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Augar rows back on fee cut policy

Chair of the post-18 review in U-turn over support for tuition fee fall to £7,500

Philip Augar, chair of the independent review into post-18 education, has rejected his own recommendation to lower tuition fees to £7,500 as it would be “destabilising” during the pandemic.

Writing in the Financial Times on 8 May, Augar—whose panel published its recommendations on 30 May last year, but has not yet received a response from the government—said that while the funding system for universities had led to an “oversupply” in graduates from some subjects, cutting tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 would be too much for universities already struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Covid-19-related disruption may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising,” said Augar. Instead, he suggested tuition fees should be frozen for five years and the government should “ramp up the teaching grant” for strategic subjects, such as science and engineering subjects.

In his review, Augar recommended that tuition fees should fall from £9,250 to £7,500 from 2021-22, with more government funding to make up the difference. But the Office for Students has confirmed that the teaching grant for next year will fall, including funding for high-cost subjects.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, wrote in research Professional News that although he welcomed Augar’s “second thoughts” on lowering fees, his “volte-face” was “oddly timed because, in some respects, the chances of the Augar report’s main proposal being implemented have improved in recent months”.

Hillman cited the fact that a member of Augar’s panel, Alison Wolf, is now advising the government, while former Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook has called for a 20 per cent fee cut. “The high fees that Augar previously opposed have not only allowed more school leavers to make it to higher education but have also relieved pressure on other parts of the education budget,” Hillman added.

Elsewhere, Augar said the importance of research in the UK “has been underlined during this crisis” and should not be funded “partly via the back door” through a cross-subsidy from tuition fees. He also stressed that further education “has slipped under the radar” and that reversing the decline in funding would “be a viable alternative to degrees”.

Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, said Augar’s comments on keeping current fee levels were “an indication of how serious the challenges that face universities really are and, like most vice chancellors, I welcome his recognition that a disruptive fee reduction would be highly damaging at the moment”.

Graeme Atherton, director of the widening participation charity Neon, agreed with Augar that it “is logical not to look to cut fees now” as there has been a “reluctance of the government to provide significant amounts of funding” to help universities through the crisis.

“As welcome as reduction in the up-front cost may be, unless higher education can provide the educational service it is required to, the outcome would be students investing in something that may not meet their needs,” Atherton said, adding that any changes to funding would need to “take a rounded, holistic view of what value means where higher education courses are concerned”.