A hospice for a dying HE/FE funding regime - A review of the Augar Report

The report of the Independent Panel to the Review into the funding of Further and Higher Education was not just about Student loans and University Funding . But most of the 370 submissions came from Universities and their acolytes. There were only 9 from Further Education providers. “Businesses” and “Employer bodies” were a subset of “Others” alongside academic experts, institutes and organisations representing the arts and science. See Page 14 of the Annex on the Call For Evidence for details.

Those who complain that, like the recent review of Apprenticeship Standards, the report only addresses part of the problem have themselves to blame. Most employer organisations were (and still are) more concerned to be able to import talent than to help grow our own. Hence once of the reasons for the Brexit revolt of the have-nots against the Establishment.

Despite that constraint it is a thoughtful report . It makes serious and detailed proposals to reform the current system. Read carefully. But also think about the political and economic context as you do. Philip Augar is a former equities broker. He was a non-executive board member at the Department for Education while he was writing (he had a History PhD) about the cultural changes  that led to the 2008 banking crisis. Now think about the current challenges to the way the century old UK FE/HE funding regime has been evolving over recent decades. Perhaps the best than can be done really is to buy time for constructive evolution as opposed to destructive change akin to the banking crisis and that which followed.

The Tectonic Plates are shifting – the 1917 Consensus is under threat

The authors of the report have done a good job in drily assessing the signs of movement in the tectonic plates that underlie the UK education system and its values. The Haldane Principle has been the basis of Government funding for HE (with FE as an increasingly poor relation) since 1917. It is now under serious threat. Even were the sixty or so recommendations in the report to be implemented in full they would probably not preserve the current system against change. They might, however, reduce the threat that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater.

The idea that HE/FE funding and policy should be determined by councils of experts with a vested interest in the out-comes, trumping the views of employers, students or the public, will not survive exposure to the scrutiny of the Internet Age. But reaching consensus on a new and more balanced and sustainable approach will not be easy. Nor will transitioning from the present set of hierarchical processes.

That is why it is so important to read the report and the analyses on which it is built. The submissions to the review omit the views of employers or public. Those who submitted may not recognise the way the global English language education and training content and qualification industries now dwarf the UK academic world. They may be ignorant of the way commercial and/or international  providers are eating the lunch of those who have not already partnered with them. But the submissions do represent the thoughts of those who dominate our current policy and funding frameworks  on how best to respond to the challenges that they see. You ignore them at your peril.

The current structures cannot handle the accelerating pace of change

The evidence submitted pays little or no attention to the way libraries of on-line materials transform the dynamics and economics of global education and training markets. These enable the assembly of customised, modular, blended learning programmes which cut the time to master content or acquire new skills from years to months, months to weeks and weeks to days or even hours.

Those used to a four to five year cycle to approve a new course cannot compete.

The processes the report is attempting to reform will never be capable of handling the pace of change necessary to do more than educate students in the basic disciplines they need for their first career. But a world of accelerating career change and life-long learning will still need academic cadres trained in those disciplines and research methodologies. The issue is to reach a new consensus on the balance of priorities when it comes to using public funds.  

How should the recommendations be judged?

The report begins with eight principles:

1. Post-18 education benefits society, the economy, and individuals.
2. Everyone should have the opportunity to be educated after the age of 18.
3. The decline in numbers of those getting post-18 education needs to be reversed.
4. The cost of post-18 education should be shared between taxpayers, employers and learners.
5. Organisations providing education and training must be accountable for the public subsidy they receive.
6. Government has a responsibility to ensure that its investment in tertiary education is appropriately spent and directed.
7. Post-18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces.
8. Post-18 education needs to be forward looking.

There are then nine headline proposals to address the “core problem”of the unfair and wasteful split between the 50% who supposedly benefit from HE/FE and the 50% who do not.

1. Strengthening technical education
2. Increasing opportunities for everyone
3. Reforming and refunding the FE college network
4. Bearing down on low value HE
5. Addressing higher education funding
6. Increasing flexibility and lifetime learning
7. Supporting disadvantaged students
8. Ensuring those who benefit from higher education contribute fairly
9. Improving the apprenticeship offer

We should judge the detailed recommendations against the principles and the headline recommendations.

They are not prioritised. Most of the publicity to date is for proposals 5 and 8, addressing principle 4. That is because most of the submissions were from those seeking to preserve the current funding regime, with modifications in their favour.

To quote the Annex on the call for evidence:
Across all groups, responses focused overwhelmingly on university education, with fewer responses on the other aspects of post-18 education, including technical education or apprenticeships.

• Further Education (FE) providers considered that higher education works best for well-qualified 18- to 30-year olds and that FE needs further investment in technical education facilities.
• Higher Education (HE) providers emphasised their view that HE is not a business but provides a society-wide benefit. On funding they felt that the review should not just consider fees in isolation.
• Students, graduates and the public were mainly concerned with financial issues, with costs of HE being too high and flexibility of provision limited.
• Employees working at educational organisations particularly noted a decline in part-time, mature students and Level 4/5 course take-up, and commented that the fragmentation of post-18 policy and funding across HE, FE and apprenticeships is restrictive and prevents a joined-up approach.
• Public bodies and others emphasised value for money, choices to meet skill needs of the UK, wider participation in Level 4/5 qualifications and generally better communication with learners.”

The Augar recommendations help open the way to a new consensus.

The press cover to date is almost all on the recommendations on student fees .

The changes proposed are unlikely to change the erosion of public belief in value of incurring debts that will never be repaid in order to spend three years away from home acquiring a qualification that employers do not value. There is no mention of  the most serious barriers to widening access for the most  disadvantaged: e.g. the way DWP processes penalise a family on benefits when one of its members accepts a place on an apprenticeship programme.

If the core objective are “fairness” and economic value then the first recommendation in the Augar report is the most profound in its potential impact:

The government should introduce a single lifelong learning loan allowance for tuition loans at Levels 4, 5 and 6, available for adults aged 18 or over, without a publicly funded degree. This should be set, as it is now, as a financial amount equivalent to four years’ full-time undergraduate degree funding.

Combine this with the 11th ,

• The careers strategy should be rolled out nationally so that every secondary school is able to be part of a careers hub, that training is available to all careers leaders and that more young people have access to meaningful careers,

and the effect could be dramatic. But only if the careers advice neutral. It must not be skewed by the way schools are penalised if they allow their brightest and best to be tempted by apprenticeships – even those which are degree-linked and offer privileged entry into world-class careers. That neutrality will only be achieved if schools earn as much from supporting apprenticeships (e.g. in parallel with T levels) as they do from keeping hold of their academically competent pupils to do A levels – whether or not the latter improve their lifestyle choices or employability.

Given such neutrality we can expect the implosion of those FE/HE courses which do not give economic value. This is likely to be the most effective way of addressing recommendation 4.

Handing over the baton of bringing education and training policy into the Internet Age

In May 1968 I accepted a job offer from STC Microwave and Line as a graduate Engineer 1st Class, alias apprentice computer programmer. I then graduated with a degree in History and within two years was a guest lecturer on one of the first Computer Science courses. I have since watched half a century of  attempts to define the content of courses and qualifications intended to help students acquire the intellectual disciplines and applications skills to research and exploit digital technologies before they change.

My career, let alone thoughts on how to handle digital skills, on which I have blogged for more than a decade, would have been very different without the habits of mind that I acquired at the Devils Flamethrower  The THES article with that title is now behind a pay wall. Ross Anderson’s “Alternative History of Cambridge” and my review are not.  In 1971 my reward for a successful decimalisation was two years at London Business School. My education on “manpower planning” began with listening to Denis Pym and Charles Handy. The class included Peter Lampl (Sutton Trust) and David Davis MP  (who has also written a review of the Augar Report).  One of my MSc projects was on the economics of the commercial training market. The aim was to help ICL decide on the future of a course on business for IT professionals which was not selling. I analysed the database of UK management courses then maintained by the British Institute of Management to find out which courses were regularly repeated, over weeks, months or years. And what was different about them. In the 1980s, after the publication of Learning for Change (see here for original text ) I had responsibility for the NCC Microsystems Centre. My staff maintained similar files. I advised the High Tech Unit of Barclays Bank on requests for finance from several commercial training operations. I also had responsibility for turning found that which I inherited at the NCC as well as advising succession of  ministers – although the minds of most of their officials were firmly closed to evidence that did not fit departmental policy.

Earlier this year I pulled together my most recent material in a discussion paper  to help set the scene for wider discussion after the Augar review was expected to report. That time is now.

On May 8th a very impressive team at the Open University took over support for the Digital Policy Alliance Skills Group. Much of the discussion was about how to extend the OU tradition of open access to academic excellence to lifelong learning as a whole, keeping pace with the evolution of digital disciplines and the accelerating pace of change in cross-boundary research and applications skills. In other words how to deliver the wider Augar principles and headline recommendations. I was also very happy in the quality of thinking among those to who would be taking over where I left off. I am confident they will do a much better job of bringing the relevant players together across all boundaries – not just intra-UK.

The Augar report is the start of a debate.

At best the recommendations on Student Loans may buy time for sufficient students to vote with their feet to enable a more politically acceptable solution to become affordable.

You should read the analysis and the other recommendations – bearing in mind that this is the “insider” view. Then e-mail [email protected] or [email protected] to be kept in touch with (or better still join and help) the plans of those taking over from me to widen the debate and home in on the actions needed to deliver constructive change.

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