James Turner, Sutton Trust CEO, unpicks whether the recommendations set out in the Augar Review work for young people from less advantaged backgrounds.

The Prime Minister Theresa May’s review into Post-18 and Education and Funding was launched in February 2018 with much fanfare.  But given Theresa May’s imminent departure, the publication last Thursday of the review’s report was a rather more low-key affair at Policy Exchange in London. The hurried unveiling however in no way detracts from its considerable breath, depth and analysis of the post 18 tertiary education landscape.    

At its most simple the challenge the Prime Minister had set the Chair of the Review Panel, Philip Augar and his colleagues, was to break down the false boundaries between further and higher education and to consider the roles both should play in meeting the country’s future needs.  

At the launch event last week, Philip Augar said England is a nation of two halves when it comes to post-18 education – a story of care and neglect depending on where you are studying.  The stark divide was laid bare – higher education institutions received £8 billion in 2018-2018 for 1.2million UK undergraduates, yet further education funding was only £2.3 billion for nearly double the number (2.2million) of full and part time students.   

The report itself is over 200 pages long and takes a detailed look at all aspects of post 18 tertiary education in terms of funding, quality, location, age eligibility and the benefit in terms of the wider economy and the individual’s own prospects and well-being.  

The panel heard from many organisations and individuals including the Sutton Trust.  Our key policy submissions centred around the needs of students from low-and middle-income backgrounds and the implications for social mobility.  We advocated for means tested tuition fees, the return of maintenance grantsbetter funding arrangements for mature and part-time students, the use of contextual admissions and post qualification applications by universities, strengthening the further education offer and increasing the number of degree apprenticeships as a viable alternative to higher education. 

It’s a mixed bag in terms of the review delivering on those policy areas.  

Given the digital revolution and the changing nature of workwe certainly welcome the proposal for a lifelong learning loan allowance to be used at higher technical and degree level at any stage of an adult’s career.  This not only allows for reskillingupskilling and stepping on and off the education and training ladder, but it also creates the valuable opportunity for a “second chance” later in life. But the panel was also clear that Further Education needs proper investment, so that it is a genuinely attractive proposition for both students and teachers.  It has therefore recommended a capital investment of £1 billion for Further Education colleges in the next spending review and more investment in the critical further education workforce.  

There has been much debate about how best to identify and target disadvantaged families.  At the Sutton Trust we argue that individual markers of disadvantage should be used alongside local level markers such as POLAR. It is good to see the panel echoing that point.  Additionally, reintroducing the maintenance grant to at least £3,000 a year – and increasing and better targeting of the government’s funding for disadvantaged students – are all welcome propositions.   

The central pillar of the higher education system in England is that those who benefit from university should contribute fairly – students and the state should share the cost. Every student is entitled to a loan to cover the costs of fees and living expenses and repayment after graduation is determined progressively depending on whether you are a high, medium or low earner.   

Scratch beneath the surface though and the system isn’t as fair as it might seem.  At the Sutton Trust we know that not all students start out as equal. We argue that universities should take into consideration an individual student’s background alongside his or her prior educational attainment when deciding who to admit  That same principle should apply when it comes to the funding of education and how that socio-economically disadvantaged young person carries the cost through into the world of work.  

The Augar Review’s headline proposal to reduce tuition fees to £7,500, alongside the reintroduction of maintenance grants, means that the overall student “debt” figure looks a little less eye watering.  But the review also proposes lowering the repayment threshold from £25,000 to £23,000 (based on 2018 figures) and to extend the lifetime repayment period to 40 years from the current 30 years, all at interest rates which at present are around 6 percent.  This means that lower and middle earners (like teachers and social workers) will end up paying more than they did before  and for longer – and the wealthiest, who can fall back on support from parent or grandparents, can pay the fees upfront, or over a shorter period, and thus contribute far less overall.

This is why the Sutton Trust has always argued for means tested fees – so the poorest student are asked to pay less than the wealthiest- and we are disappointed that the Post-18 Review did not adopt this as a policy.   It seems to us fundamentally unfair that, whatever the repayment mechanism, the son or daughter of a cleaner is asked to pay the same as the son or daughter of a stock broker.

Given the current political uncertainty, as with so many other things we are not quite sure what will happen next.  Will Philip Augar’s report inform the next Prime Minister’s post-18 education and training policy?  There are certainly a lot of promising ideas in it.  While the review did not take up all the Sutton Trust’s proposals, the weight and importance placed by the panel on fairness, equality, diversity and social mobility was evident throughout the report.  (By my count there are well over 100 references to disadvantage and social mobility.)

Over the next few months we’ll be scrutinising the review through the lens of social mobility, and will be seeking the views of young people as part of this process. This includes the Sutton Trust’s alumni community. A snap poll of alums over the weekend gave us a clue to their thinking: they felt that the policies which would make the biggest impact on social mobility were those directly  targeted at young people from less advantaged backgrounds – reintroducing the student maintenance grant, and means testing tuition fees. The proposed reform of England’s Post-18 system are significant and we’ll be working hard to ensure that young people from less advantaged backgrounds – whatever choice of further education or training they make – get a system that works for them. 

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