May’s belated tuition fee pledge is a slap in the face for students, but review findings need attention - GulfToday

May’s belated tuition fee pledge is a slap in the face for students, but review findings need attention

Richard Brooks


Columnist for The Independent.

Columnist for The Independent.


Theresa May speaks at a news conference.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? With deadline day fast approaching, our university assessments quickly become an exercise in how many words you can write, as opposed to the quality of your work.

The Augar Review review of post-18 education and funding in England – all 20,000 words of it – doesn’t have the feel of a slapdash piece of work. But the sheer fact that it’s been rushed out in the dying days of Theresa May’s premiership, like some sort of fig leaf to cover an absence of a domestic agenda for the last three years, does.

And while it was inevitable that this was going to be an English solution to an English question, posed by an English person – the lack of joined up thinking for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is concerning.

The review itself was announced in 2017, after the (now hotly contested) “youthquake” for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which led to the loss of the Conservative party’s parliamentary majority, and ultimately to May losing her grip on Number 10.

To a certain extent, the review is a product of its method of creation – the correct analysis of widespread problems, with too little will or political imagination to lead to truly innovative solutions.

The HE focused headline, which will inevitably draw the eye of our Oxbridge educated newsrooms, is the reduction of tuition fees down to £7,500.

A respectable reduction of fees, which would create a funding shortfall in the billions for the higher education sector. While Augar himself has made clear he believes that the government should “replace all lost income through a teaching grant”, it is far from guaranteed this would happen. Student and university leaders are right to be concerned that this is just another imaginative way of de-funding the education sector.

To continue the essay metaphor (worthy of a 2:1, at least), a significant proportion of the government sanctioned Augar Review relies on marking its own work. As any lecturer worth their salt will tell you – even one from those pesky “low value” degrees that Augar bangs on about – you need a level of self-awareness and reflection to do so properly.

So the prime minister is right, insofar that maintenance grants should be brought back, in particular for students from the poorest backgrounds. Turning those grants into loans ensured that there was a perverse system in place, where those least well off, ended up racking up the most debt.

The fact that May was a senior cabinet minister in the government’s that unceremoniously dumped maintenance grants, as well over saw on average a 40 per cent cut in funding to further education since 2010, appears to have slipped everyone’s minds.

Still, there is much to like here. As Shakira Martin, president of the National Union of Students (and only the second from an FE background) says, “the report is right to recognise FE as of equal standing to HE and that its resourcing should reflect this parity of esteem”. Augar is quietly radical, in a philosophical sort of way.

When it comes to some more hard-nosed practicalities, trouble lies ahead. Defining “high” and “low” values degrees feels like the political equivalent of trying to convince someone to persuade a different football team. It’s going to be painful, people are going to get offended and no one is going to change their minds.

Where the money comes from for more funding, in particular for a starved further education sector, is another. Augar teases at taking some of that money from higher education somewhere, and whilst the head of the Russell Group can be as gracious as they like in response, they don’t think it’s going to come from them.

If I was feeling less gracious, I would have found this entire exercise incredibly frustrating. A review, created for the sole purpose of placating the “youth vote”, rushed out in the last weeks of a government and in no small part, seeking to rectify its own previous wrongs.

It won’t be up to them to deliver on the difficult, and nuanced recommendations, but whoever makes up the next administration. We can only hope that the next government does more for students than this one did.