The Prime Minister launched the long-awaited Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding last week. I want to say a few words about what this might mean for us.
The report is long, thorough and thoughtful and will cast an influential light over HE and FE. You will find a summary of the review here. There are 53 recommendations in total. The headlines include cutting tuition fees (to £7,500 for full-time undergraduates), restoration of maintenance grants for some, removal of in-study interest rates and a single, life-long learning loan allowance for all adults. It is good to see HE and FE considered together as a common ecosystem; and there is a welcome recognition of the need for more investment in further education colleges and vocational training. I was also pleased to see a call for further support for disadvantaged students to access, participate and succeed in HE – something you know we already take very seriously here at Kent.
It is not possible yet to judge the overall impact on our students. Many commentators have noted that the net effect of the changes taken together (including a longer repayment period) would be to advantage high earning professionals at the expense of those on moderate earnings. The implication that degrees should be valued primarily in terms of salary is too simplistic, and disappointingly devalues the vital work so many of our graduates do in lower-paid sectors.
There is a strong theme in the report that the university sector is (as a whole) financially solvent and ripe for efficiency savings. We do not believe the evidence supports this assertion. Finance Directorate will be doing some more modelling on the particular financial implications for us. But several of the main recommendations already look challenging:
- Freezing the average per student resource for three further years (2020/21 to 2023/24). The report indicates that expected growth in student numbers from 2020 would offset this drop in real income, although this assumption seems highly questionable and contrary to our expectations around potential student number growth.
- The tuition fee reduction for students is accompanied by a recommendation that the lost fee income must be fully replaced by Government funding. Maintaining this average unit of funding at cash terms does not offset the past and continuing inflationary pressures on costs that we have and will continue to see as a sector. Further, given the recent Office for National Statistics ruling that part of the student loan must be classified as current expenditure, the consequent rise in the headline figure for HE funding will be an unpropitious backdrop for future spending rounds.
- Adjustment of the teaching grant attached to each subject to reflect reasonable costs and the social and economic value to students and taxpayers is likely to disadvantage Kent, given our current subject mix. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to less choice for students and a less diverse and culturally rich society.
- Withdrawal of financial support for foundation years attached to degree courses would potentially damage our ability to recruit from disadvantaged groups.
The key issue is what will happen next. The Prime Minister has made clear that she sees the review as her legacy. There will need to be consultation, including understanding how the proposals will be perceived by past, present and future students. But the UK political landscape remains febrile. So the timescale, process and prospects for legislation must be considered as at best unclear. For the time being, therefore, we are watching closely – with concern but not yet alarm.
Professor Karen Cox, Vice-Chancellor and President