Counting the Cost: Augar, HE and the Future of Post-18 Education

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Reaction to the Augar report across representatives and influencers from tertiary education at a recent WonkHE event was certainly mixed. Gavan Conlon, Partner at London Economics, was a notable sceptic, with some impressive number-crunching to back up his anxieties.

Having seen significant reductions in funding, Further Education (FE) was largely happy about the report. However, there was unease about further money being taken from Higher Education (HE) via “robbing Peter to pay Paul” between FE and HE.

Unsurprisingly, the dominant “headline” from Augar was the mooted student fee reduction to £7500, with the income topped up by the teaching fund. This money will be divided up by types of degrees. In essence, less money for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and more money for STEM. Champions of the humanities, or just a more holistic vision of degree subjects, objected eloquently to this angle.

A consuming theme emerged around lifelong learning, and chunks of learning and credits which can be financed continuously throughout life. A move away from the rigid three-year degree was mooted, or at least the opening of a dialogue about this model being sacrosanct.  

How can we allow skills to be enhanced and changed as the world adapts to the fourth industrial revolution? The threat and opportunity of new technology will lead to roles becoming redundant, new roles being created and current roles changing.  The need to ensure the UK workforce has the required skills to adapt to this new environment has put a focus on Levels 4, 5 and 6.  Flexibility and adaptability are key ingredients of skills delivery and doing away with artificial boundaries across education will provide an opportunity for new delivery required of this changing ecosystem. 

The lack of coverage in the Augar report of part time learning was noted with dismay by several commentators. Commentators were looking for this to be  addressed in a more positive, proactive way within the report while still addressing the severe decline in adult part time learning? If you already have a degree you cannot access funding from the SLC…   

Mary Curnock Cook was also surprised that the Augar panel did not refer to employability more, given that the relationship between degrees and employment has never been a hotter, or more scrutinised, topic. 

Andy Westwood of the University of Manchester observed that Augar is “quiet on geography” too, with insufficient regional focus.

Public First Partner Rachel Wolf tried to strike a rare note of political optimism in her observation that Johnson and Hunt are the only two Tory leadership contenders with universities in their constituencies, which ought to signify that whoever inhabits Number 10 next has a vested interest in HE.

On leadership, the broad consensus seems to be that FE and HE need to work closer together.  That’s all well and good, but do the sectors have the required level of leadership to seize this opportunity?  

College Groups have been formed, not without difficulty, and are strong at partnerships and working with business. Within the higher education sector there has been little consolidation and further engagement with their regions is being encouraged.  There is still a variable level of engagement between universities and their local communities and there have been very few mergers or closer working within peer institutions. Perhaps this is a sign of the more competitive landscape and size, but there has also undeniably been less incentive financially for closer work and driving efficiency.

Rising to the challenge of a constantly shifting landscape is only for the resolute. Requirements are increasingly complex with pressure to deliver higher quality and get to grips with technology amidst continued funding constraints. Inspired leaders can use this disruptive environment to innovate and diversify – whether that’s through partnerships, service development or injecting pace into the board or broader organisation. Creating a pioneering culture is not without pain, but we feel it is essential for those treading new ground within FE.

When Philip Augur himself appeared briefly, he was at pains to emphasise that the report was a joint effort. In Augar’s view, “2012 has made higher education a high-risk proposition”.  Augar put a broader question to the audience too. “Have we got a tertiary sector?” Like much else in the packed, and stimulating, one-day conference, this was food for thought.

By Paul Aristides and Dr Emma French, Principal Consultants, Education