Wes Streeting: The Augar review is the worst of all worlds for universities and students
The proposals set out in the Augar review benefit higher earning graduates at the expense of those on lower incomes. We must invest in lifelong learning for the many, says Wes Streeting
After months of waiting and all the fanfare a lame-duck prime minister can offer, the government’s review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, was finally released to a mixed reception.
While university tuition fees have dominated the headlines, the Augar panel has, to its great credit, thrown down the gauntlet to the next prime minister to address the appalling underfunding of colleges and the neglect of lifelong learning.
In her speech at the launch of the Augar report, Theresa May herself acknowledged that FE has been “overlooked, undervalued and underfunded for far too long”. It was quite an understatement; funding for adult education has been cut by 45% by the Tories since 2010.
To meet the challenge posed by Augar, the next chancellor will need to find at least £1bn from the Treasury to fund the proposals put forward by the panel. These include a capital programme to improve FE colleges over the next spending review period, free level 2 and 3 provision for adult learners to widen participation, and an increase in the base rate of funding.
It is a challenge that the country cannot afford to see ignored; 9 million adults in the UK currently lack basic skills, employers continue to complain that they struggle to recruit people with the right skills, and the pace of technological change combined with a longer working life makes lifelong learning more important than at any time in our history.
As David Hughes, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argues: “Few jobs will be unchanged from technology and very few people will be able to thrive without frequent opportunities to learn, train and pick up new skills. Focusing only on universities and tuition fees does not do justice to those challenges, nor recognise the opportunities we have as a country if we get this right.”
For higher education, however, the Augar review is the worst of all worlds for universities and students: graduates left paying more, for longer, for degrees delivered in institutions that are more poorly funded than they were before.
Whatever the superficial political appeal of the proposed reduction in maximum tuition fees to £7,500, the consequence is that only the very richest graduates – the small minority who currently pay back their student loans in full – will benefit. Universities certainly won’t; it is hard to imagine that any incoming prime minister and chancellor would choose to plug the shortfall in fee income when there are competing demands for greater funding for police, schools and the NHS.
To add insult to injury, students will also be paying more for the privilege of attending less well-funded courses, because the Augar review also proposes lowering the threshold at which graduates start repaying their loans and extending the repayment period from 30 to 40 years.
The review does at least propose the re-introduction of non-repayable maintenance grants for the poorest students, which were scrapped by the Cameron government amid a great outcry in 2016. But even taking this measure into account, the overall package of reforms is deeply regressive: benefiting the most well-off graduates at the expense of those on low and middle incomes.
It is hard to see how a cut in fees to £7,500 will compete with Labour’s more generous plans to scrap university tuition fees altogether. It is no secret that Justine Greening was working up more radical proposals for HE funding in the form of a graduate tax, before she was summarily dismissed from her position as education secretary.
Perhaps my party will reflect on the underlying message of the Augar review and consider whether the billions we’ve committed to scrapping any form of graduate contribution, in effect a middle-class subsidy, might not be better – and more equitably – spent on lifelong learning for the many.
Wes Streeting is Labour MP for Ilford North, a member of the Treasury Committee and a former president of the National Union of Students