The Art of Augar: Hitting the Right Notes or a Little Off Key?

On Thursday 30th May 2019, the long-anticipated review of post-18 education and funding was launched. Never before has a government review been so quickly and thoroughly dissected, discussed and analysed, but the implications of the review will take longer to realise. In this blog post, Helen Watson, Registrar and Secretary at Goldsmiths, University of London, shares her initial thoughts.  

On the whole, the early sense I get reading reactions to the long-awaited publication of Philip Augar’s Review of Post 18 Education and Funding is that of a sectoral sigh of relief. Perhaps partly because the wait is finally over, and may be because the measured and thoughtful tone of the review inspires confidence after months of increasingly negative Ministerial comment designed to play to headlines and prejudices in the populist press.

It is perhaps symptomatic of the beleaguered place we find ourselves that it feels quite pleasing to see it acknowledged early on that a purpose of tertiary education is to “contribute scholarship and debate that sustain and enrich society through knowledge, ideas, culture and creativity”.

Later sections highlight the HE sector’s outstanding reputation for research, note the economic (while sadly, ignoring the cultural) benefits of international student recruitment, and praise the civic contribution many universities make, as “torch carriers for their community’s economic, cultural, social and environmental development”.

But despite these cheering elements, much of the 200-odd pages of text cleave to an understanding of post-18 education which is in a more familiar vein. Somewhat instrumental in its focus on individual and societal economic benefit, and a bit depressing for those who love and care about post-compulsory education as so much more than an engine for economic growth.

At the centre of the recommendations concerning higher education is the drop in fee to £7,500, with the consequent shortfall in funding replaced through teaching grant. But it is the ‘average’ unit of resource across the sector which should be preserved.

The call for teaching grant to reflect more closely not only cost of delivery (in effect a review of the old HEFCE price groups) but also “social and economic value” as interpreted by the government will inevitably mean a shift of funding away from institutions which concentrate on non-STEM provision.

The further recommendation that specialist institutions particularly affected should be supported through targeted additional funds (presumably a sort of expanded specialist institutional premium) is no comfort for those likely to sit somewhere in between.

There’s a double-whammy in there for universities offering significant numbers of courses where the economic rate of return is not directly quantifiable. The proposals to extend the repayment period and to lower the contribution threshold will squeeze medium earning graduates. Lower fees will benefit higher earning graduates, who will pay loans off sooner.

I’m not sure I fully buy the argument that students don’t understand the finance model. Patronising, it is not borne out by my experience of listening to students. And if it were the case, there would be little point in tweaking the structures of student financing to influence behaviours. So, institutions which offer a mix of subjects which do not meet short-term government priorities could face both a squeeze in the unit of resource, and an uphill battle in recruitment as students facing an uncertain financial future take the option with the most obvious rate of financial return.

I find this sad because, while much of the debate focusses on individual benefit, many individuals will lose out by not following their passions or nurturing their true talents. Or by taking a path which may seem beneficial in the short term but will prepare them only superficially for sustaining themselves through perhaps up to 50 or more years of work. Various thought pieces have pointed out this career is likely to include several career shifts, portfolio working or periods of unemployment for a growing proportion of the population.

I studied music at university. I could claim that three years of studying harmony and counterpoint through in-depth analysis of the works of Bach and Palestrina prepared me well for the intricate beauty of a HESA student return. Or dealing with the weightiness of a Handel Oratorio is good preparation for a decent set of Council papers.

But, really, the value to me of a music degree is the rich inner resource it has given me, a well-being from being enabled to study a subject in depth for three years about which I care, with possibly some transferable analytical skills. From that individual benefit, societal and cultural benefit flows.

I meet other music graduates taking part in volunteering activities such as organising local music festivals, singing in choirs, or playing in local orchestras. Since I appreciate the intellectual joys music can deliver, I provide economic benefit to peripatetic music teachers who have the dubious joy of teaching my children; I buy tickets to concerts. All possible without a music degree, of course, but none of those possibilities would exist if the study of music died out.

And while, after an early dog-leg away from music, my personal career journey has been pretty pedestrian, for students who will be graduating over the next few decades, their future career trajectory will be a great deal less predictable. As NESTA and the Creative Industries Federation have pointed out, with artificial intelligence taking over routine tasks, greatest opportunities will exist for those who can combine creative, social and technical skills. We are preparing our graduates for a future which would be unrecognisable today.

Even taken as an integrated package, it is hard to see that Augar’s 50 plus recommendations meet that goal. And if they are cherry-picked by the government of the day, as we saw with Browne, the results could be unpredictable and damaging, not just economically, but to the cultural richness of our society.