Response to Augar: Much more to consider beyond the leaks

The long-awaited response on higher education reform from the government to the Augar recommendations of May 2019 emerged today. It will take considerable time to take in the full implications and prejudgements are probably premature.  Meanwhile the announcement was swamped by the terrible news unfolding from Ukraine.

Much of the content was pre-empted by media outlets who made fast judgments on the earlier embargoed press release from Education Secretary, Nadhim Zawahi  and the Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan.   In the statement by Zahawi in Parliament earlier today, he called the media reports “claptrap”, even though they were simply reporting his own press release (glass houses and stones come to mind). The speculation and ‘leaks’ have been circulating for far too long and most of us will be dusting off the original Augar recommendations for comparison. See Higher Education Reform – Hansard – UK Parliament for the full statement.

“I hope that offers colleagues clarity, rather than claptrap headlines”.

We will see what was correct or ‘claptrap’ and the devil will be in the detail.

The devil is in the detail.

Michelle Donelan presented her case in a speech to friends at the Centre for Policy Studies earlier. This coincided with Nadhim Zahawi’s statement to the House of Commons this morning.  Both statements hide a considerable amount of detail but at least indicate that considerable work has progressed. The emphasis is clearly on reducing the cost to the government of student loans, deterring some students from university and diverting more into technical training. In all, it looks like an acknowledgement that there were substantial mistakes made in the past ten years that must be reversed. Not so much a U-turn as a handbrake-turn.

But it is now time to reflect on the details that can be divided into three main areas.

Lifelong loan entitlement

Student fees, loans, and repayments and

Student number controls with minimum entry requirements required to access loans

These are detailed in the two main consultations under ‘Higher Education Reform’  (Higher Education policy statement & reform consultation) and ’Lifelong loan entitlement’. The government seeks responses to these before the 6th of May 2022. This leaves adequate time for much further debate.

There is no doubt that the government is fully aware of what it will mean to aspiring university candidates and the implications will be profound.

How many could be excluded and the impact on the less advantaged.

There are several factors to consider, so this is not an easy question to answer. However, there is probably little doubt that those at the DfE have done the math. The impact of both student number controls (SNCs) and minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) on students is still uncertain. However, most observers expect this to have a greater affect the less advantaged students.

To this end, it is good that there are draft equality impact assessments for both consultations and these could become of critical importance.

The repayments system is envisaged to affect two very different cohorts of students. Those starting later 2022 are considered under all ‘post-2012 borrowers’, The new system will start from 2023 under  ‘new borrowers’. This all seems to be morphing into a ‘graduate tax’ that was rejected ten years ago. If that eventually happens, it could take in both cohorts.

Under ‘Which groups of student loan borrowers are more likely to experience higher costs?’ in ‘Higher education reform: equality impact assessment’, “The reforms only impact repayments for post-2012 borrowers (starting up to and including AY2022/23), and new borrowers (those starting courses from AY2023/24)”.

Note to DfE – it would help if you numbered the pages of this document.

The conclusion is the new arrangements for repayments will not be imposed in retrospect to graduates already making repayments.  To do so might require new legislation.  The impact of this on numbers seeking to defer places to 2023 is uncertain as the details are worked out. Maybe it will be too late by the time the penny drops.

Student number controls.

The effect of student number controls is focussed on minimum entry requirements (MER). However, these have been set a fairly low bar and are ‘conservative’ not radical. Yet, despite this,  the ‘Higher education reform: equality impact assessment’ does indicate that a greater proportion of disadvantaged students will be affected by the reforms. This calculation will require careful checking even though the proportion of all students affected will be likely to remain low. After all, one casualty is still one too many.

The DfE’s own assessment of the number of entrants in 2019/20 that fall below C grades in English and Maths at GCSE is based on 2019/20 data, with the caveat, “We are unable to carry out a full assessment of each element of the MERs due to data limitations and so all figures should be treated as indicative”.

For GCSEs, this means 7% or 24,100 students of the total cohort entry. Similarly 26,800 or 7.8% fell below the minimum of two grade Es at A-level. This is still a substantial number of casualties.

Adding to the expectations on the alternative of T-Levels and other level 3 qualifications, Zahawi also wrote to Ofqual today. The timing is no coincidence, and it cements the idea of a two track/two tier system emerging. Expect GCSEs and A-levels to have stricter assessments in future to combat grade inflation.

Lifelong loans.

The ‘Lifelong loan entitlement: impact assessment ‘ is a different species of animal entirely and seemingly diverged at an early stage in the evolution of the government response. This will take greater scrutiny to assess its impact. Its introduction could be a lifeline for those missing out earlier at sixteen. But don’t hold your breath.

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