Principal Thoughts: Augar review a welcome development

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This month, Ashley runs the rule over the Augar review of post-18 education and funding, finding much to like should the recommendations be followed by government.

A cut in student fees, greater flexibility in how you study and better funding for vocational training – what’s not to like?

These are a few of the significant outcomes from the eagerly awaited government-commissioned review, headed by Dr Philip Augar, which was released last Thursday (30 May) and I welcome the majority of its recommendations.

Greater access for students

The most attention-grabbing aspect of the report is the recommendation that tuition fees are reduced from a maximum of £9,250 per year to around £7,500. There was huge controversy when the government pushed through a steep rise in student fees from £3,290 per year to up to £9,000 in 2010 and nine years later, this is an important step in redressing that.

That move in 2010 made it harder for people from low-income backgrounds to enrol at a university and saddled those who did go with greater student debt. If the Augar recommendations are to be actioned, this would be a positive step for students.

In addition to the reduction in tuition fees, Augar recommends the return of non-repayable maintenance grants at up to £3,000 per annum for disadvantaged students and a lifetime learning loan allowance of £30,000 being made available for students undertaking technical qualifications at levels 4, 5 and 6.

Writing as Principal of a university college with a core purpose ‘to provide accessible, relevant and cost-effective education’, I am very much in favour of any initiative designed to increase access to education. These binding words in our core purpose are reflected in our actions with the most expensive route of study with us amounting to an annual cost of £6,375 if you decide to fast-track your undergraduate degree. The vast majority of our students, however, are part-time, studying online around their work and personal commitments. A year’s worth of study with us as a part-time student comes in at comfortably under £5,000 per year. We are providing Built Environment professionals with the skills they need to access or progress their career and this is done well below the maximum fee and comes well below even this new proposed fee. Allied to an approach which enables students to earn while they learn without the need to fork out for student accommodation and we can proudly say we are providing cost-effective education.

Increased flexibility of study

One of the more intriguing recommendations is the one surrounding flexible study. Augar recommends a system in which students can dip in and out of higher education, where they could achieve a lower level of qualification initially and return at a higher level at a later date convenient to personal circumstances. Augar also recommends student loans for standalone modules and free access onto level 2 and 3 vocational courses for those without this level of qualification, funded by government. This is a really positive step in my opinion. It reminded me of a conference I attended as a keynote speaker in the Netherlands a couple of years ago where speakers were advocating truly flexible learning by which there wouldn’t be rigid start and end dates, and students could access education in a way which worked around their lives. This flexible utopia may never come to fruition but the allowances for greater study flexibility vouched for by Augar go some way to covering more paths to education for students and I think this is a bold, progressive outcome of the report.

Vocation, vocation, vocation

The extra support recommended for vocational institutions is particularly positive for UCEM. This emphasis on vocational education concerns the second part of our core purpose which is ‘to enhance careers, increase professionalism and contribute to a better Built Environment’. Equipping Built Environment professionals with the skills required to benefit the sector through education is what we do and the impact can be seen in the 150,000-plus alumni we have supported who have gone on to make an impact on the world around us. With due respect, we are not educating people in disciplines which may lead to variable graduate outcomes; our students either work in the field or are working towards a role within the Built Environment and it’s an easy task explaining the positive impact we have on the jobs sector within the construction and real estate industries.

It’s fantastic to see vocational education highlighted as requiring greater attention in order to address skills shortages. As a university college educating professionals in the Built Environment with a construction industry plagued by skills shortages, we have been shouting about how more needs to be done to support the organisations involved in plugging these gaps. We can make a difference and support, both financially and politically, will yield positive results in boosting the skills required to realise the government’s ambitious plans for the sector; especially with huge infrastructure projects such as Heathrow and HS2 ongoing.

Apprenticeships caution

It isn’t all completely positive with some people today arguing that the changes to tuition fees won’t benefit poorer students in the long run – a view derived from countering the lower fees against the longer repayment period at a higher interest rate. This is an interesting counter-argument and I agree it would be wrong to wave the carrot of cheaper courses students’ way if this will only end up biting them in the future. The review was written with the intention to level the playing field and increase access to education which I am fully supportive of and I hope the recommendations are successful in producing this. It’s in good faith that I back the recommendations regarding greater accessibility.

Another unknown at this stage is the impact the recommendations would have on apprenticeships. One key recommendation is that degree apprenticeships will need to demonstrate that they provide skills which cannot be accessed through ‘traditional’ degree routes, where apprentices already have a publicly funded first degree. This is in an effort to combat the prolific use of levy funds to put employees through ‘management’ degrees. There is also a recommendation that Ofsted should become the only inspection body for all apprenticeships at all levels. This potentially could have an adverse effect on apprenticeship provision in my view and there isn’t the level of detail required to fully dissect what implications this would have but I would treat this recommendation with significant caution as it is.

Thumbs up

Of course, while an important document likely to shape higher education policy from the early 2020s, at this stage the review is merely a set of recommendations and implementation can’t be assumed when the political climate in this country is far from strong and stable…

On the other hand, as with the preparations made for different types of Brexit, it is important that we fully understand the impact Augar could have on UCEM and plan accordingly.

While there are outstanding issues with regards apprenticeships which would need ironing out, should the government act on the recommendations as they have been presented today, then they would get a thumbs-up from me.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver approved apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

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