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.

What are you going to do about Brexit?

I’ve got this question from more than one member, unsurprisingly, including after my first all-member email went out on Monday. Here’s how I’ve been replying:

First of all, I voted Remain, and I prefer Remain to any of the alternatives that would be on the ballot if this Parliament could schedule another referendum. I’ve also criticised UCU for waiting two years to schedule a member consultation on Brexit (in September 2018) without organising any larger campaign on the issue. The lack of a concerted campaign probably explains why only 25% of UCU members voted in that consultation. And since the consultation, we’ve not really seen UCU do anything to enact the will of the membersa press quote here, an announcement there, but nothing concrete. I wrote a blog about this for Times Higher Education which I’d invite you to have a look at if you’ve got a spare couple of minutes: it’s been republished on my campaign website and you can read it here. My manifesto also points out that we can’t trust either of the main political parties, including Labour, ‘to do the right thing on the issues that matter to us, like immigration and border controls, Brexit, or direct funding of education and research’.

In the absence of sympathetic parliamentary forces, the key thing to do is negotiate with employers to protect our EU staff and students as much as we can. For example, I plan to demand that employers pay any costs that fall on EU (as well as non-EU) staff relating to their immigration status if we end up with a Brexit deal that ends freedom of movement. At present, UCU is letting its international members down by failing to demand things like this in its annual negotiations with employers, as my manifesto points out. I’ve also made a statement on the government’s proposals to end home fee reciprocity for EU students after Brexit, which was quoted in The Guardian: click here to have a read.

Some other members have asked me about the prospect of UCU formally affiliating itself with the Labour Party, the way some other trade unions do, partly in order to have an influence on its Brexit policy. My take (which I’ve already offered on Twitter) is that although I’m a Labour member, I would require convincing by our membership on this issue. UCU is small compared with the main affiliated unions and it’s hard to see how much influence we would have in the policy areas that matter most to usand that includes immigration and Brexit.


New blog on UCU and FE in Times Education Supplement

On Wednesday 24 April, I published a new blog in Times Education Supplement.

‘The union has been letting FE branches down’

UCU needs to grow its FE membership, general secretary candidate Jo Grady believes

Low pay in further education is probably the single most urgent issue currently facing UCU. Nobody can ignore what years of Tory austerity, combined with rapacious managers, have done to the sector. Without a meaningful national bargaining framework, branches have been forced to act locally.

The low turnout among FE members in recent elections to UCU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) indicates a collapse of confidence in the union’s ability to fight for FE on a national level. This makes the local action which many FE branches are taking against their employers all the more impressive.

Read the rest of this blog over at Times Education Supplement!

FE fights back!

This week I dusted off my whisking bowl and whipped up some macaroons to take to Bradford College UCU branch picket line. Because, after babies and pooches, baked goods are a staple of any picket. Taking food to a picket line is important, because solidarity is nourishment, and nourishment is needed if we are to sustain each other. Colleagues on strike deserve our support and sustenance, especially comrades at Bradford College, who were on strike for the third time since November!

Today was Day 3 of their industrial action, and the picket was full of staff galvanized in their fight for fair pay. The College had been successfully closed down by the strike, and given HR’s office overlooked our picket, we did our best to be as noisy as possible. Bradford College UCU is a strong, solid, mobilised branch, and that was evident at their picket line today.

Many I spoke to highlighted that their workloads had increased significantly—classrooms that used to have 8 students, are now classrooms of 23. Worse still, intensification of workloads sat alongside a reduction in their real-term pay—which on average is 25% less than it was in 2009, and is approximately £10,000 less than school teachers. Low pay in Further Education is compounded by high rates of casualisation (it is estimated that 30% of teaching staff in FE are on casualised contracts). Casualisation has consequences. I know from my own research that precarity has a detrimental impact on workers; precarity reduces job security, denies staff pay during the holidays, increasing stress and anxiety. This ultimately makes staff even more amenable to low pay.

It is against this backdrop that Bradford College UCU, along with other striking FE branches, have taken action this week. While their pay has been slashed, the pay of senior management has sky-rocketed, and expenditure on vanity building projects has increased. The picket today was in front of a “shiny new building” that, along with other campus refurbishments has cost millions of pounds. All the while wages and conditions of Bradford College staff have suffered. An ex-student on the picket line described the chaos that the new building created to timetabling, which resulted in students being shifted week-to-week to different classrooms. Leading me to ask, who are these building actually for?

Bradford College UCU have tried to talk to their senior management. As though delivering an early joke, Bradford College said they would be unable to meet before 1 April. The joke, however, is on them. The ballot result and activism at Bradford College means this issue is not going away. The wave of recent strikes in FE demonstrate that resistance in the sector is strong, and is growing.

While we were picketing today news reached us that Bridgwater and Taunton College had reached a deal with their management. This follows a positive resolution at New Swindon College, and suspended action at City of Wolverhampton College, Petroc, and Bath College. But Bradford College management have favoured intransigence and obfuscation over dialogue, a decision I believe they will ultimately regret.

The strong local activism demonstrated this week is impressive, but activists are in an even stronger position when they are supported by national bargaining machinery. Something which ideally would be meaningfully re-established in FE, and prevent the further decline of the value of pay for all staff across the sector.

Today’s picket was the final strike day of the week. We attracted attention and support from passers-by, and our speeches reflected on the legacy of funding cuts, the anti-working class agenda of this government’s FE and adult education policies, and the need to stand together for decent pay, secure jobs, and the future of education.

I want to close by sending solidarity to all the FE colleges on strike (Bradford, Croydon, Harlow, South Bank, and West Thames).

You can extend Bradford College UCU your support by donating to their hardship fund.

Dr Jo Grady
University of Sheffield UCU and UCU General Secretary Candidate 2019