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How could the Augar Review affect universities?

The Augar review, an independent report commissioned by the government published at the end of May, argued that the tuition fee cap should be reduced to £7,500. The review suggested that some courses cost significantly below the current £9,250 students are paying to run.

It reports that the average cost of providing undergraduate courses range from £7,500 for Humanities and Social Sciences to £22,000 for Veterinary Science. As an unintended consequence, universities may be incentivised to prioritise low-cost subjects in contrast to the higher-cost STEM options. The review claims that between 2013/2014 and 2016/2017, there was a 20% rise in Social Science undergraduates, in comparison to a 10% rise in total undergraduate enrollment. In result, the government is now spending around 30% more per Creative Arts student than it does for an Engineering student.

The average cost of providing undergraduate courses range from £7,500 for Humanities and Social Sciences to £22,000 for Veterinary Science

This would not be an issue if lower-cost courses produce high-earning graduates. However, studies by the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrated that students studying Creative Arts courses have the largest amount of unrepaid student loans – over £1.1bn. Among the lowest are economics, at less than £100m, and medicine, hovering around £300m. This is highly indicative of the earning potential of students taking different courses. Unfortunately for male English and Philosophy graduates, the report shows that they would have earned more had they not decided to study in university. It is useful to keep in mind that this analysis is limited as it only records earnings at age 29. It is not unlikely that graduate earnings would rise after this age, and is therefore not a definitive argument for not pursuing degrees in the arts.

On the contrary, the sheer number of students taking courses linked to humanities and social sciences has resulted in massive debt write-offs due to low predicted earnings. This may mean that students are paying too much for degrees that do not necessarily allow them to earn enough to match their peers studying STEM degrees.

In addition, the report argues that overfunding low-cost degrees does not constitute efficient use of taxpayers’ money, which is used to write off unpaid student debt. The report thus concludes that cutting the tuition fee cap to £7 500 is not only fair but also encourages those from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue a university education, emphasising that only 4% of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are enrolled in highest tariff universities. By cutting tuition fees, social mobility may be improved, the report suggests.

Beyond tuition fee cuts, the review also provides several recommendations to widen student choice in higher education in order to achieve greater market differentiation. The University of Warwick was mentioned as a good example of connecting students with industry through its initiative to partner up with Jaguar Land Rover in developing the National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC), providing students with the opportunity to delve into the automotive industry and employment opportunities.

Students studying Creative Arts courses have the largest amount of unrepaid student loans – over £1.1bn – whilst those who studied Economics or Medicine have the lowest

Among others, Coventry University was also highlighted for its flexible, lower-cost degree and sub-degree courses costing around £6200 a year in Coventry, Scarborough and London. As students can enrol 6 different times in the year, and are allowed to choose between morning and afternoon classes, they can combine work with education. The courses provided are largely vocational, including Finance, Business, Policing, and Counselling. A combination of flexibility and direct applicability to the job market makes these courses appealing to mature students.
Findings show that the programme has a relatively high proportion of students from low participation areas, demonstrating that a wider choice of fields may be a part of the solution to disadvantaged students’ lacking participation in higher education.

Though the idea of tuition fee cuts may be an appealing one for students, it comes with several conditions. Most significantly, the period of paying off student debt is extended, so students would expect to pay off their student debts for the following 40 years, rather than the current 30 years cap. In addition, the minimum earnings required to start paying off student debt would be reduced from £25 725 annually to £23 000. If the goal is to improve participation and success of disadvantaged students, would these changes help? The BBC’s Reality Check team argues otherwise.

With 81% of students not paying the full amount of their loans, extending the payment period by ten years would most likely increase the amount that students have to pay back to the government. The increase in payment period may result in disproportionately higher payments compared to the cuts in tuition fees, due to interest payments. The BBC’s analysis demonstrates that middle-earners would be affected most negatively by the changes, with lifetime payments almost doubling under the new system. On the other hand, high earners would benefit most as they can both pay less due to the fee cuts, and pay off their loans faster due to the lower threshold, thus paying less interest in total. The new system, according to the BBC, would certainly be less progressive than the current one.

Hence, how should policymakers instead address issues in higher education? It is not merely an issue of tuition fees, but also a more overarching problem with the marketisation of higher education. Since the 1980s, education is viewed as more of an economic commodity rather than necessary to improve people’s wellbeing and living standards. Instead of being an arena for self-development and academic discourse, university is increasingly seen as a launchpad for high-earning careers.

Though the idea of tuition fee cuts may be an appealing one for students, it comes with several conditions. Most significantly, the period of paying off student debt is extended, so students would expect to pay off their student debts for the following 40 years, rather than the current 30 years cap

The problem is that in reality, only a small proportion of graduates actually manage to secure jobs that were implicitly promised at the start of university education. As a consequence, higher education is now principally viewed through a lens of ‘rational’ economic valuation, reflected in the quantitative argument used in them Augar review. Studying STEM subjects have a higher potential for large salaries, so they should be prioritised, says the report. Although this is not a faulty statement per se, it implies that higher education funding is a zero-sum game, and more seriously, that the main issue in graduates’ low earnings is the subjects that they chose to take, rather than a wider issue in the job market.

Matt Waddup, director of the Universities and Colleges Union, argues that the report fundamentally misunderstood the needs of further and higher education today. The suggestion to cut funding for higher education in order to invest in further education, he claims, would only create ‘less cohesion, more cuts and a worse deal for students.’ Moreover, he makes a case against measuring degree courses simply through the monetary benefit that they provide. Instead, the social benefit provided by humanities and social science courses transcend purely financial output but also enriching our culture.

Is this a good argument, given that research has shown that arts graduates earn significantly less than their STEM peers? Though it may be a bit of an oversimplification to regard university degrees merely through monetary terms, the fact of the matter is that students need decent-paying jobs after their education.

However, the undervaluation of jobs in the arts and humanities should not be an excuse to channel funding away from the arts to STEM subjects. It can be argued that the focus on channeling funding from one sector to another is analogous to the marketisation of higher education, which, although initially was created to improve competitiveness of universities and encourage them to provide better services, has veered away into an overemphasis on cutting down costs and a zero-sum nature of government expenditure on education, eluding decision makers from realising the option of increasing funding in both sectors to reflect the increasing number of students participating in higher education.

Though it may be a bit of an oversimplification to regard university degrees merely through monetary terms, the fact of the matter is that students need decent-paying jobs after their education

Furthermore, recommendations should also place greater attention into the current use of government subsidies in higher education. Following reports by Office for Students that almost half of all vice-chancellors earn more than £300 000, whereas teaching staff has faced voluntary severance schemes and declining wages for the past decade.

One crucial problem within higher education which remains unmentioned in the report is student mental health. If universities cannot maintain the mental wellbeing of students, this would inevitably result in higher dropout rates, costing the government more money. Again, the marketisation of education plays a large role in universities’ general lack of regard for mental health. Counselling services andmmental health providers are only noticed when they are absent from university campuses – underprovision of these services may result in various adverse effects on student wellbeing, which are frankly more news-worthy than students being in a good mental state. Thus, it is not very profitable to invest in wellbeing services, in comparison to targeted advertising and constructing new accommodation buildings, for instance.

Universities tend to only start noticing the dire mental health of its students when it is too late. Incremental changes to universities’ wellbeing services, such as providing meditation or yoga classes, would not help, when the core issue is that students are not receiving enough academic support in terms of contact hours or provision of adequate facilities to conduct their studies. It is not only students struggling academically who may feel that their university is not doing enough for them. High- performing students may feel that their course is not good value for money. Most recently, an alumnus from Anglia Ruskin University graduating with a First in International Business Strategy won a lawsuit against the institution over her ‘Mickey Mouse degree’. The solution to this might not be simply lowering tuition fees, but improving quality of education to ensure that students have the required skills to be employable after graduating.

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