Augar review

The Augar Review and Wales: A HE Time Bomb?

England’s Augar Review recommends cuts to Arts and Humanities funding at University level education to pay for tuition fee decreases. Caragh Medlicott explores the ominous effects its implementation  could have for Wales.

British summer spirals towards its peak in July; schools break up for their six-week holiday and contrails criss-cross the sky as getaways commence. Amidst the summer break madness, students UK-wide rent overpriced caps and gowns so that they can, finally, graduate. Behind the gushing Facebook posts and hat-throwing boomerangs a single question looms – what now? For many graduates – especially those from less privileged backgrounds – the fabled “real world” is a scary place indeed. With continually bleak reports on the state of graduate jobs and their accompanying itty-bitty salaries, the pressure is on not only to figure out what they want to do, but who will employ them to do it.

Despite efforts to widen access, the world of post-18 university education is still a confusing and sometimes inaccessible place. The creeping marketisation of the sector in recent decades has pushed universities to become economically driven above all else; they no longer exist purely as institutions of education. Tuition fees have inflated, dwindling maintenance grants have become high-interest loans, and consequently graduates are being lumped with ever-increasing and wholly unpayable amounts of debt.

The Welsh government is in the process of implementing 2016’s independent review of university finances by Sir Ian Diamond, which it says gives Welsh students the most progressive support package in the UK. However, the publication of the equivocal Augar Review in England threatens to topple the Diamond reforms altogether. The confusing nitty-gritty of whether Augar – a review commissioned by Theresa May –  will actually be implemented amongst unfurling leadership and Brexit drama remains to be seen, yet there is a single glaring concern sitting amongst some surprisingly optimistic suggestions – and that relates to the proposed slash to tuition fees.

When the Augar findings were released in May, the potential for lower tuition fees quickly made headlines. The recommendation is to cut the maximum amount English universities can charge students from £9,250 to £7,500. Really, this still feels like a menial reduction when contrasted with university education in the UK pre-1998 which was, effectively, free. Still, my support for lower (or, ideally, non-existent) tuition fees is steadfast; the problem lies in the suggested means of making up the shortfall weighing in at a considerable £1.8bn. The idea conjured up by the review’s chair Philip Augar is the governmental equivalent of sticking a plaster on a broken arm; that being – cut funding to arts and humanities courses as they are of ‘less value’. The reasoning behind this is not only simplistic, but offensive. The review states that on average, those with humanities and arts degrees bring in smaller net salaries – this finding based on slightly patchy data found by tracking graduates to the age of 29 via their tax returns. Arts and humanities departments were quick to bemoan both the wobbly, short-sighted figures and, more urgently, the suggestion that the societal and individual merit of a job is something measured purely in terms of income.

This logic draws from a tired trope which has repeatedly raised its head in the education sector. Recent history reflects a troubling ideology established in government policy; I was in year 10 when at-the-time education secretary Michael Gove turned to pro-empire historian Niall Ferguson to rewrite the History curriculum in England. No one was surprised then, when Gove later cut modern American classics from the GCSE English syllabus; an action which prioritised the subject as a means of capturing patriotism, over a means of capturing imagination (in what is for many teenagers, a first foray into literature). In compulsory education, the undervaluing of arts is already being felt with increasing numbers of schools reportedly cutting back on the resources they provide for “creative” subjects. There are so many reasons to be concerned here that it’s hard to know which way to turn first. Not only does the shift and increasing pressure to study ‘practical’ subjects narrow the breadth of education students receive, it alienates pupils whose natural aptitudes lie in artistic areas. Cutting funding to these subjects at a university level is just another nail in the coffin for accessible arts; it’ll limit not just the literal number of students studying, but the diversity we see represented.

At a societal level, the fact that arts and humanities are seen as less worthwhile perpetuates a view that these subjects, and the careers they generate, are merely ‘nice to have’ add-ons. A ridiculous notion at any point in time. But with automation biting larger and larger chunks out of the job industry and a spreading awareness of our climate emergency, surely the need for both a multi-skilled workforce and an art-rich culture is particularly paramount. Looking to create a society and an economy dominated by practicality above all else follows a shallow and unseeing logic that should be reserved for the creation of cybermen in Dr Who. If universities make less money out of their arts and humanities courses, resources will quickly be pulled and course capacity will shrink. With a more competitive admissions process, it’s likely that those from privileged backgrounds – who are better placed to pad out their personal statements – will secure top course spots. Do we really need more upper- and middle-class white people dominating the realms of history, philosophy and the arts? If arts and humanities become emaciated at a university level then it goes without saying the graduate pool will reflect that.

The official line from Augar is that courses should be assessed on their ‘social and economic value’ to students and taxpayers – but that hides all manners of sins. Why is the line drawn there, do we not care about job satisfaction and well-being, too? Isn’t that a societal measure of a job? After all, Arts and Humanities grads might be earning less under the age of 30, but what if they’re also happier? Conversely, a profession such as Accountancy (which would retain its funding under this review) is regularly linked to high levels of unhappiness and poor job satisfaction. The logic of the review quickly gets muddied, feeling more like a ‘get out of jail free’ card to address the fact that lower tuition fees would be beneficial, followed by a scramble to make that financially viable.

The other impending question relates to how these changes would impact Wales. The Diamond review saw a major shift for Welsh students who previously took out loans of £3,865 towards their £9,000 tuition fees, with the Welsh government covering the rest. The new system, in place since last September, sees Welsh students bear the full £9,000 loan, but in exchange much larger maintenance grants are available. Students are now provided with between £1,000 and £10,000 in non-repayable grants a year depending on household income and where they study. Though this change has technically upped the debt accrued by Welsh students from tuition fees, it has also been credited with giving them far greater financial freedom with the maximum grant matched to the national living wage, reducing the pressure for students to work alongside studies to make ends meet. Since the reform, Wales has already seen an increase in the number of part-time and postgraduate students. But if Augar is implemented, Wales will have to fall in line or risk losing scores of students to England. Augar does briefly address the impact for ‘devolved administrations’ indicating additional funding of roughly £0.9bn – promising though this may be, it depends on the investment recommended by Augar being upheld by the UK government.

The overarching impact of the Augar report remains uncertain with the continuing swirl of the Brexit vortex and awaited actions of the next prime minister. As Wales continues to tackle the brain drain and improve higher education it is undeniably frustrating that this report may at worst inhibit, and at best complicate, the Welsh reforms which are only just beginning to reap results. It’s true that the intention to balance funding and improve costs to students is, at least theoretically, positive – but not only are these factors already existing within Welsh policy, in Wales they do not draw from the same troubling course ‘value’ system to acquire replacement money. Education may be devolved, but the knock-on effects of a change at this scale are, of course, inevitable. At its heart, Augar encapsulates the most troubling paradox within our higher education system – that is that the entangling of universities and economics will always necesitate money taking precedence over everything else. Ultimately, for-profit education forgets why we seek to learn in the first place; to satisfy curiosity, expand knowledge and evolve understanding.

Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review columnist.