did not need to take-out fee-loans because of the existing entitlement to free education for first full Level 3 courses for 19-23 year olds funded through the Adult Education Budget (AEB).
The remaining 19,000, however, include 19-23 years with a first full Level 3, and 24 year-olds and over. They are charged fees of £3-5,000 which are usually funded through Adult Learner Fee-Loans.
So today something strange is happening in the post-18 education system. Prospective loan-averse post-18 students are taking out fee-loans of up to £9,250 for Foundation Years rather than fee-loans of up to £5,000 for Access to HE courses, or indeed no fee-loans at all if they are aged 19-23 and it is their first full Level 3.
For the Augar Panel Report, students are behaving irrationally. None in their right mind should choose Foundation Years over Access to HE courses. And the recommendation to extend the entitlement of free education for a first full Level 3 to 24 year-olds and over will mean a larger proportion of Access to HE students will pay no fees at all. Even lowering of the fee cap to £7,500 if Foundation Years were retained would mean fee-loan funded Access to HE courses would be £2,500 cheaper.
By ending public funding for Foundation Years, cash savings of £800m can be redeployed elsewhere including expanding students on Access to HE courses above 30,000 and to 60,000. After all, the report recommends £500m to extend the entitlement to a first full Level 2 and first full Level 3 to adults aged 24+ (with the latter covering Access to HE students).
This conclusion, however, is arrived at because the report does not include a description of maintenance support in its analysis. Today, Foundation Year students are automatically entitled to high-value full-time and part-time maintenance loans. By contrast, Access to HE students must compete for small scale low value discretionary grants funded alongside the Adult Education Budget and Adult Learner Fee-Loans.
Foundation Year students, perhaps, are acting rationally after all. They prefer the certainty of high value maintenance loans worth up to £11,000 per year – let alone a mix system of loans and grants as proposed by the Panel – managed at national level than the uncertainty of small scale locally determined bursary grants worth a few hundred pounds.
An interesting statistic would be how much of the £800m cash savings from ending Foundation Years derives from withdrawing maintenance loans compared to fee loans. But for Access to HE students, the Augar Panel Report offers more of the same or more precisely a little more of the same.
Low value bursary grants will be extended to older adults seeking a first full Level 2 and first full Level 3, implying only Access to HE students aged 24+ seeking a first full Level 3 will get them. And funding for them is to come from a £200m budget also covering extra cash for FE teaching grant, careers provision and increasing the FE funding rate for 18 year-olds.
Faced with a choice between Access to HE courses and not participating, prospective post-18 learners might choose not participating. The combination of insecure earnings from a flexible labour market and uncertain low-value maintenance support makes earning and studying an Access to HE course too risky.
This is rather odd given the report states “Maintenance support is a key enabler in post-18 education. A fair maintenance system is essential to ensuring that all individuals with the desire to do so can be educated after the age of 18 to the benefit of society, the economy and a fast-changing labour market.”
But although it proposes a maintenance system for students at Level 4-6 which is a centrally-administered national scheme the report concludes such an approach is not appropriate for ‘learners at Level 3 and below’. And here in lies the analytical confusion: lumping the maintenance needs of ‘full Level 3 learners’ with all ‘Level 3 and below learners’ (many of whom study short courses).
As things stand, no explosion in Access to HE numbers should be banked-on by university and colleges if Foundation Years cease.