BY NICK HILLMAN, DIRECTOR OF THE HIGHER EDUCATION POLICY INSTITUTE (HEPI)
Will increased demand for sub-degree level qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 as envisaged by the Augar Review actually materialise?
Many influential people rushed to condemn the Augar report, in some instances seemingly before they had even read it.
At the Higher Education Policy Institute, we didn’t. On the day the Augar report appeared, I said on the radio that it felt like Christmas Day. To a higher education policy wonk, over 200 pages of tightly-argued and long-awaited text on how to reform higher education seems like a rare but exciting gift.
For three reasons, we continued to feel positive after we had worked our way through the report properly. First, we compared what the final report had to say against our original written evidence to the Augar panel. Then, we asked if the report worked as a coherent package. Finally, we considered whether the report addressed the concerns of the many people who want to smooth off the rougher edges of the marketisation of higher education.
The report seems, to us, to pass all three tests. Consider the issue of student maintenance grants, for example. I strongly opposed the abolition of maintenance grants when it was announced back in 2015. It is wrong that the poorest university entrants should emerge with the biggest debts, so the report’s call to bring grants back was especially welcome.
For these sorts of reasons, plus because we thought the Augar report was a reason to open up rather than close down debate, we gave the panel’s conclusions a warm, if cautious, welcome. That does not mean we welcome every element of the report – the recommendation to stop funding foundation years seems a particular mistake. Nor does it mean we would have written the same report. But our positive approach reflects our view that policymakers should recognise the Augar report is a serious contribution to policy development and deeply engage with its recommendations.
However, in this blog, I want to dwell on one odd feature of the Augar panel’s analysis. The paper starts with the well-known but important fact that English employers are crying out for more people with technical sub-degree qualifications. In the jargon, this means having more people whose highest qualification is Level 4 or Level 5. As the chart below from the Augar report helps to explain, relatively few adults have a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification as their highest award.
But, if there is a mismatch at Levels 4 and 5, there are two ways to crack the problem. First, encourage people who would otherwise do full honours degrees (Level 6) to downgrade. Secondly, encourage more people whose education would otherwise have ended at Levels 2 or 3 to upgrade.
Much of the Augar report supports the former option. I think that is wrong. First, graduates continue to fare well in the British labour market and, while not every course is brilliant, there is no evidence of a major oversupply of graduate-level skills. Secondly, it is distinctly odd for a report written by educationalists, who presumably believe in the transformative power of education, to argue for less education. Thirdly, education policymakers do not always pay sufficient heed to wider social changes. One huge thing that we have not always fully recognised in higher education is increases in life expectancy – people can spend longer in education without it making up a higher proportion of their total lifespan.
One final related oddity about the Augar report is that, while it envisages a higher proportion of people ending with Levels 4 and 5 education and a lower proportion taking Level 6 qualifications, the package of reforms that it includes does little to change the relative attractiveness of these two routes. Yes, the Augar panel recommended the extension of maintenance support to more courses below full honours degrees and included warm words about a better sub-degree offer. But it also proposed many changes that could make Level 6 (full honours degrees) more attractive too, such as lower tuition fees, the reintroduction of maintenance grants and an end to the application of a real rate of interest on student loans during the period of study.
I am sceptical that more people will choose to reject a degree in favour of sub-degree provision unless and until more middle-class parents are as keen for their offspring to enrol on Level 4 and Level 5 courses as they are to see them graduate. Despite all its strengths, it is doubtful that the Augar report includes enough to ensure that happens.
Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, an Oxford-based think tank (www.hepi.ac.uk).