The Augar Review is expected to recommend a cut in tuition fees. But instead of focusing on who pays for higher education, we should start by asking what higher education is for, argues Eric Lybeck, Leverhulme early career fellow at the Manchester Institute of Education

 

University leaders are waiting with bated breath for the conclusions of a report headed by Philip Augar, commissioned by the government to review post-compulsory education in the UK. If initial predictions play out, the higher education sector (HE) will be looking at a cut to student fees from £9,250 to £7,500.

Universities are rightly worried that a 19% drop in the unit of resource would effectively amount to a cut in funding for the sector, which will presumably be expected to do more with less. But in our hand-wringing about the precise amount of income universities can expect, we have lost sight of the bigger picture: no matter what solutions the Augar Review recommends, these will be half-measures addressing symptoms of a much bigger problem. Whether we drop fees by £1,000 or £9,000, we must face the central crisis eating at the core of our higher education system: namely, the evacuation of the public value and purpose of education, knowledge and expertise.

 

A last-ditch effort to capture the youth vote

Indeed, a more accurate, but less catchy title for this blog would be that Augar will provide less than half of a solution to less than half of the problem. This stems from the basis upon which the problem was articulated. For the premise of reducing fees is a last-ditch effort by a Conservative Party fearful of the rising popularity of Labour amongst youth voters, who are fond of the latter’s pitch to abolish fees altogether. In both instances, however, we are looking at a giveaway to a special interest group, rather than a reconsideration of what universities or education is for. And, I mean this as no slight, since so much of politics these days consists of appeals to voters’ immediate self-interest, and more often than not, it’s not young people, but rather property-owning elders in whose interest the bulk of public policy is written.

In practice, the Conservatives’ plan won’t help them win back young people when over 83% of their party’s voters are over 45. It’s possible a fee cut might appeal to students’ parents, but the present loan system isn’t currently a financial burden to parents. Any number of other policies – such as tackling inflation, or reducing council tax – could arguably cater better for their (parents’) needs.

We might then turn to the second ostensive reason for Augar’s review, namely the imbalance within tertiary education between higher education and further education (FE). Indeed, there has been a dramatic fall in funding for the latter since HE fees were introduced, but that is largely due to cuts in public expenditure in both sectors. Only in one sector (HE) has that funding been replaced by a system of fees and loans. This put all of the incentives for students pursuing tertiary education to go into HE rather than FE, and, undoubtedly, there is some need to redress this imbalance when it is by no means clear that every young person should obtain credentials in university level courses rather than through college or apprenticeship training.

 

Students are reacting to a disincentive

But, recall here that we are actually speaking of a disincentive introduced by withdrawal of public funding, which students and families react to rationally by not enrolling, rather than an incentive structure of consumers making preferential choices as the fantasists in government and think-tanks imagine. The same logic applies to the precipitous decline in adult and part-time higher education, where the problem is not insufficient demand, but an artificial lack of supply produced by the unthought-through fee/loan set-up that presumes an 18-22 year old homo economicus enrolling on a homogenized, mass produced degree course. Is it any wonder our universities increasingly offer the same set of courses for the same types of students?

Dropping the fee tariff by a quarter or more does nothing to change this literally stupefying dynamic tending towards higher education as a mass-market commodity for the largest common denominator. Yet in spite of every attempt by government and institutional marketing to script them as consumers, students ultimately want what they have wanted since the dawn of universities in the middle ages: an education.

The government’s decision to commission Augar is a failure to understand the patterns of identification at work in higher education. They try to appeal to young people as voters and want them to identify with their party and the state as the one who has given them a break.  Similarly, university managements, who have catered to and, at times, encouraged this consumer-model of higher education provision, expect students to identify with them as providers giving them the products they want (though not at low prices, as would occur if higher education was or could be a market).

In fact, other than with their peers, students seem to identify most with their lecturers, as became evident during the course of the strikes last year over our USS pensions. Taking the university managers by surprise, a large number of students blamed employers, rather than employees (academics) for the fiscal problem at hand, and trusted us when we argued (rightly) that there was no deficit in our pension and that the effective pay cut was being imposed unfairly.

 

The shady tricks of government accounting

Indeed, young people, despite their relative lack of experience with the full range of political problems facing the world today, share with other parts of the public the recognition that the powers-that-be do not listen properly. Why should anyone trust the political parties that willingly imposed a dramatic cut in direct grant funding to universities in order to produce a fiscal illusion that transferred the appearance of liability from the Treasury budget to individual student debt accounts? That is just shady tricks, and is typical of the governments’ policies in general. Which policy will appeal more to young people who see this plain as day: a slight reduction in debt for those lucky enough not to have enrolled between 2012 and 2020? Or, any policy which fairly pays for the higher education of the next generation by taxing the past, present and future winners of the knowledge economy?

For there is more at stake in the mechanisms through which we fund higher and further education than the questions of ‘who pays?’ and ‘how much?’ The difference is whether higher learning is understood to be of intrinsic public value, which the present system distorts by imagining universities exist to deliver products to individualised student-consumers.

Certainly, university leaders are right to worry about what any cut to current fees will do to institutional finances, particularly if this is not replaced by direct grant – but, as the recent spate of threats of university closures demonstrates – these are the anxieties of individual institutions worried about their own fate on a competitive market, rather than concerns for the fate of higher education in general, which has been suffering during an otherwise golden era for the handful of institutions that thrive in the current funding environment. If we had a clear sense of the public value of higher learning, to include education of 18-22 year olds, but also a range of other functions – adult and part-time education, public lectures, to say nothing of research and culture for its own sake – we could organise the whole set-up differently.

 

Augar is at best a half measure

This is precisely what Augar does not do and why it will be a half-measure at best, even on its own terms. For it does not provide a position from which we can reimagine and reconstruct a system of higher learning in this country which determines the best, most efficient, fairest and highest quality means of educating the entire public, from HE to FE to everyone who does not or has not enrolled in tertiary education.

The task now for those of us working and studying in higher education institutions is to ask: how do we reconstruct the public value of education, in general? How do we articulate a set of activities, practices and interactions with ourselves and the public beyond university walls that resonates with and engages the widest set of communities and stakeholders? Only then should we turn to the question of how we as a society pay for those activities.

In tolerating the existing fee system, wringing our hands in fear of the pending cuts, we have allowed the secondary question of where the money comes from to upend the very purpose and function of higher learning all together. Any university that allows such a debasement of what George Eliot called our ‘moral currency’ is hardly worthy of its name.