The Augar Review: A critical moment for FE

25 June 2019

By Andy Norman

Andy Norman writes on what the recommendations of the Augar review mean for Further Education.

The Augar review is the first in more than 50 years to consider all aspects of tertiary education. That this is a whole system review is encouraging. It implies that by working together, HE and FE can be more than the sum of their parts and that this is not a zero-sum-game.

For many though, the legitimate fear was that this would primarily be a review of HE in general and tuition fees in particular, with FE tacked on the end as a box ticking afterthought. These fears were stoked by the predictable HE-centric coverage in the media, such as the article in the Times which referred to the review as ‘the Augar review into higher education fees’. However, a few media headlines aside, the FE sector need not have worried. It is exactly this disparity in attention that Augar sets out to tackle. So much so that his foreword will have anyone with even a passing knowledge of FE’s second class status nodding their heads vigorously in agreement. In it Augar pulls no punches, castigating the damage done to further education by ‘decades of neglect’ and arguing that ‘this sector is crucial to the country’s economic success’.

But the further education community is used to warm words, only to be counteracted by ill thought through policy tinkering. Acknowledging that there is a problem and putting it right are two different things entirely. So, how does the review do on the policy front?

There are clear policy wins for FE here. The recommendations for £1 billion capital injection and the reversal of the reduction in the core funding rate for 18-year-olds will be most welcome. It is now widely acknowledged across the political spectrum that the FE sector is critically underfunded, and these measures will go some way to reversing that. Additionally, a simplified funding rule book and an indicative adult education budget should also enable FE colleges to plan for the future with greater certainty and stability. The recommendation to introduce a lifelong learning loan allowance has also garnered a positive reaction from the sector.

The review also recommends that full funding should be available for someone’s first level 2 or level 3 qualification, regardless of their age or employment status. As the review points out, participation in adult learning at levels 2 and 3 has been falling in recent years, at significant cost to social mobility. CPP’s report ‘Skills for Inclusive Growth’ highlights the importance of adult learning to earnings progression, showing that the likelihood of an individual escaping low pay increases substantially as workers gain higher levels of qualification.

But what about those who already have a level 2 or 3 qualification? The Augar Review stops short of recommending full funding for a second level 2 or 3 qualification, but in an age of constant technological disruption, reskilling displaced workers must be a key priority. Sometimes you need to go sideways to go forward. A government that guarantees funding at level 2 and 3 for anyone needing to retrain – regardless of their previous qualifications – would be one that is truly serious about equipping workers with the skills they need to navigate increasingly disrupted labour markets. The new National Retraining Scheme holds significant promise in this regard and its innovative design process is cause for optimism. Yet it is still small in scale and will need significantly more than the initial £100 million pledged by the Chancellor if it is to plug the gap in funding for retraining currently in the system.

CPP were pleased to see the recommendation that the government improve data collation, analysis and publication across the whole further education sector. This follows our ‘Data Deficit’ report released last year, in which we argue that the government must tackle the pervasive information gaps across the sector that are preventing optimal outcomes. One particular area of data disparity between FE and HE is on what jobs students then go on to do. For the FE sector, we only know if a recent course completer is in employment. We still do not know whether that employment is at all related to their course.

On the whole this is a landmark review with recommendations capable of finally putting FE on par with HE. Speaking at its launch, the current Prime Minister Theresa May said that our FE and technical colleges ‘are vital engines of both social mobility and of economic prosperity’. She then threw down the gauntlet to the next PM, pointing out that ‘decisions about whether and how to implement these recommendations will not fall to me, but to the next Government.’ And so this feels like a critical moment for FE. The recommendations of the Augar review present an opportunity for the next PM to revitalise FE and help drive inclusive growth. Let’s hope they have the sense to grab it with both hands and translate warm words into decisive action.