In need of a stronger some­thing

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Andy West­wood is pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment prac­tice at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester and a for­mer spe­cial ad­viser.

With the con­sul­ta­tion pe­riod for the re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion and fund­ing in Eng­land hav­ing closed ear­lier this month, the se­ri­ous work now be­gins for Philip Au­gar and his ad­vi­sory panel col­leagues. A pro­gramme of con­sul­ta­tion ses­sions and vis­its is un­der way and Au­gar, a for­mer City fi­nancier, prom­ises trans­parency and re­cep­tive­ness dur­ing what is a rel­a­tively short process; he ex­pects to be largely fin­ished by Novem­ber.

Theresa May will be pleased that the re­view has got off the ground at all. It might have al­ready been con­cluded if not for sev­eral months of ob­struc­tion after the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion – which ul­ti­mately led to min­is­te­rial sack­ings.

For the prime min­is­ter, the big­gest is­sues have al­ways been a mix of brute pol­i­tics and pol­icy. As Katie Per­rior, her for­mer di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, said re­cently, there is no point hav­ing a re­view if it only of­fers stu­dents some­thing dis­ap­point­ingly “measly”. May and the No 10 press machine have cer­tainly stoked ex­pec­ta­tions, so it is un­likely that clever tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions will be enough.

Jeremy Cor­byn’s “youthquake” might not have been the story of the gen­eral elec­tion after all, but May will have more than just the young in her sights. She will want the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem to feel fairer to par­ents and grand­par­ents, too: less ob­vi­ously based on ques­tion­able grad­u­ate out­comes and high lev­els of bor­row­ing. She will also want to avoid fur­ther un­forced er­rors, such as the au­to­matic rise in in­ter­est on re­pay­ments, based on the re­tail price in­dex. This took the rate to what

The Times called the “eye-wa­ter­ingly high” fig­ure of 6.3 per cent in April.

As Au­gar ven­tured out on to the con­fer­ence cir­cuit, he re­minded us that his re­view is not just about uni­ver­sity fees. There is “room to im­prove co­her­ence” across the whole of ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. It would take a lot of think­ing to con­struct any­thing re­sem­bling a sys­tem, but while this is long over­due, it would be un­likely to fully meet ei­ther pop­u­lar or po­lit­i­cal ex­pec­ta­tions. Such sen­si­ble re­forms will have to take a back seat to the pol­i­tics.

And the po­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tives keep stack­ing up. The first is the sim­plest and also the most vague: the sense that “some­thing needs to be done”. But no one quite knows what. The sec­ond is to de­fine and achieve a sense of value for money across the sec­tor, par­tic­u­larly in higher ed­u­ca­tion. This has been a pri­or­ity for suc­ces­sive min­is­ters, con­sciously driv­ing stu­dent “con­sumers” to de­mand to know where their “money” goes. Hav­ing set this hare run­ning, it is go­ing to be tough to stop it – es­pe­cially when the ma­jor­ity of un­der­grad­u­ates are “pay­ing” higher fees than their cour­ses cost to de­liver. In that con­text, it may never be pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile cur­rent fee lev­els with a nar­row trans­ac­tional def­i­ni­tion of what stu­dents get for their money.

The re­cent cam­paigns in the pop­u­lar press to “save” the Open Uni­ver­sity make do­ing so a third chal­lenge that the re­view must tackle. But while the cam­paigns are a rare but wel­come fo­cus on the sorry plight of part-time learn­ers after re­cent fee re­forms, mak­ing sen­si­ble rec­om­men­da­tions won’t be easy. The re­view team must first de­cide whether the for­mer uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter and ar­chi­tect of the 2012 fees re­forms, David Wil­letts, is right that this and other as­pects of the sys­tem can be fixed while leav­ing its main fea­tures largely in­tact. The al­ter­na­tive view is that it is the mar­ket for young, full-time un­der­grad­u­ates pay­ing high fees that is the pri­mary cause of de­cline and low par­tic­i­pa­tion else­where.

It is worth bear­ing in mind that nei­ther the Rob­bins nor the Dear­ing nor the Browne re­ports were fully ac­cepted by gov­ern­ment. The big-pic­ture pol­i­tics will still come down to the politi­cians – and this must in­clude chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond.

The panel is re­quired to make rec­om­men­da­tions “con­sis­tent with the gov­ern­ment’s fis­cal pri­or­i­ties to re­duce the deficit”. How­ever, as aptly demon­strated by the re­cent rais­ing of the salary thresh­old for stu­dent loan re­pay­ment to £25,000, if Au­gar and his min­is­te­rial mas­ters are able to de­liver po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tions as well as tech­ni­cal pol­icy de­tail, then money will be found.

If they fail, “measly” rec­om­men­da­tions will also come with sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal costs. Theresa May pays ei­ther way.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.