Does political uncertainty mean the Augar Review will be kicked into the long grass?6 June 2019
A lot of the headlines about the Augar Review foccused on higher education. Commissioned by Theresa May to look at post-18 education, the review confirmed its long-trailed recommendation that tuition fees be cut from £9,250 to £7,500. Interest on this debt will accrue at a lower rate while students are studying. These measures would mostly benefit higher earning graduates, as they are most likely to pay off their loans under either system. This is ameliorated somewhat by the proposed reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, limiting the earnings thresholds at which repayments start and requiring graduates to pay back their loans over 40, rather than 30, years.
The upshot is a system part way between the 2016-18 system and the system post Theresa May’s changes – the highest earning 20% of graduates would pay less, the rest would pay back more in total (but in line with the 2016-18 system). Monthly payments are in between the two systems, but you pay them back for longer is an over simplistic summary.
The ‘missing middle’
But I want to focus on the rest of the review and two aspects in particular. The first is what the review describes as the ‘missing middle’. That is the relatively small proportion of people qualified to Levels 4 and 5, compared to the proportion with Level 3 and Level 6 qualifications. This is the result of incentives in the system – the proportion of young people in higher education is not unusual by international standards; but our bias toward full-time undergraduate degrees for 18-year olds is.
The review’s answer to this is a new lifelong learning loan allowance, meaning people can borrow an amount equivalent to four years full-time undergraduate degree funding, but that they can do so at any point in their lives, and with a leveling of the playing field between different learning options and a push towards modularisation. Taken together, these are expected to facilitate a growth in the number of people achieving Level 4 and 5 Higher Technical routes.
In my view this is all welcome, though it may need more active pushing to make it happen – including thinking about how to build these options into careers advice and how to engage adults in learning. We’d like to see this new allowance built into a wider Personal Learning Account for all learning.
The second aspect I want to comment on is learning below Level 4. I’m pleased the review talks about this. Even the world’s best tertiary system wouldn’t be much good unless people have ladders of opportunity to get into it.
Our research shows things here have gone very wrong in the last decade. The proportion of young people gaining Level 2 and 3 by age 19 has stalled and at levels lower than many other countries, and a general decline in participation in learning means the UK is poised to fall down the international league tables by 2030 on almost any measure you choose.
The review puts a large part of the blame for these falls on funding cuts and changes – for example, the number of adults gaining a full Level 3 has fallen by one third since the introduction of higher education-style Advanced Learner Loans. The review proposes the restoration of an entitlement to a first full Level 2 and 3 for all adults. I wholeheartedly endorse this – it has the potential to make a difference both to economic growth and social justice.
The review also calls for greater investment in further education and an increase in unit rates for courses. This is good news, but with two buts:
- It suggests only the rate for ‘economically valuable’ adult education budget courses should be increased. The problem is how you define economically valuable and that learning has broader purposes and is often not linear – one thing can lead to another
- We need to be more ambitious. The restored Level 2 and 3 entitlements would cost an extra £500m per year, but we’ve argued we need £1.5bn more per year to double adult attainment back to 2010 levels and lift ourselves up the international league tables.
This leads on to the last issue: will any of this happen? The prime minister who commissioned it is about to leave office, and there is likely to be a new chancellor and secretary of state for education. Plus the likelihood of there being a spending review later this year to implement all of this is receding as the Brexit impasse continues. A new Labour government would clearly take a very different approach if it came to power.
Nonetheless, the reaction to the review shows a growing consensus (including among many of the candidates to be prime minister) of the need to focus more on further education. This shouldn’t be about a zero-sum game with higher education, but instead about better and wider access to high quality education routes throughout life.
Whoever the next prime minister is needs to tackle this, and the Augar Review is a good place to start.