The UK government has published its review of the Augar Report into post-18 education and funding, giving a glimpse into the direction of higher education reform over the next four years.
The review is ‘interim’, meaning that it has not been fully completed - they say the delay is due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
A full review of the report will come with the next Comprehensive Spending Review - which will be autumn 2021, at the earliest.
However, the interim review lays out several key areas where we can expect to see changes across the sector going forwards.
Fees and funding
The Augar Report highlighted the “significant and growing” investment that the taxpayer makes into the student finance system that funds most domestic undergraduates through university.
In their review, the government says that it is important that “the student finance funding systems remain sustainable and that those who benefit from their higher education should make a fair contribution”.
In order to do this, they intend to freeze the maximum tuition fee cap “to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of higher education under control”.
They also say that further changes to the student finance system will be considered before the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
The review says that they will ensure that more of taxpayers’ money will be spent on “supporting provision which aligns with the priorities of the nation, such as healthcare, STEM and specific labour market needs”.
This is intended to incentivise students to take certain degrees, and give potential students reassurance that their chosen degree is aligned with good job prospects.
The Augar Report recommended that student finance move towards a “lifelong learning loan allowance”, which will make the same student loan opportunities available to all, regardless of the route you choose and when you choose to study.
Student loan reform is key to increasing the accessibility of the higher education sector in the UK.
However, there are a number of other factors that the Augar Report recognises will increase accessibility in the sector. These include minimum entry requirements and the treatment of foundation years, as well as student finance terms and conditions.
The interim review does not give much detail on how it plans to reform these areas, but says they will be considered, and that the government remains “committed to introducing further reforms that will ensure a just and financially sustainable student finance system, drive up the quality of higher education provision and promote accessibility for students”.
Bringing technical and academic education closer together
One of the key messages of both the report and the review is the key roles that both technical and academic education play in shaping the further and higher education sector in the UK.
The funding reforms outlined above would work towards making both pathways more accessible to all, regardless of stage in life.
A key theme of the report is helping people “train, retrain and upskill throughout their lifetime,” meaning they can follow the direction of demand, and therefore jobs.
The government says that they want to allow “everyone to do the training that is right for them, that will give them the best chance of securing employment and that will align with the needs of our economy.”
In order to do this they want to make technical education more attractive, but other than through funding reform, there is little detail on how they intend to make this happen.
So what does this all mean?
Essentially, the report lays out the bare bones of the changes we can expect to see across the UK further and higher education sector over the next few years.
It isn’t particularly detailed - so other than the cap on tuition fees and the introduction of the lifelong learning loan allowance, we’ll have to wait and see exactly what will be reformed.
However, they did set out some key priorities: aligning degree funding with those courses that best match the needs of the economy, and making technical education more attractive and accessible.
Whilst many will be optimistic about the possibility for reform, it’s likely that we’ll see some pushback from departments and academics whose specialisms don’t clearly align with specific labour market needs.
Academics working in more creative departments such as the arts, humanities, and social sciences, are likely to have to fight for the value of their research, which has a less direct link to specific jobs and opportunities post-graduation.
The government says that they plan to consult on further reforms to the higher education system in spring 2021, before setting out a full response to the report and final conclusion to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review.