Mon, 11 December 2023

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Implementing the Augar report will be 'another nail in the coffin' of the Northern Powerhouse

5 min read

Whilst there has been scrutiny in the specialist press, little attention has been paid in the mainstream political arena to the Augar Review and the future of Further and Higher education, says Lord Blunkett.

In the battle to determine who is going to lead the Conservative Party and hence become the Prime Minister of our country many other critical issues have taken more than a back seat.

One of those is the report produced by Philip Auger and those working with him on the future of Further and Higher education. Whilst there has been scrutiny in the specialist press, little attention has been paid in the mainstream political arena.

That is why this week I have a question in the House of Lords and in the week ahead a debate which I hope will shed more light on the unforeseen consequences of what is undoubtedly a thorough piece of work.

It is not that Philip Auger has not understood the complexity of the funding and therefore delivering OF key elements to education but rather that the politics of this aspect of the education system, is nothing short of a minefield.

Back in 2017 the government put through the Higher Education and Research Act, broadly welcomed with some provisos by those from all political persuasions. One aspect of this was to try and rebalance the higher education system to ensure that through the Teaching Excellence Framework a greater focus was achieved in improving the quality of teaching – alongside the a Research Excellence Framework.

The trouble with the Augar report is twofold. Firstly, it naïvely projects its recommendations on the basis that in the forthcoming Spending Review – whenever that might arrive – substantial funding would be found to compensate not only for a cut of £1,750 in the fee contribution received by universities for teaching but that substantial additional funding would be found for further education.

Freezing the unit of investment for the forthcoming years would of course already result in a real terms reduction in spend on teaching of around 8%. In other words, the amount spent on therefore contact time would be reduced. This is a real hit on the post-doctorate students who carry so much of the burden of day-to-day teaching.

There are real and very welcome proposals for improvement. Much of them reversing measures and funding reductions undertaken over the last nine years by the Government. This includes recommendations such as additional help for part-time students, restoration of a modest grant, substantial investment in greater equality of treatment for those taking the Further Education route, a reduction in the interest rate contribution and the like.

But even those things that superficially seem to be beneficial turnout to have perverse consequences. Lengthening the repayment period to 40 years hits those with lower lifetime earnings and in an interesting twist, is least beneficial to women who are likely to take time out for childbirth and caring duties.

Little attention however appears to have been paid to one really unfortunate aspect of the report which feeds into the dangerous culture now being promoted by some in government. Namely, that we judge the benefits and therefore the value of higher education by how much graduates earn, particularly in the first few years! In other words, if you move to London and the south-east, work in the city or in consultancy and earn the kind of money that could only be dreamt of in other parts of Britain, you’re a success.

If you're a social worker, teacher or a nurse, or start your own business, are involved in creative industries, or simply decide that you will do a really worthwhile job in your home locality in the North of England, you’re counted as a failure.

The Longueil Education Outcomes (LEO) criteria does not differentiate full or part time earnings and does not account for time out for childbirth, self-employment, and crucially the regional variation (which means the nations of the UK as well as the regions of England) - there is a false evaluation of the value of HE to the individual and the economy.

So who are considered to be failures? The very people who decide to stay in the locality they were brought up in, or at a northern university that they’ve attended, where the quality of life is very high but the salaries are relatively very low! Only those born, brought up in and working in London and the south-east could not get this crucial element of what we do with the best intentions that in the end, ends up with exactly the opposite outcome.

We are sick and tired of being lectured to by those who rarely visit the north of England, never mind Scotland or Wales. We know and experience the contribution that Higher Education makes to the regeneration, to the productivity and GDP of the localities we care about. Sadly, the likely outcome of implementing the Augar report will simply be yet another nail in the coffin of the much flaunted Northern Powerhouse.


Lord Blunkett is a Labour member of the House of Lords.

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Blunkett - Lord Blunkett: Learning the lessons of the past to reform education