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Lift, don’t limit

Chris Millward argues that the government’s response to Augar favours the stick over the carrot

The government response to the independent Augar review of post-18 education and funding is finally here, four years after the review was commissioned by Theresa May and nearly three years after it reported to her government. Policy decisions have understandably been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but also by the uneasy coalition of interests and objectives within government since the 2019 election.

At the beginning of February, the government published a sophisticated diagnosis of the causes of inequality between people and places across England, with higher education at the heart of it. Analysis within the Levelling Up white paper suggests that the gap in wages between the most and least prosperous parts of the country is due to differences in the proportion of graduates.

Places with higher rates of access to higher education not only improve the knowledge and skills of the people who live there but also offer more highly skilled jobs and attract more graduates. If we want to level up opportunities, we need to replicate this virtuous circle in other places and spread the benefits it offers.

This sits uncomfortably with the consultation the government launched this week on not only capping higher education participation but also applying this cap using a threshold based on school grades. This measure will have the greatest impact on people who live in places where there are the lowest levels of educational attainment, rates of access to higher education and graduates within the workforce.

So the government is telling us that we need to level up opportunities across the country and that the way to do this is to develop and attract graduates who will create a high-skills equilibrium in more parts of the country, but it is going to restrict access to higher education for people who are most likely to live in places where there is the opposite.

Legitimate criticisms

Before spending too long pondering the reasoning for this, it is worth pausing to consider some legitimate criticisms of increasing higher education participation, or at least the approach we have taken to it in England across the past decade, through which student choice and competition have determined the pattern of provision.

Expansion has been accompanied by stratification, with increasing school attainment gaps continuing to determine whether and where people enter higher education. Opportunities to counter this later in life have diminished, with mature students most deterred by upfront costs and debt and by the absence of public funding for low-intensity studies.

Financial incentives encourage universities to pursue a secure and growing flow of young, full-time, full-degree students, which aligns more closely with priorities such as international recruitment and campus services than with the needs of employers. Those incentives also encourage universities to expand low-cost, full-degree provision more than the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) disciplines, as well as shorter courses, that employers say they particularly value.

Increasing competition means that collaboration and progression between further education colleges and universities has become harder, yielding a two-tier system. The disparity in resources between the two sectors is self-perpetuating, as in any competitive system, and it is compounded by the relative clarity and comprehension of their different admissions and student finance systems, educational pathways and qualifications.

The relative cost of each student in further and higher education has also been affected by the Office for National Statistics’ decision to change the reporting of student finance within the public accounts, which has been an important imperative for change.

Rebalancing routes

Much of this analysis featured in the Augar review and underpins its case for rebalancing the routes taken through post-compulsory education. The review also carefully considered the case for capping higher education entry, albeit through a contextualised measure reflecting the distance travelled by students from different backgrounds, rather than the bald measures on which the government is consulting.

The review recommended, though, that steps should be taken to change the offer in further and higher education first, which would sustain choice for students rather than penalising them. It proposed strengthening staffing, the estate and course provision in further education, improving the regulation of apprenticeships, and rebalancing the private and public incentives shaping higher education through tuition fees and the strategic priorities grant.

The government has made commitments to increase investment in further education, as well as in the Stem and intermediate-level courses it identifies as public priorities in higher education. It is also improving the regulation of apprenticeships. Most significantly, it is aiming to introduce a lifelong learning entitlement, which would provide public funding for shorter-cycle learning across further and higher education throughout a person’s life.

Two-tier system

The proposal to cap entry to higher education suggests, though, that the government does not have sufficient confidence that the scale and attractiveness of these measures will be enough for students, families and employers to choose them. Indeed, the cap will serve to reduce their attractiveness because they will be seen to be routes for students with no choice because they have achieved lower grades in school.

This will perpetuate the two-tier system identified in the Augar review, while strengthening segregation within the education system and reducing the flow of knowledge and skills that the government prescribed for the least prosperous parts of the country only three weeks ago.

More families throughout the world are keen for their children to go to university, many of them in this country. Governments in England and other countries have supported the expansion of higher education because they recognised and wanted to support this ambition.

Expansion often leads to stratification and concerns about alignment between the supply of graduates and the needs of the labour market. This does not, though, appear to diminish demand, so capping higher education will ultimately prove unpopular and unsustainable.

We need, then, to grow the carrot before we deploy the stick: to improve the different pathways through post-18 education, rather than cutting off the least prosperous communities across the country from the most popular route.

Chris Millward is professor of practice in education policy at the University of Birmingham and former director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students.