Deborah Talbot, Communications Officer at MWS, looks at the recently published Augar report and asks whether it really has the answers to the challenges facing post-18 education.
The Augar report on post-18 education has been eagerly and
nervously awaited in equal measure. Published in May 2019, the report made
recommendations on post-18 funding as well as on the balance between vocational
and academic education.
Sceptics claim that the report, commissioned by Theresa May, may not ever translate into policy given the effective ending of her government and the ongoing Brexit crisis. Critics from the university sector have also pointed out that proposals to shift funding to the FE sector from HE, by increasing the cost of student loans while lowering tuition fees, will mean students will lose out in terms of course quality and long-term financial security.
However, as MWS’s CEO, Richard Alberg, pointed out:
“The writing has been on the wall for some time in terms of higher education funding. The inclusion of student loans into the national debt, which happened last year, would inevitably precipitate a review of HE financing. What is unclear is whether the Augar report has the right answers or will even be translated into policy.”
In the wake of ongoing research showing the gap between the content
of education and employers’ expectation and needs, it has long been a
mission of this government to rebalance academic and vocational education and
prioritise skills training. What’s new about the Augar Report is that it
advocates a shift of emphasis to the FE sector, which for ten years has, according to
the Institute for Fiscal Studies, been the most significant recipient of
government education cuts.
To summarise the proposals:
- The report’s core message is that ‘the disparity
between the 50 per cent of young people attending higher education and the
other 50 per cent who do not needs to be addressed’.
- Technical and vocational education at the
sub-degree level (levels 4 and 5) need to be strengthened to meet skills
- Cuts to adult skills training should be
reversed, and part-time and ‘later life learning’ encouraged.
- Reform and re-fund the FE sector – rationalise
provision, increase funding for high return courses, improve links to HE,
invest in staff to improve recruitment and retention.
- HE institutions should ‘bear down on low-value
courses’ and align provision with the needs of the economy.
- HE fees reduced to £7,500 per year and instead
direct funding to high-cost and high-value subjects and disadvantaged students.
- Increase learning flexibility and lifelong
learning (supported by a ‘lifelong learning allowance’), in line with changing
- Freeze the repayment threshold for student loans
and extend the repayment period.
- Improve apprenticeship provision with better
wage return information for careers, strengthening quality through enhancing
Ofsted’s role and addressing the barriers SMEs experience in accessing the
system. Level 6 and 7 apprenticeships should not be funded if recipients
already have a degree.
There are very few who would argue with more
funding for the FE sector and the vital role they play in skills training
and lifelong learning. Moreover, over the past few years, many colleges have
been adept at reforming and reorganising to become significant players in local
and regional economies.
would also argue that the contribution of degree, masters and doctoral
education to economic performance is also hugely significant, particularly as
we enter the
Fourth Industrial Revolution and the importance of knowledge sectors such
as IT, AI, research and the creative economy.
If educational experts and practitioners were put in a room
together, they would undoubtedly agree that all sectors of the education
system, from pre-school to doctoral, from level 2 to level 8 apprenticeships,
all play a vital role in social mobility and economic performance. Indeed, it
has never been more evident that the economic prospects of a nation are
intimately linked to the educational level and skills of its citizens, as Enrico
Moretti’s ground-breaking research found.
Investment in education has a high return, yet the Augar report,
while arguing for increased spending, presents funding options as a series of
either/or – you take from one sector to give to another. It never asks the
question as to whether the funding pot should be increased across all sectors to
amplify those socio-economic returns.
The report implicitly views vocational/technical and
academic education as two separate forms of knowledge, yet increasingly, both
FE and HE sectors are eroding the barriers between the two. This process is
most clearly seen in the apprenticeships sector, where academic and theoretical
learning is combined with skills training – and arguably this occurs across all
levels to different degrees, not just at level 6 and above.
Why? Because the UK economy performs
better when it’s focused
on high-skilled jobs, and high-skilled jobs need both skills and technical
knowledge as well as lateral and creative thinking. Indeed, according to Klaus Schwab,
author of the book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, what
defines the new economic realities are a fusion of the social, biological and digital
worlds, which impact all disciplines. AI will need experts on ethics, sociology
and economics as well as high-level technical and scientific skills.
The Augar report has played a valuable role in highlighting
the precarious and undervalued state of the FE sector and the 50% of young
adults who never make it to university. It also has started an important
conversation about skills and employment.
However, it has yet to convince that it has sufficiently
understood the relationship between education and training and socio-economic
needs, or that it has an innovative plan for the future of education.