Thoughts on the Augar Review

Thursday 30 May 2019

Some thoughts on the Augar review of HE and FE funding, published today. It’s being billed as a much-needed ‘rebalancing’ of funding away from HE towards FE. But despite one or two positive changes compared with the system we have at present, like the reintroduction of maintenance grants, I’m not convinced by many of its key recommendations.

The first thing to say is that although it presents itself as ‘independent’, this is a Tory review. It was led by an investment banker who was told that abolishing HE tuition fees wasn’t an option. It doesn’t advocate for increased direct public investment in education. Until we start resourcing education properly, we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: introducing tweaks to our metrics and creating new perverse incentives that distract us from what our students might want or need.

For FE, Augar advises streamlining of colleges via mergers and other forms of consolidation: we supposedly need fewer colleges competing with each other in any given area. Given how much trouble and volatility college mergers have already been causing, this seems like a dangerous idea. I can see it leading to further shifts in favour of private ownership.

It also advocates redistribution of funds from HE to FE. There are fine words about the problems you get when FE staff aren’t paid as much as secondary school teachers, but the concrete recommendations really concentrate on capital expenditure, not staff expenditure. FE could end up with more expensive but impractical buildings, and no easing up on punishing workloads and real-terms pay cuts for our staff.

On a broader political level, the review seems to want to drive us down an even narrower path of ’employability’ and vocational/technical training. I’ve always got the impression that this government does not want working-class people to study potentially liberating subjects, especially in creative arts, humanities, and social sciences. There’s nothing to change my mind in what I’ve seen so far. The thrust of the review seems to be an even stronger reorientation of education around what businesses want, rather than the interests and capabilities of students.

And how is any limited redistribution from HE to FE going to be paid for? By changes to HE tuition fees which will be socio-economically regressive, even compared with the system we have at present. Overall, graduates are likely to pay more, the government less. Some people have been fooled by the proposed cut in headline fees from over £9k to £7.5k, but the terms of repayment will be longer and harsher, which will disproportionately hurt graduates who earn less over the course of their careers. And let’s not forget, graduate earnings are still more closely tied to class background than they are to tertiary qualifications.

Meanwhile, this Tory government looks like it will only protect higher funding for subjects it deems to be of value to businesses. Employability should never be our main reference point when we think about what we want from education, but even so, there’s little evidence that employers actually want what Augar is proposing.

In my speech to Congress as incoming GS on Saturday, I said the Augar review was likely to be ‘mixed at best for FE, potentially disastrous for HE’. So far, I’ve seen nothing that changes my mind – and plenty of reasons to think I was too optimistic. We can’t trust the Tories to get this review right any more than we could trust them to negotiate a Brexit deal. Like Brexit, austerity, and many other things, this is a ham-fisted Tory solution to problems the Tories themselves are responsible for. In any case, with the Prime Minister about to leave, the government in disarray, and the larger post-18 education spending review yet to be completed, we have no idea how many of Augar’s prescriptions, if any, will actually be implemented.

What does this mean for UCU, especially for members in the FE sector? As I said in my manifesto, there are no shortcuts: we can’t get distracted from the task of organising and building power while we wait for any government, especially this one, to rescue us with better policies. The Augar review might present staff with an opportunity, if colleges do end up receiving a slight funding boost, to stand up and remind the government and their managers that they, not construction companies, need to be the first beneficiaries of redistribution. At the same time, we need governance reforms that help us claw back some control from managers who have shown they can’t be trusted to spend any increased funding in the right areas. And whatever bureaucratic measures are taken to streamline the allocation of funding, members in branches should be making their voices heard in order to ensure that those measures reduce their workload and make their working lives more stable. I look forward to leading UCU’s response as soon as I take up my post as General Secretary.