The “Interim Conclusion” is the first part of the long-awaited government response to the May 2019 Augar Review report. The 9-page document is overwhelmingly concerned with proposals to create a more coherent and unified post-18 system in which technical routes are strengthened and access is made more flexible. It draws heavily from the Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth White Paper published alongside it, and also refers to the government’s response to the independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework. It does not address in detail some of the most controversial aspects of the Augar Review, such as student finance and university entry requirements. A full response will be announced at the next Comprehensive Spending Review, following a number of consultations planned for the spring.
The full “Interim Conclusion” paper can be found at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/953332/Interim_Conclusion_of_Review_of_Post-18_Education_and_Funding.pdf
- The Government’s focus on the response to the coronavirus pandemic means that "now is not the right time to conclude the [Augar] review in full". However, the government says it remains committed to consideration of elements mentioned in the Augar Report, including student finance terms and conditions, minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions, the treatment of foundation years “and other matters”. (p4)
- The Government’s immediate priorities for HE funding next year are set out in a letter from the Education Secretary to the Office for Students, including how the HE teaching grant for high cost subjects will be used to ensure that “more of taxpayers’ money is spent on supporting provision which aligns with the priorities such as healthcare, STEM and specific labour market needs” (p5)
- The maximum tuition fee cap will be frozen for another year “to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of higher education under control”, and further changes to the student finance system will be considered ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review (p8)
- The government will ask the OfS to consult on a more streamlined, improved, low-burden Teaching Excellence Framework exercise "that will ensure that the drive to improve the quality of provision applies across all providers, not just those at the lower end". In line with the ambition to reduce bureaucracy, it will not be introducing a subject-level TEF (p9)
- A consultation will be launched to plan a move “towards modularisation of HE”. Views will be sought about the changes needed to enable universities and colleges to provide a modular offer (p4)
- The interim conclusion states: “We need a better balance between academic and technical education – we are currently too skewed towards degrees above all else.” In line with this, and as recommended by the Augar panel reporting to the review, the government aims to “create a system whereby the quality of our technical and academic education is on a par, and the two are equally accessible”. (p7)
- Post-16 technical and Higher Technical Education will be aligned to employer-led standards by the end of this decade. An approvals system for Higher Technical Qualifications will be introduced to drive up quality and identify courses that give learners the skills they need to succeed in a high-skill job. The approved Higher Technical Qualifications “offer a high-quality prestigious alternative to the traditional full-length academic degree model” (p7)
- As recommended by the Augar Report, the government will provide a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to support adults to gain their first advanced level technical qualification (level 3) in a subject area with strong market outcomes and alignment with Government priorities. A Lifelong Loan Entitlement will also be introduced from 2025, giving everyone access to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education. The government will consult on the scope and detail of the entitlement in early 2021 (p4)
- In new Trailblazer areas, accredited Chambers of Commerce and other business representative organisations, will work with FE colleges and other providers to develop new Local Skills Improvement Plans. This will be complemented by a continued expansion of Careers Hubs and other careers infrastructure, as recommended by the Augar Report (p5)
Implications for governance
The timing and focus of the paper is designed to coincide with the publication of the FE White Paper, government response to the TEF review, and the Secretary of State’s guidance letter to the Office for Students. More details on many of its points can be found in these other publications, so it will be important for governors to cross refer to them to get an overview of the policy direction as it applies to HE. A separate news alert on the TEF review will be published shortly. The various papers all underline the government’s intended path towards a greater focus on working closely with employers to support the development of skills – including at higher levels -- and provision which aligns with the “priorities of the nation”, such as healthcare, STEM and “specific labour market needs”.
The interim Augar response also spells continuing uncertainty for university leaders, as many key decisions and developments have been put back to be dealt with in a series of consultations over the coming months, to be wrapped up in a final report on Augar due to be published alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
Among these are “further reforms” to the student finance system; possible new minimum entry requirements to HE institutions (described as a “regressive move” by Universities UK); the treatment of foundation years (Augar called for these to be scrapped); the introduction of a new modular system for HE; plans to create a more streamlined, improved, low-burden TEF exercise; and unspecified "further reforms" to tackle "low-quality" provision.
The Education Secretary's letter to the OfS sets out plans to reform the teaching grant for 2021-22 by redirecting funding for high cost subjects towards those that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs – with a consequent 50 per cent cut for those that do not meet this criteria. Formula capital funding is to be replaced with a strategically targeted bidding process. London weightings are to go, but small and specialist providers will get a windfall with an increase in special funding from £10 million to £53 million. There is to be some relief for universities facing demands from students for more support – with an additional £5 million allocated to tackle student hardship and mental health problems, and protection of £265 million earmarked to support disadvantaged students. Governors will wish to note that the OfS has been directed to consult with the sector on all these proposed changes, with a view to them being confirmed in the spring.
Following proposals in the interim Augar response paper and the FE white paper, governors can expect universities to be directed towards even closer engagement with employers in their regions, including involvement in the development of new Local Skills Improvement Plans.
Another part of this movement are the plans to modularise HE provision. Many universities already have a broader portfolio of courses than just three year degrees, but some with a more limited range or less modularity may be looking more closely at their offering in light of proposals.
Higher education will be keen to play a part in making the Lifelong Loan Entitlement a success by ensuring adults are aware of what universities can offer them and tailoring provision to meet their needs. Allied to this is the extent to which university links with local FE colleges and employers can feed in to courses/modules, to meet the government’s skills agenda and provide flexibility to learners. Evaluating those relationships, and exploring whether they should be strengthened, is also likely to be an area of interest to HE governance.
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