UNISON has welcomed the call for better funded further education contained in today’s report from Philip Augar.
The historian and former City broker was appointed to conduct a review of post-18 education and its funding in England, including apprenticeships, by prime minister Theresa May in February last year.
The report’s recommendations include:
- strengthening vocational and technical education below degree level;
- reforming and refunding the network of further education colleges, including £1bn capital investment;
- increasing participation in post-18 learning across the board, including by adults taking part in lifelong learning and becoming part-time students;
- reintroducing maintenance grants for low-income students, which were scrapped by George Osborne;
- reducing the upper limit on university tuition fees from the current £9,250 a year to £7,500.
“All too often, the focus falls on the university sector to the exclusion of other vital areas,” commented UNISON head of education Jon Richards, “so the proposals to increase further education funding and support for colleges are to be welcomed.”
But while the union welcomes the Augar review’s emphasis on the 50% of young people who do not go into higher education, it has concerns that the current political context, coupled with a government reluctance to invest money, will see ministers ignore the big challenges set out in the report focus on efforts to reduce costs instead.
“Lowering fees for HE must be accompanied by further government funding to make up the gap that will hit universities providing costly science and medicine courses,” said Mr Richards.
However, chancellor Philip Hammond already has warned that the proposals could lead to a bidding war on government spending, especially with ministers trying to raise their profile in the race to to take over the Conservative Party leadership.
UNISON warns that the report’s call for universities to find efficiency savings over coming years and bear down on what it terms low-value degrees – or “certain courses at certain universities” – should set the alarm bells ringing.
The union is concerned that the report could all too easily be used by the government as a justification for expecting public service to do more with less. This would inevitably will inevitably affect those who work across the sector, including tens of thousands of UNISON members.
“Ultimately the Brexit impasse, which is stalling so many important areas of policy, means this detailed, well-researched review is doomed to sit in a pile with many other reports,” said Mr Richards.
“The points that fit the government’s agenda will be welcomed but everything else will carry on as before.”
UNISON also points out that the reduced fees for students comes with big strings attached.
Although the report recommends an end to in-course interest rates and a cap on lifetime interest payments, it also wants to freeze the threshold at which students start paying back – so more graduates will pay earlier – and increase the repayment period from 30 to 40 years so more students would pay back the full amount.
On that, Mr Richards warned that “lengthening the period of loans will also deepen the misery for many students, saddling them with a lifetime of debt.”