By Isobel Hall
Little over a month ago, the long-awaited report of the Augar Review was published, a review containing over 60 recommendations to improve post-18 education and funding. This review was commissioned in 2018 with work being undertaken by an independent panel of industry experts, chaired by Phillip Augar.
With it being over 200+ pages long, your President of the Students’ Union, Isobel Hall, has dissected the report and some of the recommendations presented with some thoughts, concerns and reactions about how this may impact on future students at the University of Hull, the Higher Education sector and post-18 education more widely.
First of all, it is important to highlight that this report will not affect any current students at the University of Hull. The recommendations that the Augar report presents, if they are implemented, will impact future students. Due to political uncertainty, we cannot be certain whether these recommendations will be implemented in their entirety, cherry-picked or implemented at all. However, it is important to note and understand, the ramifications that these recommendations may have especially with the precarious financial situation lots of universities are finding themselves in, including Hull. This is truly a turbulent time for the Higher Education sector.
Tuition Fees to Drop to £7,500
This recommendation has been making headlines for a number of weeks now with it being one of the stand out proposals to come out of the report. With current students paying £9,250 per year to study, the idea that this could significantly drop is only a good thing right? Well, actually it’s not as good as it might first appear, and here is why.
In theory, the reduction of tuition fees will lower the debt for students. However, only those who clear their debt before it is wiped will really benefit, which is typically high-earning graduates. The reality is that many students are unlikely to pay off all their loans anyway, so by lowering the fees this will have very little impact, in particular for those not earning substantial sums of money after graduation.
What is often not considered when thinking about tuition fee reductions is the impact this will have on the University and the quality, of course, they are able to offer on a reduced income. The report recommends that teaching grants will be considered to reflect a subject’s ‘reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers’. But what does this mean? Together, this would likely mean a reduced income for certain ‘low income’ subjects, our humanities and arts course could face significant financial pressure depending on this recommendation and its implementation. By referring to ‘high-value’ and ‘low value’ degrees it raises significant concerns that subjects will receive less funding, with their value being measured purely on graduate income (ignoring traditionally lower paid roles which carry enormous value to society). Therefore, students are being incentivised to study a particular subject due to better funding rather than encouraging the freedom to choose. Finally, it disregards the value of Universities providing opportunities to study a broad range of subjects. And the question I want to ask is, who will decide a subject’s social and economic value? Overall, this isn’t very reassuring that students will not suffer for these tuition fee cuts in the end.
On a positive note, it may help tackle debt aversion by lowering the fees and thus encouraging more students into higher education, but is the fee reduction substantial enough to truly do this?
Return of Maintenance Grants
This has been a welcome recommendation across the Higher Education sector as the report proposes reintroducing the £3,000 maintenance grants for disadvantaged students. There isn’t anything particularly controversial about this recommendation as it can only help improve social mobility as it will encourage more people to consider taking a route into higher education as it will be more financially viable.
Student Loans *renamed* ‘Student Contribution System
Again, this is another straight forward recommendation and moves towards ‘doing what it says on the tin’. Along with this recommendation, it states that parental contribution should be explicit rather than ‘hidden’ to aid transparency and reduce strife. What this fails to do is actually address the issue of whether parents do contribute or not whilst students are studying at University which still leaves some students falling through the gaps of the system.
Proposal to Lower the Repayment Threshold, Higher Student Loan Repayments and Wipe Loan after 40 Years (Used to be 30 Years)
This means that graduates would start repaying with lower earnings (the median earnings is currently £23,000) and cause payments to increase by £180/yr which will increase what graduates will pay each month. Overall, this increases the financial pressure that graduates find themselves under as they will find themselves starting to repay loans sooner and repay it for longer before it is written off. This could see graduates repaying student loans into their 60’s or beyond.
On a positive note, recommendations have also stated that students will not be charged interest whilst studying and that lifetime repayments will be capped at 1.2 times the original loan amount. This prevents graduates who earn more at the start of their career paying less overall than those who earn more later on in life.
Cost of Student Accommodation
The cost of student accommodation was touched upon in this report by stating there were ‘widespread and significant concerns about the cost of student accommodation. This went on to state that Higher Education Institutions ‘retain a responsibility for overall student welfare and delivering value for money and that this extents to University accommodation’. The only real proposals to come from this is to ensure there is more 'improved and consistent data on cost of accommodation options and to provide 'benchmarks for the proportion of maintenance support spent by students on accommodation' which doesn't really do a lot to address the high costs experienced by students.
Removal of Loan Funding for Foundation Students
This is to encourage Universities to work more closely with Further Education Colleges to enrol students onto Access Diplomas (rather than creating '4 year degrees)' with lower fees, more advantageous loan terms, and a standalone qualification. Initially this may seem somewhat positive, however, the ramifications of this recommendation are not in the best interest of students and will be damaging.
By studying a foundation course rather than an access course, you are more likely to progress onto a degree programme and complete your degree. The number of foundation year entrants has tripled over the past 5 years (10,430 to 30,030) demonstrating the uptake and demand for foundation year courses. Students are also more likely to get a ‘better deal’ by studying a foundation course (compared to an access course) as support is available for living costs as well as covering tuition fees. By removing this vital path to higher education prospective students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds will be discouraged from returning to study.
At the University of Hull, we have a sizable foundation student community and the recommendations of the report will have a negative impact, both on the University and on prospective students if the recommendations were to be implemented. As President of the Students’ Union, I am leading a campaign for Hull University Union to oppose this recommendation. You can find out more by reading my blog article on why we are doing this here.
The Augar report is lengthy and this blog by no means covers everything! If you want to find out more, check out some of the news outlets such as Wonkhe, MSE and the Guardian as examples. Alternatively, you can read the article here.
What do you think of the proposals?