While there are always plenty of topics to be grappling with in higher education, there tends to be one issue that dominates the discussion. For 2019 this was the Augar review, despite the fact the independent panel was originally due to report in 2018. Throughout the year those of us working in higher education considered the impact of the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) decision to change the accounting rule around student loans, speculated on the rumoured changes such as removing student loans for those with less than 3 Ds at A-level, pored over the report and then waited to see whether the Government would pick up the recommendations.
Despite this topic dominating last year’s discussion we are still yet to hear the official Government response to the independent panel’s report. Chris Skidmore has recently confirmed that the response will come alongside the spending review, likely delaying this again until at least the summer. My prediction, however, is that 2020 is going to move on from focusing on the Augar review. Instead 2020 will be dominated by discussion of the value of higher education.
Value has been on the agenda over recent years. Since the development of the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data, policymakers have been able to see what graduates go on to earn and which graduates from which courses pay back their loans, allowing them to explicitly calculate the ‘value’ of different courses. The Office for Students was also set up with a statutory duty to promote value for money for students and taxpayers and went on to launch its value for money strategy in October last year.
Already this year, however, there has been a bigger drive in this area, with the Office for Students releasing a consultation on the money they distribute through teaching grants due to the Department for Education setting out a reduction of £58 million. The Secretary of State for Education and the Office for Students are therefore making judgements about the value of higher education in deciding where to allocate the more limited resources.
With the Conservative manifesto commitment to ‘tackle the problem of low value courses’ in mind, this feels like the first step in a process over the next year. This year will see the outcomes of the independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework published and the Government’s response to the Augar review, providing plenty of opportunities to consider ways to identify courses not believed to be up to scratch – or providing good enough returns to the taxpayer. With significant spending pledges made elsewhere throughout the election campaign, this may be the beginning of university’s own period of austerity.
While the Government might be less likely to let a university go under than their rhetoric implies, they may be quite happy to let plenty of courses they do not see as important or cost-effective go to the wall. Instead of universities needing to make the case for why their funding should not be cut, the sector will need a strong argument for why the courses they are offering the government are high quality and high value to both students and the taxpayer. And if they do not want the methods of doing this to be LEO data or TEF, they should be thinking closely of what alternatives they can offer.
HEPI captures student’s views on value through the annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey. We have also explored student’s views on the Augar recommendations and the financial sustainability of universities.