A report was presented to Parliament today, 30 May 2019, by an independent panel appointed by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. The panel was chaired by Dr Philip Augar. The report runs to 210 pages and contains 53 recommendations for Government. While it will be for the future Prime Minister, Government and Parliament to consider the recommendations, Theresa May today welcomed the report and specifically highlighted one of the recommendations and called for the reintroduction of student maintenance grants to support individuals from low income families. There is a strong message throughout the report of the importance of improving social mobility and closing the gap between ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ students.
The report’s core message is that post-18 education in England “is a story of both care [higher education] and neglect [further education]” and that the disparity should be addressed as a matter of fairness to individuals and in order to “bring considerable social and economic benefits” to the country. A thread runs through the report in terms of the extent to which the different funding mechanisms provide appropriate incentives to both individuals and institutions for courses which are beneficial to society, the economy and advancing the Government’s Industrial Strategy. Concern is expressed about what are seen as ‘low value courses’.
The headline in the national press has been for some time that the report would recommend a reduction in the undergraduate tuition fee cap from its current level of £9250 pa to £7500 pa. This leaked recommendation is included in the report and it is suggested that this new fee cap could be introduced by 2021/22. However, the report also recommends that the Government should replace the lost fee income from this reduction by increasing the teaching grant paid to institutions. The report also recommends that the undergraduate tuition fee cap should be frozen until 2022/23, but also notes that there should be an additional £500m of possible tuition fee income available to institutions from the expected change in demographics and the anticipated increase in young people from 2020.
While there may be a range of legal, regulatory and commercial issues for institutions depending on their specific circumstances arising from the report’s recommendations, if implemented in whole or in part, perhaps the most important law to remember at this early stage is the law of unintended consequences. The report will require careful consideration by Government, Parliament, institutions, businesses, tax-payers and all citizens across the country in order to ensure that we protect and sustain what is rightly recognised as one of the country’s important sectors of the national economy but also to ensure that individuals, from all backgrounds, have an appropriate range of academic and vocational opportunities open to them, now and into the future as our society and economy continue to change at an increasingly rapid pace.