Inside Track – Sir Alan Langlands: Augar: Not the end of the story?

The Vice-Chancellor reflects on the recently published Augar review into post-18 education and funding.


The review of post-18 education and funding (the Augar review), set up by Prime Minister Theresa May in February 2018, was finally published on 30 May, just as she stepped down amid the turmoil of Brexit.

In essence, the review recommends a fee cut to £7,500 for all subjects from 2021/22 and proposes that the Government should replace the lost fee income in full by increasing the teaching grant, leaving the average unit of funding unchanged at sector level.

What happens next is anyone’s guess but, as a starting point, the sector needs to be clear that many aspects of the review are flawed, and this cannot be the end of the story. It is not at all clear if or when the Government will be able to guarantee additional public funding for universities and there are a number of policy traps hidden in the report.

Whilst there are positive proposals to invest in further education, the welcome return of maintenance grants for university students from low income households, and more realistic interest rates on student loans during study, there are a number of downsides and a tone which challenges university autonomy.

For example, the proposals on loan repayments are regressive. Lower and middle earning graduates will pay more towards the cost of their degree than under the current arrangements and higher earners will pay less; financial support for foundation years leading to a degree programme will be withdrawn; and resources to fund access and participation schemes in some institutions might be at risk.

The report also refers to “high value” and “strategically important” subjects and “low value” courses, and the implication is that Government and the OfS will be more directive about how funding is used in institutions. In my view, this flies in the face of the principle of university autonomy, which was hard won in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Augar raises as many questions as it answers and the sector must press for a period of consultation to ensure these important questions of policy and funding can be considered carefully.

The starting point in this has to be our students and an approach to learning that combines deep subject knowledge, the ability to carry out research and opportunities for personal development that prepare the next generation for a world of complexity, diversity and change.

This does not come cheaply and, ultimately, there has to be a transparent, long term resolution to the question of how to balance the costs of higher education between the taxpayer and graduates and their families. The review also gives scant regard to international students and the importance of ensuring they receive a warm welcome in the UK and that we meet their needs and aspirations for a high quality education at a reasonable cost.

The current system of limited public funding for teaching and fees supported by loans may appear to be trading one form of public funding for another, but the first is a permanent investment in future generations made by society as a whole, and the second is a loan focused on an individual that attracts a real rate of interest and a very long term repayment schedule. Augar doesn’t really shift this balance and, as the economy strengthens, we should not accept that any decision to reduce direct public funding for teaching is fixed for all time.

The implication in the Augar review that public funding should be targeted towards clinical programmes, science, technology, engineering and mathematics fails to understand the crucial importance of sustaining universities with a broad disciplinary mix – universities that value the social, cultural and economic contribution of the arts and humanities and the contribution of social sciences in helping us to think about how we live.

These disciplines contribute to our shared public life, for example by analysing the human and ethical implications of scientific and medical advances and exploring the social and economic impact of global issues, such as climate change and international security.

Fee levels cannot be seen in isolation of university funding as a whole. The research-intensive universities have an important role to play in driving economic recovery, growth and productivity, especially at a time when the country is at an economic crossroads. Reducing fee income, calling for ever more matched funding for major research bids whilst relying heavily on international fee income does not provide a sustainable way forward. Higher level skills and world-leading research and innovation are vital to the country’s future and this work needs to be properly funded.

In a statement to the House of Commons on 4 June, the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds MP, said: “The Government will carefully consider the independent panel’s recommendations before finalising our approach at the spending review.” Sometimes this means cherry picking! He also said that he will “continue to engage with stakeholders on the findings and recommendations of the panel report”. It is therefore essential that the sector puts its best foot forward in advance of the spending review, likely to be in the autumn.

Despite the current political divisions and uncertainties, and the apparent inability of Government to take proper control of the domestic agenda and the parliamentary timetable, the University cannot simply ignore the Augar review. Put simply, it could affect our income as early as 2021 and the sentiment of students applying for University in 2019 and 2020. Through the Leeds integrated planning exercise, we are tackling these issues right now by examining our cost structure whilst maintaining the self-confidence to consider important new developments in education, research and professional services.

The pace and complexity of change will intensify during the next five years and we must create an environment in which we can assimilate changes in demography, technology and pedagogy in a way that allows us to achieve continued success in the face of constrained resources.

Finally, as we move towards graduation, I remember reading one of Arthur Hadley’s memorable addresses when he was President of Yale in the early part of the 20th century. He told his students:

‘If you value the world simply for what you can get out of it, be assured that the world will in turn estimate your value by what it can get out of you…’

Let me adjust this for 2019:

‘If we value our students simply for what we can get out of them or what they might earn in the future, be assured that they will in turn estimate our value by what they can get out of us…’

This would be a betrayal of what universities stand for; it would undermine all that we do. We must therefore handle the process of change with sensitivity, professionalism and skill; and use all our experience to maintain a line of sight with all that is good from the past whilst recognising the imperatives and also the opportunities that will arise from changes in policy and funding.

As the academic year draws to a close, all students and staff can look back on a period of real achievement and success, and look ahead to a new set of challenges and opportunities. Universities are highly resilient and, after the summer, we will work together to navigate a safe path through these unpredictable times.

Sir Alan Langlands

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