The Report of the Augar Review investigating the future of post-18 education funding has finally been published. The Review was motivated by two factors. On the one hand, this was Theresa May’s desperate response to Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to scrap university tuition fees and to bring back the Education Maintenance Allowance that David Cameron and George Osborne abolished in 2010. On the other hand, it was an attempt to address the growing impact of student loans on government finances given that they now account for almost £120 billion worth of debt.
Augar’s proposals are bad news for the sector even though they have been dressed up as progressive in some ways - lowering tuition fees for students to £7500 from the current £9250, calling for better funding for Further Education, providing a “lifelong learning loan allowance” of some £30,000, reducing interest rates for loans while studying (but not afterwards) and re-introducing a maintenance grant for the most disadvantaged students. But they are far from progressive and will do nothing fundamentally to address rising levels of student debt and to overcome the barriers for the most disadvantaged to access Higher Education.
First, the proposals lower the threshold at which students start paying back their tuition fee loans (from nearly £26k to £23k) and extend the repayment term from 30 to 40 years. If you're rich and can pay it off all at once, then no problem; for most people, however, this simply means that, even with lower fees, they could well be paying more over the lifetime of the loan. This is the very definition of a regressive move.
Second, the Report’s recommendation to take away financial support for foundation years – often the most popular entry routes to degree courses for non-traditional learners – is a direct attack on marginalised communities and the government’s commitment to widening participation. According to the Foundation Year Network, the decision was based on incomplete data about the impact of these ‘Year 0’ courses that serve “a diverse cohort of student – many from underrepresented groups”. It makes a mockery of Theresa May’s speech on the steps of Downing Street nearly three years ago when she made those specious commitments to challenge structural discrimination.
Third, the Report is based on an instrumental understanding of education that measures virtually everything in terms of economic value. The Report speaks frequently about "low value degrees" and argues that we need to incentivise universities "to increase the provision of courses better aligned with the economy’s needs." It specifically counterposes Engineering, Science, Technology, Medicine and health-related subjects (which it says are under-funded but of high value) to those which receive relatively higher levels of public subsidy – specifically creative arts, humanities and social sciences – which it suggests are of low value. So, on the one hand, there is what is seen as prudent support for STEM subjects which “are central to the government’s Industrial strategy” and which “produce some of the highest returns in earnings for graduates and therefore incur a low taxpayer subsidy on their student loans”. And this form of investment stands in marked contrast to what we can only assume are the wastrels and vagrants who populate arts and humanities programmes and who command a disproportionate amount of public subsidy. It is true that that on page 82, the Report insists that “[w]e make no judgements about the merits or demerits of these disciplines” except that its tone and underlying assumptions consistently contradict this. The Report then asks “whether this changing pattern of public subsidy is strategically desirable," as if funding support for both STEM and non-STEM subjects is unimaginable, despite the benefits that both provide to the public good. In reality, it seems pretty clear that arts, humanities and social sciences are to be targeted: "Institutions providing predominantly low value and/or lower cost provision [are] likely to see a reduction" in funding.
So despite all the talk of the importance of the "creative economy" and of the need to bring together scientists and sociologists, programmers and philosophers both to develop and to reflect on, for example, AI and algorithms in the 21st century, those institutions who offer arts and humanities are among those expected to be hit the hardest. There's no guarantee that government will make up the funding gap. Can you really imagine a Boris Johnson government stepping in to help the University of the Arts or my own institution, Goldsmiths?
This is, as one of my colleagues put it to me, “an all-out ideological assault the likes of which I don’t think we have ever experienced in HE”. The proposals will neither make a significant difference to the overall debt burden of students (and may intensify this in the case of the poorest students) nor deal with the externalities of the higher education market constructed by the Tories in the last ten years – the possibility that some institutions may go bust, the eye-catching salaries of vice-chancellors who are treated like CEOs are transnational corporations, and the rising levels of institutional debt that underpin the new campuses and buildings designed to beat off competitors.
The Augar Report contains a few welcome proposals buried into a regressive and counter-productive document that will intensify insecurity, debt and polarisation. We don't have to play off Higher and Further Education against each other; we don’t have to counterpose one set of “valuable” disciplines with another that is seen as a “drain” on public finances; we don't have to pretend that this kind of tinkering with a broken market model is going to solve the problems of a viable tertiary education system.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour needs once again to confirm its commitment to free education and to lead a vibrant campaign along with students and staff – many of whom are in a reinvigorated union, the UCU, that just overwhelmingly elected a left-wing general secretary – a campaign that celebrates the right to a high-quality post-18 education. This debate shouldn’t be confined to economistic conceptions of value and the “earnings premium” of particular courses but should focus on how best to increase the participation of young people in tertiary education and to challenge the barriers that continue to prevent many of them from accessing existing opportunities. What kind of world is it where we can seriously debate whether we have too much education?