This month, February 2022, marks four years since the Augar panel was set up to review post-18 education in England. They reported in May 2019, by which time it felt like we had been waiting ages and longer than anyone had originally expected. But when compared to the Government’s dilatory response to the report, we can now see that the Augar panel actually worked like the clappers. Over 200 pages, including 53 recommendations covering the whole of post-18 education, were worked up in just over a year (and most of the panel had big days jobs, including leading educational institutions, alongside their review work).
In one of her last public statements as Prime Minister, Theresa May gave a top-level response to the Augar report on the day of its publication. I was in the room at Policy Exchange at the time and she left the clear impression that she would implement the broad thrust of the report were she to be staying in office. But she already knew she was leaving Number 10 so she could easily make such a big commitment and it meant little. We had to wait another year-and-a-half, until January 2021, for a bit more, when a desultory holding response appeared from the current administration.
Now, many years on from the Augar review’s deliberations, we are still waiting for a response that goes through the various recommendations one-by-one. Given all the current political shenanigans, it is at least possible that we will be on our third Prime Minister since the Augar review was established by the time we see the official response.
Back in 2019, when Philip Augar reported, the HEPI website was full of pieces responding to the review. Now, nearly three years on, here are ten points worth noting about it:
- We’ve been waiting even longer than many people realise: The birth of the Augar report is generally dated, as above, to February 2018, when Philip Augar and his team were appointed. In fact, it was initially announced four months earlier during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, when Theresa May’s ill-fated and disrupted leader’s speech included the following words: ‘We have listened and we have learned. So we will undertake a major review of university funding and student financing.’ Its true origins are even older, however, as the report was a response to the apparent (but disputed) ‘youthquake’ at the June 2017 general election, when Jeremy Corbyn fought for student votes through the NME. First-time voters who backed Corbyn and who enrolled as freshers just as Theresa May was making her commitment to hold a review have long since graduated. Some will have completed a Master’s too, others will be halfway through a PhD and many more will be into their second or third post-graduation job.
- It is nearly always forgotten now but the Augar review was not supposed to be the main course: It was meant to be just one ingredient of an official government review. Its goal was to articulate the preferences of an independent panel of outsiders, whose views would be fed in to the official policymaking sausage machine alongside lots of other views. That is why, officially, the Augar review team’s moniker was the ‘independent panel appointed to inform the Government’s Review of Post-18 Education and Funding’. I remember meeting the high-quality team undertaking the actual formal government review in the Department for Education but it has (presumably) long since disbanded. Over time, the Augar review came to be seen as the review of post-18 education rather than as just one input to that review.
- While tuition fees are always the star of the show and hog the spotlight, other actors are just as important: Augar recommended a cut to the headline undergraduate fee cap in England from £9,250 to £7,500, with the resulting loss of income for institutions to be covered (somewhat implausibly) by the Treasury. However, what the Augar report had to say about maintenance grants, student accommodation and loan repayments was just as important and, in many respects, more likely to happen. When and if the Government does eventually respond in full, it will need to address every recommendation methodically, so we forget these other points at our peril.
- The reason for the delay is perhaps the reason the review happened in the first place – uncertainty over what to do: You host a review when you don’t have a policy. Augar was not a Royal Commission but Harold Wilson’s words about Royal Commissions have some bearing on all major government-established reviews: Wilson claimed, they ‘take minutes and waste years’. Reviews are meant to help policymakers make up their minds, and they have a good record of doing so in higher education. The Anderson report (1960), the Robbins report (1963), the Dearing report (1997) and the Browne report (2010), for example, all heavily – and quickly – influenced policy, even if none of them was implemented in full. It seems odd to many people in 2022 that a party in power for over a decade, in coalition or on its own, remains so uncertain over what to do. It is odder still when you remember how much political capital was spent (admittedly mainly by another political party, the Liberal Democrats) when implementing the current system early on in that period in power. When it comes to things like fees, loans and student numbers, the Government have two clear options: continuing to support the 2010 to 2017 settlement or setting a new course. The fact is they appear unable to decide between them, which is a little unedifying to watch and could make them vulnerable next year to the same ’13 wasted years’ line that did for the Douglas-Home Government at the 1964 general election.
- Yet this line of attack is probably unfair as quite a lot of the Augar package has been picked up in some way or another: The very first recommendation of the Augar report was ‘The government should introduce a single lifelong learning loan’ and a new Lifelong Loan Entitlement is already wending its way through Parliament. It is a profoundly important shift, even if the details remain vague and it may not have as dramatic effect as Ministers hope (and there is also a high chance that the Treasury will convert this giant of a policy into a mouse). In a blog for HEPI in June 2021, Rich Pickford of Nottingham Trent University, whose Vice-Chancellor (Professor Edward Peck) was a member of the Augar panel, noted 51% of the Augar recommendations had already ‘seen some form of active policy response’. So it feels odd that the Government has avoided so many opportunities to remind people that it is implementing lots of Augar’s recommendations while simultaneously taking some of the biggest through Parliament as new primary legislation.
- The Augar report is dead; long live the Augar report: A second reason why it would be wrong to write off the Augar report as one of the great missed opportunities for education reform is that one of the key architects of the report’s proposals, Baroness (Alison) Wolf, has had a place at the top table advising the Prime Minister from a formal position in Number 10. Whether her influence would outlive a change at the top is a question that is probably unanswerable until we know who takes over, but she has long been a key figure in Conservative education circles (as evidenced by the Wolf report of 2011).
- Some of the proposals now appear outdated: The world has moved on a lot in the last few years, and not just because of COVID. While policymakers have been deliberating, universities have been delivering. It is almost two years since Philip Augar himself performed a u-turn on the most high-profile of all the Augar report’s recommendations, when he wrote in the Financial Times that the time was no longer right for a cut to the headline tuition fee cap of £9,250. And, frankly, if it were not right in May 2020, it cannot be any more right in February 2022, when inflation is surging. Moreover, some people might feel the Augar report’s recommendations on things like student loan repayments now look a little too conservative if the Treasury is to reduce significantly the cost of the loan system (by pulling down the fabled RAB charge).
- It would take a fight to bring some of the more controversial findings back to life: I have not found many people who regard the review’s recommendations to stop universities offering Foundation Years worth implementing. For others, the data as well as the policy imperative to admit and nurture students from under-represented groups seems to support the maintenance – perhaps even promotion and expansion – of university-based Foundation years. Any Minister for Universities that wants to pick up Augar’s specific proposal to run them out of town would risk looking like a masochist and resistant to evidence.
- It’s not a take-it-or-leave it package: At the time of publication, Philip Augar was fond of telling people that the package of proposals (which I described as ‘coherent’ at the time) could not be approached in a pick-and-mix fashion. This is what you have to say if you’ve just led the work on such a report. And it was particularly understandable in this case, when spending commitments were carefully balanced against savings. But take-it-or-leave-it is never a persuasive argument in policy. Governments and legislators can and do pick and choose what they like, as is their democratic prerogative. And when you put together Sir Philip’s current distaste for his own previous fee reduction proposal with the widespread unease at the Foundation Year idea as well as the positive progress that has already been made on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, only a fool would continue to think the whole Augar paper is a prix fixe rather than a smörgåsbord.
- We’ve (nearly) run out of road for further big changes in this Parliament, irrespective of what happens to the leadership of the Conservative Party: When the Government does finally say how it intends to respond to the rest of the Augar report, don’t expect rapid action. It will not resemble a foxtrot: slow, slow, quick, quick. This is because major reforms take time and an absolute minimum of two years, as with Blair’s £3,000 fees (legislated for in 2004 for and implemented in 2006) or Cameron’s £9,000 fees (agreed by Parliament in 2010 and implemented in 2012). This may sound like a ridiculously long time, but once out of office Nick Clegg complained about the pace of the 2010-to-2012 changes in his book Politics (2016). A minimum period of around two years is necessary because you need to propose, consult, legislate, prepare, inform and then implement. It is plausible that Ministers could make proposals in spring 2022, firm them up over the summer and legislate for them from this autumn, to take effect in two years’ time, from academic year 2024/25. But they have already run out of road to do all this in the current Parliament because the next election is due to happen by 2 May 2024 at the latest. There are also good reasons to do with the complexity of the proposals behind why Ministers say the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will not kick in until 2025.
Another risk for the Government is that, as the clock ticks on and assuming the Labour Party continues its recovery, then attention could now gradually shift away from the Augar report and the official response to it and towards whatever the next Labour Party manifesto is likely to say about higher education.
Indeed, were Keir Starmer to repeat the trick of dodging the need to lay out a position on higher education by contracting out the key questions to a review straddling a general election (repeating the trick of the Major and Brown Governments), which would seem a sensible but cowardly strategy, then the Augar review could even come to be superseded in importance by a subsequent review.
Please click here to attend the free HEPI / Advance HE webinar on ‘The Future of Higher Education’, taking place on Wednesday, 9 February 2022, with senior speakers from The Times’s Education Commission (Rachel Sylvester), the Office for Students (Conor Ryan) and ARU Peterborough (Ross Renton).