The Augar Review: business as usual for business schools?
When the Augar Review of post-18 education was ordered in February 2018, the world was a strikingly different place. Prime Minister Theresa May was concerned about the politics and costs of higher education. On the former, the Labour party had contemplated scrapping tuition fees. On the latter, the government’s decision to adjust the treatment of student loans on their balance sheet to “better reflect the government’s financial position” was becoming pressing. The data now suggests that over 150 countries round the world have a GDP of less than the UK’s £161bn student loan book.
The recent government response to the Augar review has been delayed for a variety of reasons and in that delay, there have been seismic shifts in the national and international landscape. For the economy and society as a whole, it has been a turbulent period.
Viewed through the narrow lens of higher education necessarily runs the risk of missing the bigger picture but our universities continue see student and staff recruitment impacted by Brexit and the Covid pandemic. The need to switch to online learning in March 2020 saw rapid and radical changes in pedagogy which many describe as hothousing more than a decade’s worth of innovation into a few short weeks. These shocks to the wider economy now combine with the outbreak of conflict in the Ukraine in recent weeks meaning that inflation and recession may combine in pernicious ways over the next period. What then, might the consequences be for schools of business and management?
Our business schools comprise the second biggest group of academic staff of any discipline, teaching more students than any other subject area. Indeed, 1 in 6 of all students and 1 in 3 of all international students study a business-related degree. A common misconception is that business schools are mostly concerned with educating senior executives. In reality, only 6% of business school students are studying an MBA and around 10% of our student community come from the most disadvantaged socio-economic category. In absolute terms, only subjects allied to medicine has higher numbers of widening participation students. Foundation courses offer an important route into university for many business school students. Reducing fee levels for Foundation courses may seem obvious but our experience of offering Foundation at scale also draws attention to the additional support and development needed to help students transition effectively to university learning. That support isn’t complicated but it isn’t free either.
Business schools probably aren’t front and centre when it comes to concerns about low quality degrees and the suggested introduction of minimum entry tariffs in English and Maths may not impact Chartered ABS members significantly. But it is important to note that the impact of Foundation and minimum entry requirements will play out differentially across very different kinds of business schools with very different constituencies. It was excellent to hear the commitment to social mobility and that the government doesn’t want to take a position on the numbers of students going to university. Business schools, like many other disciplines, work hard to attract students in from a diverse range of backgrounds and need to work just as hard to retain those same students whilst preparing them for graduate level work.
The other big message from the government’s recent response was the consultation on Life-Long Loan Entitlement. Trailed as up to four years of post-18 education to use at any point and worth an equivalent of £37,000, LLE was styled as enabling a learning journey that individuals can stop and start whenever you like. Business schools already work with significant numbers of post-experience learners, part-time learners and work-based learners, many of whom have been supported by their employers. The removal of the hugely successful degree apprentice route at Master’s level was a misstep, borne out of misunderstanding. The sheer numbers of people wanting to undertake an MBA or MSc on a part-time basis to further enhance their career prospects is understandable. That the employer levy funded this opportunity was a key enabler and it should be borne in mind that management education has a big part to play in addressing our national productivity challenge. If LLE can be made to work effectively for part-time, work-based and flexible study routes at UG and PGT levels, business schools will engage quickly and effectively.
In summary, the regulatory landscape of HE is changing and it is changing fast. Our business schools form an integral part of that landscape but have particular needs and particular opportunities. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, suggests that we have just heard a carefully balanced package of reforms which send powerful signals about the government’s priorities. Those priorities appear to focus on flexible, high-quality, employment-relevant education which just happens to be what business schools already do well, at scale. We would urge further consideration of the pathways into degree level study in our business schools for school leavers and those in work. There are clear opportunities to enhance the UK economy growing the managerial skills of both individuals and employers and much will rest on the suitability of the funding mechanisms and incentives at play.
Professor Robert MacIntosh is Faculty Pro Vice Chancellor of Business and Law at Northumbria University and Chair of Chartered ABS.