A University Education and a Lifetime of Debt

Finally, the response to the Augar Review, for which we have been waiting for the rather splendid number of 1001 days, has been released. I will not accuse the Government of choosing a good day to bury bad news, because its publication on Thursday had been trailed for several days in advance. Nevertheless, it has received much less air-time than might have been expected (indeed hoped for) had it appeared on a day without a horrendous Russian invasion of Ukraine occurring. The implications of the published response, for students, universities and further education colleges, are substantial and far from universally positive.

Writing (albeit in a personal capacity) as someone who is the head of a Cambridge College which has always prided itself on its focus on widening participation, I read the details with unease. Cambridge is constantly being challenged to do more about reaching out to the socially and financially disadvantaged from all over the country and not just the prosperous south-east. What will this response do to help us in our work? As many commentators (see e.g. here and here) have pointed out, the changes being proposed – to reduce the level of income at which graduates start to pay their loans back and to extend the period over which payments are made from thirty to forty years – will hit hardest those with the lowest earnings (disproportionately women) rather than those who go on to highly paid careers, for instance in the City. There were plenty of analyses and models published by a variety of bodies in advance, which pointed out such moves would be regressive. These have been ignored, as has the proposal of maintenance grants for those from families with the lowest incomes, a crucial issue that simply wasn’t mentioned, let alone addressed, in the response.

It would seem that the Treasury’s view of finance (which I will paraphrase as ‘we need to get more of the student loan off our books’) has trumped the Levelling Up agenda. Only a couple of weeks after the Levelling Up White Paper was published, the actions implied by the Augar response go directly against its direction of travel. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations said, in introducing the White Paper

‘For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine. Levelling Up and this White Paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery.’

Those areas which are suffering from this ‘historic injustice’ will be those with a lower number of graduates (which is likely to contribute to lower local productivity and poorer local economic indices) and with struggling schools; struggling in terms of budgets and teacher skills as well as the numbers of students from disadvantaged families, however one wants to measure them, via indices of multiple deprivation, free school meals, children in the care system….. Levelling up should mean ensuring that all who have the aptitude to go to university are able – and that includes having the financial means – to do so, and that appropriate training and career paths are open to those for whom university is not the right place.

There may have been a brief moment of hope after the White Paper (albeit there seemed to be no new money associated with it), which the Augar response has probably dashed. A regressive policy, which is going to saddle those with least social and economic capital behind them with the highest total repayments during their entire working life, is not going to encourage those students to take on that debt, even if they simultaneously know that a university education is what they desire and what would most benefit them. Even if the university system, and colleges such as mine, wish to admit those who would thrive with that education and go on to deliver benefits to their community and the economy overall, they are likely in many cases to be deterred by the lifetime financial implications. It should be noted that universities too (and hence the College) are also being hit, in this case by a freezing of the fee level we receive.

One of the key features of the original Augar Review was to look at the whole education system, Further Education Colleges as well as Universities, to attempt to make a coherent whole. That aspiration, like quite a number of the other recommendations including maintenance grants for the least financially secure, is not dealt with. The current system pits the two strands of education substantially against each other in unhelpful ways, and traversing the further education landscape is a complex, unwieldy path for employers and students alike, with inadequate funding in most instances. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement would look like a good solution to some of these issues, providing an entitlement to students for loans

‘for post-18 education to use over their lifetime. It will be available for both modular and full-time study at higher technical and degree levels (levels 4 to 6), regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities.’

These plans are now out for consultation. However, the issue of the lifetime cost of these loans, if the same as in the latest revisions for loans already available for university courses, may remain a real turn-off to potential beneficiaries, whatever the good intentions behind this new move.

I feel dismayed by the regressive nature of the plans, the lack of support for the most disadvantaged, the damage this will potentially do to the work of institutions such as mine which are serious about widening participation, and the lack of any joined-up thinking between this latest document and any serious commitment to levelling up, the White Paper notwithstanding. There are so many ways in which plans could have been introduced which genuinely benefitted those whose start in life was tough. Instead, the new system seems set to put more, rather than less, burden on these students. Simultaneously, those who probably (but not invariably) already had a financially secure background and who progress to the highest paid jobs, will fare better under the new scheme of things. Universities, meanwhile, will be expected to make the same amount of money go further.


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