Higher education sector responds to DfE’s interim Augar response

Universities UK president Prof Julia Buckingham criticised the proposed minimum HE entry threshold for students

The president of Universities UK said it was “essential for students and communities that universities do not see a reduction in funding” as she responded to the government’s interim response to the Augar review of post-18 education and funding in England.

The Department for Education (DfE) published a flurry of announcements yesterday, including the launch of a consultation on post-qualification admissions, changes to teaching grants and an interim response to the Augar review.

Reform to teaching grants will mean 37 ‘lower-tariff’ universities will see, on average, a six percentage point reduction in higher education teaching-grant funding from September, according to estimates from the Department for Education (DfE). The government has tasked the higher education regulator in England with developing tools for measuring course value – driven by a manifesto pledge to reduce the number of higher education students on ‘low-value’ courses.

The government will announce its full response to the Augar review at the next Comprehensive Spending Review, the date for which is not yet known. Education secretary Gavin Williamson said he would consult “on the introduction of minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions” and consider changes to student loan repayments this spring before the Treasury’s next review – the most recent of which covers departmental spending until April 2022.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government had ducked big decisions. “We’ve already waited two years for an interim response to the Augar review. All that we’ve had today is ‘come back at the Spending Review’,” she told MPs.

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), said: “Sufficient funding is needed to ensure universities can play a central role in driving the post-pandemic recovery of the economy and communities, as well as providing a high-quality university experience for students and meeting local skills needs.”

The proposal for minimum entry standards drew the ire of many from across the sector. The UUK president described it as a “regressive move…preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds whose prior educational experiences have adversely affected their grades from attending university and ignoring the evidence that many of these students excel at university.”

Prof Buckingham, who is also vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said ministers should seek to expand higher education places – not reduce them. “A university degree remains a good choice for many and a growing number of jobs in business and public services require graduate-level skills; the economy and society cannot afford a reduction in the number of graduates,” she added.

Penny pinching money away from London universities exposes how little the government understand commuter students
– Emma Hardy MP, Labour

In response to the government interim response to the Augar review, shadow universities minister Emma Hardy tweeted: “Government doesn’t have a clear vision for the role HE could play in the COVID recovery, no clear strategy or drive. Driven by treasury trying to cut the bills.”

Ms Hardy lamented the £20m cut to Uni Connect which “supports 1000s of pupils in progressing their learning – not just through university – and will negatively impact social mobility”.

“Penny pinching money away from London universities exposes how little the government understand commuter students and it would be interesting to know if they’ve done an impact assessment on this. We should be aiming for opportunity for all, wherever they live,” Ms Hardy continued.

Prof Debra Humphris, University Alliance chair, said she welcomed the government intention to expand further education and technical provision. “However, it is also vital that the role of universities in delivering technical skills is not forgotten; the divide between academic and technical education can be overstated,” she said.

UA member universities have a “strong record” in providing sought-after technical courses, Prof Humphris said, and would “welcome the opportunity through these reforms to build a more integrated tertiary education system that further incentivises HE and FE to work in partnership”.

Prof Humphris echoed Prof Buckingham, expressing “serious reservations” about the proposals in the interim response to the Augar review.

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, urged the government to “ensure it is funding higher education in a long term and sustainable way, closing the ever-widening gap in funding versus cost for undergraduate courses, and investing in the broad spectrum of high-level skills that are critical to economic prosperity and levelling up opportunity across the country”.

He said the uplift in teaching grant funding for some high-cost courses was a step in the right direction.

“We hope this move to increase investment will now be echoed across the devolved nations. However, it is disappointing the uplift comes at the cost of London weighting. This loss will have a significant negative impact on world-class higher education in the city, where costs are not only higher but where many areas are just as disadvantaged as those the government wants to help elsewhere with its levelling-up agenda.”

The TEF’s metrics were already an extremely poor proxy for quality but will be of even less use in light of the impact of Covid on employment and student feedback
– Dr Jo Grady, UCU 

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) said the announcement meant the tuition fee cap of £9,250 would continue for another year – which would have ramifications for institutional finances. The Augar review proposed lowering the cap to £7,500 – an option that is still on the table ahead of the comprehensive spending review, Hewitt noted.

“Perhaps it would also seem unpalatable to propose a cut to fees, which seems to be still on the table, while many students are calling for fee refunds after a tumultuous year,” she reflected.

Ms Green did welcome the news the government is to shelve plans for a subject-level teaching excellence framework. General secretary of the University and College Union Dr Jo Grady, however, said she was “disappointed that the government is pushing ahead with the TEF” at all.

“The TEF’s metrics were already an extremely poor proxy for quality but will be of even less use in light of the impact of Covid on employment and student feedback.

“We have consistently called for the TEF to be scrapped, but the need to do so is more urgent than ever given the current pandemic. Many staff are already facing burnout and heightened stress and don’t need more pointless box-ticking bureaucracy.”

Ross Renton – who was recently announced as the principal of the soon-to-open ARU Peterboroughtweeted he was “concerned about the possibility of student funding being linked to entry requirements – effectively a national minimum entry requirement. This has the prospect of being a cap on aspiration and potential. Higher Education should be open to all who have the potential to succeed”.

Renton urged ministers: “Speak to graduates who have experience of entering higher education from a range of backgrounds. They will hear about the transformational impact on the graduate, their family and community. Entry based on potential.”

Prof Julie Sanders, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle, tweeted: “A challenging day in many respects. Feels so hard sometimes to find the energy to mobilise (again) to make the case why Universities are amazing & important, how colleagues are trying to do brilliant things in complex circumstances, why arts & humanities matter.”

Read more: Williamson announces HE and FE shake-up

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