An Augar of a hard future

Nope

One of the things that British HE loves is a good review: we have them all the time, to help wile away the hours until our next Research Evaluation.

Best of all, reviews mean you don’t have to actually do anything: just wait for the report, then ‘consider it’, then hope that no one pushes you too hard for actual action.

The latest in the long line is the Augar report, which looks at the (sorry) state of financing the sector. It would be fair to say that no-one is too keen on its findings in the round.

The problem is money: there’s not really enough of it and right now too much is felt to come from students. The big shift from direct funding to student-attached money took place a decade or more ago, but opposition to rising fees has become a shibboleth of those who worry about access and form an easy political target.

But if you cut back how much students have to pay in directly – as Augar suggests, by cutting back fees – there’s a shortfall. Either the government picks up the tab – Augar’s preference – or the sector contracts and consolidates to generate efficiencies.

Oddly, the government doesn’t seem mad-keen on the former, even as it’s not quite yet ready to do the latter.

Throw in a leadership contest in the governing party and you have the ideal recipe for “let’s not deal with it now”, that old favourite of HE policy.

I’m interested in this at multiple levels, not least as someone with a job in the sector. But it also points to the challenges facing the UK in its state of Brexiting.

One of the big sells for a post-EU UK has been its role as a global leader in HE: the country punches well above its weight on any metric you care to mention and no Brexiteers’ speech is complete without reference to our global universities.

But this doesn’t happen by itself: the sector has never been self-sustaining and autonomous: student fees are guaranteed by the government, who also provide the money for many of the major research councils. Yes, universities are run as businesses, but none could cope without that public support.

Partly, that reflects the nature of HE. Augar decries ‘mickey mouse’ degrees (back in the news again) for their lack of commercial value. But education isn’t just (or even, particularly) about narrow financial gain: it’s about helping people become more than they were, to make sense of the world around them. Learning is its own reward (which is nice, but still needs money to make it happen).

So the dilemma remains: stick with the current (unpopular) system; increase central funding (when belts might need tightening); or risk compromising the eco-system of British HE that is generally acclaimed to be A Good Thing.

In this, it’s a bit like Brexit: there are no good choices and there are no cost-free choices.

Maybe we need another review to sort it out.

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