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The future for Augar is political

  • 4 July 2019

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Wonkhe’s conference on Augar, in the final session of the day, alongside Rachel Wolf, on the politics of the report. Here are my remarks.

On the day the Augar report appeared, I said on the radio that it felt like Christmas Day. To a higher education policy wonk, over 200 pages of tightly-argued and long-awaited text on how to reform higher education is a rare but exciting gift.

The Augar proposals are a coherent package, largely evidence based and certainly worthy of discussion. When we evaluated the report against our original submission to the call for evidence, we found it did a good job of addressing nine of our 10 points in full or in part, and we scored it 6.5 out of 9 – which is a First (though call that grade inflation if you like).

Maintenance grants are a good example. We’ve long called for their return because it is morally wrong to expect the poorest entrants to emerge with the biggest debts. The Augar report listed our support for this (p.191) alongside the support of other institutions and made a clear call for the return of grants that was very welcome.

So I found it depressing how some senior political figures on both sides of the political spectrum tried to close down a decent conversation on Augar immediately, indeed before it had even been published in some instances.

Everyone who condemns the Augar proposals out of hand should have to pay penance if they cannot say what they would do instead – and how they would pay for it.

Philip Augar himself has said the report should be implemented in full. But this is likely to be the triumph of hope over expectation. There are lots of reasons why it is optimistic to think a report with over 50 policy recommendations won’t be subject to a pick-and-mix approach by policymakers.

For example, the Augar report is not the Post-18 Review; it is feeding into the Post-18 review, which may come to different conclusions. Robbins, Dearing and Browne were all cherry-picked, and they had some cross-party support, whereas Augar was an explicitly Conservative document.

Moreover, even the biggest fans of the report have found some weak spots. I have yet to meet a single person who thinks the proposal to stop funding foundation years makes sense – just look at our recent blogs for more evidence.

The risk, especially given the weird political times in which we live, is that policymakers opt to do the bits that save money but reject the bits that cost money. As a senior policymaker said at a HEPI event the other day, the recommended freezing in the unit of resource between now and 2022/23 is the one thing most likely to happen. That doesn’t need legislative change, would help the public finances and won’t find much opposition outside universities.

But let’s get back to the title. It is undoubtedly true that Augar depends on politics. So let’s look at the politics. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are relatively unusual among Tory MPs as they both have university campuses in their constituencies (though the number of students is far greater in Johnson’s seat than Hunt’s). As a former London Mayor and a former Secretary of State for Health, they each have a good understanding of the importance of our higher education and research base.

So we can but hope, in particular, for a better approach to international students. It is 10 years since the Conservatives’ adopted a net inward migration target of tens of thousands and decided to plonk students within it. That needs to change as do the restrictive post-study work rules.

This is even more urgent if Augar does happen because the extra fee income from more international students could help lubricate any challenges. (Of course, none of this changes the fact that the greatest benefits arising from the presence of international students are non-financial.)

One final point about student loans, which links back to the Augar report’s specific recommendations. In the current leadership election, Jeremy Hunt has promised to wipe out the student loans of entrepreneurs and to reduce the interest rate on student loans (which the Brexit Party have also been flirting with).

Such changes are regressive as well as expensive, but they might also be politically smart because the politics of student loans are in the repayment phase more than the fee level and because experience abroad shows it can make an electoral difference (just look at the New Zealand election of 2005).

Either way, this is very different terrain to the Augar report’s proposals to keep interest as it is once people have left university and to extend the repayment phase from 30 to 40 years.

Indeed, Jeremy Hunt’s promises combined with Jo Johnson’s role in Boris Johnson’s campaign suggest the higher education debate may already be moving away from the idea of implementing the major recommendations in the Augar report.

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