Does Augar present ‘evidence-based policy’, or ‘policy-based evidence’?

04 Oct 2019

As someone with experience with independent reviews of higher education, I understand the energy and effort that panel members and officials put into such exercises. MillionPlus as a mission group inputted constructively into the Augar review process, submitting three tranches of written evidence. MillionPlus welcomed the report’s recommendations on enabling more flexible study and the proposed return to maintenance grants. Indeed, MillionPlus is unique as a mission group in that our membership spans the HE and FE sectors, our universities are closely connected to the college sector to the extent that no fewer than 13 FE colleges are part of their university structures in England and Scotland. These structures are living, breathing evidence that clear synergies and a sensible division of labour between FE and HE is possible.

The report itself is a very particular take on post-18 education. Perhaps this was inevitable given that it is the only government-commissioned review in England to ever have looked at post-18 provision at all levels and contexts – contrary to the report’s claim on page 5 that the Robbins Review had an equally broad scope. Our agreement with some key recommendations does not prevent us from being a candid friend concerning flaws in the report, most obviously the way it seeks to contrastingly present higher education and further education. Others have rightly addressed the distorted understanding of university finances in the report, points I won’t rehearse here.

The framing of the report: ‘care and neglect’

From the outset of the report there is a binary contrast in the term of ‘care and neglect’ for the universities and colleges respectively (p.5), reflecting the highly challenging time faced by the FE sector since the austerity period. Yet as I have noted elsewhere, the post-2012 period has certainly not been a ‘golden age’ for a significant part of the HE sector, mainly modern universities, which has faced the negative impact of changes to government policy in a range of different areas from initial teacher and nurse education to the effects of the rapid collapse in part-time HE study and tighter visa controls.

The report’s omission of this point and the wider context of the changes to investment in HE and FE during the last nine years is an example of a selective use of evidence reinforcing the ‘care and neglect’ narrative. Yet as Lord Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, set out in January, this narrative is flawed because the context of funding changes in 2012 beyond was not so clear cut:

A view [from Augar] seems to be forming that… universities have got too big and FE and colleges too small. For me, this is a completely specious trade-off. The enormous cut in FE funding…. was a consequence not of resources being transferred from FE to universities but of decisions made in the austerity period. The savings made in HE from shifting the burden to student loans arguably mitigated some of the potential impact of [FE] cuts. Universities have grown because more young people want to go to them.

Kerslake’s remarks call into question the HE/FE ‘trade-off’ that is central to the report. The back-to-back presentation of chapters in the Augar report on higher education and further education, without the context stated by Kerslake, seem designed to fuel an artificially contrasting view of the two sectors. Indeed, FE and HE are treated in the report as sectors fundamentally in the same area, generic ‘tertiary education’, without noting that it is the university sector specifically which is one of the UK’s leading export industries (with an £18bn annual export value) thus delivering jobs and wider benefits for communities and the national economy.

How the report’s framing drives the evidence presented

The care/neglect framing of report tends to drive the selection of the evidence presented in it. In the Higher Education chapter, five pages of text are spent examining the value of courses against earnings data for people in their twenties – a lagged data source with many issues and omissions that does not measure the full benefit of a degree. There is also a critique of shifting provision that has taken place in universities, trends that took place as a direct response to major funding changes introduced in 2012 outlined above. Other areas of political controversy, as varied as Vice-Chancellor pay and degree classification issues, are given airtime with a critical edge.

Yet in the FE section of the report a critique of existing provision by colleges is limited to a couple of sentences (p.125) and is attributed to the government’s funding regime, not to college management, in contrast to the way in which the panel finds fault in higher education. The increase in pay for FE college principals since 2010, despite their financial straits, is not even noted let alone critiqued in the report. Concerningly high drop-out rates for many FE courses do not feature at all in the FE section, yet non-continuation rates in HE are critiqued in some detail in the HE chapter.

The report also does not outline the rationale behind the lamented reduction in the adult education budget in the last nine years. I make no judgement here about the rights or wrongs of austerity, noting only that the report again takes decisions taken by government departments out of context by failing to connect the relevant facts to the rationale at the time. The size of the adult education budget was reduced in this period ostensibly because of the impact of the austerity programme on departmental budgets combined with two additional reasons, namely that:

The UK Government was already funding, at a rapidly rising rate, apprenticeships at the same levels of skills (Levels 2-3) and for largely the same group of people as DfE funds for classroom-based adult FE. One fact demonstrates this: apprenticeship starts in the five years to 2009-10 totalled just 1.1m but in the five years to 2015/16 the number of starts had more than doubled to 2.5m. The government believed that on-the-job training via apprenticeships would have advantages over classroom learning in FE. Funding was switched and colleges were encouraged to become apprenticeship providers as a response, which only some have managed successfully.
There was a substantially reduced cohort of potential adult learners to educate in FE, because the rapidly rising proportion of younger people leaving schools and colleges at 19 who had already achieved the requisite qualifications at level 2 and/or level 3. This left a smaller pool of 20-35 year olds requiring such programmes at college, as:

  • the proportion of 19-year olds attaining good level 3 qualifications increased from 42% in 2004 to over 60% by 2016, while;
  • those 19-year olds gaining good Level 2 qualifications (5 A-C GCSEs) increased from 66% in 2004 to 87% by 2016.

Though Augar cites similar data (p.23) the report does not link these data to austerity spending prioritisation forced on the Department for Education at the time. Indeed, the report surprisingly draws no connection at all between the drop in the adult education budget and the increase in investment in apprenticeships at any point in its 212 pages, despite having lengthy sections devoted to both FE and apprenticeships. As a purported piece of objective analysis this is obviously lacking, raising suspicions that the report was, in its own (telling) words on p.122, making “a case for change” rather than presenting the evidence neutrally, basing recommendations strictly on the evidence uncovered.

Augar’s selective presentation of international evidence

International evidence is cited in the report when this appears to support the recommendations made by the panel, such as with data cited on international funding comparisons and the relatively low take up of ‘standalone’ Level 4 and 5 qualifications, though misleadingly not Level 4 and 5 study taken in the round. Yet in its discussion of student retention issues the report omits to note that the proportion of UK students who progress to complete degrees is relatively high, certainly when compared to other European nations where we are viewed as an exemplar of good practice in relation to student retention. The report fails to recount that student satisfaction is also high in the UK compared to other comparable nations and that our personal tutoring and pastoral support systems are regarded as a model to emulate abroad.

The report also states boldly that the UK has “one of the highest university participation rates among OECD countries” (p.20) while omitting the highly pertinent fact that our overall higher education participation rate for entry is 1 percentage point below the OECD average (see p.10 here) and that our degree level participation rates are still below 19 other developed nation competitors in the OECD, where participation rates in some countries have hit 70%. The report implies that the UK is an outlier when it comes to participation, with ‘too many students’ at university, when the comparative data doesn’t support this narrative.

Universities should ‘buck the market’?

The section of the report on markets in higher education treads carefully, given the UK Government’s stated policy of encouraging greater HE marketisation. The candid admission that there is now a market for HE, with all its pressures and unintended consequences, is not surprising. Yet the report’s injunction that university leaders should do their best to ignore competition by not marketing their HE programmes too vigorously surely is (p.78). The recommendation that universities should, in effect, attempt to ‘buck the market’ in this and other ways isn’t a realistic one for university leaders charged with keeping their educational charity a ‘going concern’ for the benefit of prospective students in their locality.

The panel might have instead made helpful recommendations that put limits on the impact of some for-profit providers in their efforts to expand their recruitment of students in low-cost subjects, something again omitted in the report’s critique of HE provision. For example, the panel could have made a recommendation to fill the still unaddressed hole in the regulatory framework established under the HE and Research Act 2017 that allows small private HE providers to escape regulation of their provision because of the OfS’s (understandable) decision to not use the ‘basic category’ of OfS registration. This was a missed opportunity.

Conclusion: The FE/HE ‘trade-off’ – Augar’s strategic misstep

It is widely noted that the Augar Panel was established at the behest of the Treasury and No.10 Downing Street, against the advice of the Department for Education. I would argue that the fundamental misstep made by Augar was to concede wrongly that investment in HE should be squeezed in order for FE funding to be enhanced (the ‘trade-off’). To declare this only months after Theresa May declared the ‘end of austerity’ at the Conservative Party conference seems a senseless concession to a now discarded fiscal agenda. This strategic error was illustrated by the fact that, within days of the Augar report being published, both Theresa May and her possible replacements were each proposing a massive loosening of fiscal policy with pledges worth tens of billions of pounds both to boost public spending and to slash taxes. These pledges include an expectation, that may well be granted in the coming days, to give the education budget in England an additional £3bn a year.

Yet instead of arguing the case for proper investment for both HE and FE, Augar fell into the trap of a HE/FE ‘trade-off’ that the Treasury may capitalise on to the disbenefit of future cohorts of students. The risk for the FE sector from this tie-in is that any substantial additional funds for colleges is tethered to a drop in the HE fee cap or an extension to the student loan repayment period – measures that may not be deliverable in the current hung parliament – not justified independently of what the level of investment in higher education student should be. This point is realised clearly by the Association of Colleges itself, which is now arguing rightly that the country needs to increase the share of GDP we invest in education overall. Either way, the Augar Panel’s vision faces major obstacles to its implementation, some of which are of its own making.