Go back

Interview: Reviewing the review

Image: Fiona McIntyre for Research Professional News

Philip Augar discusses his sector-shaping assessment of post-18 education and the government’s eventual response

In May 2019, Gavin Williamson was skulking on the back benches after being sacked as defence secretary. MPs were preparing to vote for a fourth tortuous time on the Brexit withdrawal bill. No one had heard of Covid-19.

Against this backdrop came the publication of the Augar review into post-18 education, commissioned by Theresa May—who had only two months left as prime minister before her defenestration from Downing Street. The review’s author, Philip Augar, set out a swathe of recommendations that, if enacted, would change universities forever.

It seemed like a pivotal moment, and people across the sector braced for the wave of change that the government’s response would unleash. And they waited. And waited. And waited. For nearly three years.

By the time the full government response was published in February this year, Williamson had come and gone as education secretary; the UK had left the European Union; and the country was reeling from a pandemic.

Given it took so long for ministers to get to this point, the man whose name is synonymous with the review would be forgiven for venting some frustration.

Instead, Philip Augar is animated by the possibilities opened up by this much-delayed response, even though it ignores several of his key recommendations. “This could be a game-changer for the economy, for society, for this country’s competitiveness,” he tells Research Fortnight in his first sit-down interview since the government’s response was published. “There is the potential for a properly coordinated, coherent approach to tertiary education that will deliver for students, taxpayers, employers—the whole economy—and do a great deal to remove social unfairness in this country.”

Higher ambition

It’s a bold claim, but as chair of the panel that created the report, Augar has a right to make it.

The former banker and his panel of five others were tasked with looking at post-18 education, both further and higher, in 2018. What they found was a system that pumped money into higher education while underfunding further education, contributing to the UK’s skills shortage and short-changing many graduates who could have earned more money by getting a cheaper vocational qualification. Their solution was radical.

The panel warned that the fact the government left funding for education largely undirected had “led to an over-supply of some courses at great cost to the taxpayer”. More cash should be put towards high-cost and “high-value” subjects, such as science and engineering disciplines, they said.

This attracted criticism from those who argue other subjects like arts disciplines are also vitally important for the country. But Augar stands by the panel’s view, which aligns with a suite of changes made by the government since his report came out even ahead of the formal response. These include Williamson ordering a cut to the London weighting that saw universities in the capital given extra funding, and more money given to high-cost teaching such as Stem subjects at the expense of other disciplines.

Those changes and the eventual response to Augar’s review mean the university sector may come to look very different in terms of what is studied at universities, and consequently which staff are employed.

Fee cut, cut

Perhaps the most eye-catching recommendation in Augar’s report was the suggestion that tuition fees should be cut from £9,250 to £7,500. Despite various leaks to the press suggesting the government would cut fees, in the end nothing changed.

But Augar had already distanced himself from this proposal. Even now he stresses the suggestion was “not about a cut to the unit of resource”—the overall income that universities receive per student from fees and government funding. His suggestion was to cut the fee but that the government should make up the difference by increasing its side of the equation. Even before the government ruled out a cut, Augar was reconsidering.

In May 2020, he wrote an article in the Financial Times newspaper arguing that disruption from Covid-19 “may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising”.

“I certainly felt that when the pandemic started, we just needed to…stand back and see how this would play out,” he says.

So, the sector’s worst fear—that the government would cut fees and not increase funding for teaching—has not come to pass. For students, though, not only has a mooted cut to fees they pay evaporated, but recent changes mean they will pay back even more on their loans.

Squeezing students

Changes made as part of the government’s Augar-response-reforms will see the salary threshold at which graduates repay loans cut from around £27,000 to £25,000. They also extend the period that graduates must repay their loans before the balance owed is written off from 30 to 40 years.

According to an analysis published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in March, the government’s plan to cut will hit lower earners and women hardest.

Augar generally backs these changes, some of which his team suggested, and he stresses that change was needed. “The problem is that someone has to pay for this, someone has to pay for higher education,” he says. “It’s either the student or the general taxpayer.”

In any case, the fiscal landscape is changing so rapidly that today’s estimates may be wildly off when tomorrow comes. “We’re in a period of such great wage inflation that this modelling could look quite different,” he says.

But wage inflation would come later down the line—first, students and recent graduates will have to navigate their way through a cost-of-living crisis in which soaring prices are expected to far outstrip wage increases.

For those students still at university, the problems are likely to be compounded by the fact that the government did not accept one of the review panel’s key recommendations—to reintroduce a maintenance grant so the poorest students get support for living costs they do not have to repay. Instead, Boris Johnson’s government has suggested a £75 million national scholarship scheme for high-achieving disadvantaged students.

Augar likes to consider his responses. He takes more than a minute before he begins formulating an answer as to whether this was the right thing to do. When he does speak, his response is diplomatic: “The government’s chosen a different way of supporting the disadvantaged. We’ll see if it works.”

He adds, “If it doesn’t work, I’d like to see the maintenance grant proposal come back onto the table as soon as public finances allow.”

Lifelong learning

There is another, often overlooked, part of the government’s planned changes that could shape the sector even more than changes to teaching funding and freezing fees: the proposed Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

Under the LLE, which the government is consulting on now, adults would be entitled to a four-year loan to use on full degrees, modules of degrees or short courses over their lives so they can retrain while working.

For Augar, the LLE could be “an absolute game-changer”. While moving away to university at 18 would remain the “popular, principle choice”, the stop-and-start nature of the LLE means it would be “particularly helpful for returning mothers” and for “second chances, people who don’t excel at school” but who develop an academic interest later in life.

Part of the attraction of the LLE as it stands is the ability to transfer modules between institutions. For the LLE to be successful, “both parts of the sector, higher and further education, lead to a need to rise to the challenge”, says Augar.

They don’t have much time. Students will be able to draw on the LLE from 2025, meaning they will start applying in 2024. Brochures and websites will be prepared in 2023. “That’s next year, and we’re now in April. This is quite quick,” he says. “I would have thought the next six months are vital.”

After waiting years for a response that felt like it would never come, universities now have to navigate a rapidly changing landscape.

As for Augar, he has not been idly waiting on the government’s full response to his report. In a challenge of a different sort, he used the time to collaborate with documentary-maker Keely Winstone on a book detailing the life of John Stonehouse, a Labour MP and minister who tried to fake his own death before being jailed for corruption and later exposed as a Communist spy.

Perhaps the readers’ verdicts will arrive in under three years, this time.  

Student support

One area of higher education coming under more scrutiny in recent years is access and participation, and how much support disadvantaged students receive once at university. Graduate outcomes are often used as one way to judge this.

Augar says that support is “brilliant” at some institutions, while “at others it isn’t”. He feels that “the sector needs to look at best practice—what works in comparable institutions, and what could we be doing better”?  

“Higher education institutions are very proud,” he adds. “But best practice, learning from the very best competitors, can be a powerful improvement tool.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight