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May is almost over, so it must be time for Augar

In the midst of the European elections, Brexit and the resignation of the Prime Minister today, several crises are now crashing together to exert a profound effect on the futures of young people across the UK. One of these is approaching fast in the form of the Augar Post-18 Education Review. It will present the next government with a major challenge that might even match that posed by the Robbin’s report back in 1963. Its recommendations were left for a new Labour government to deal with from 1964 onwards.

There is intense speculation that the delayed Augar report must be released before the prime minister steps down on the 7th of June. This is inevitable since the BBC announced that “Tuition fees cut expected as Theresa May's legacy” (BBC News 16 May 2019). She will surely leave this on the desk of the new leader who might be lucky to last two months before an election.

What are the constraints on Augar?

We should not forget that the review panel is very small. Along with Philip Augar, a history graduate and now finance and banking expert (see TEFS 19th February 2019 The review of post-18 education and funding: Who is Philip Augar? ), there are only four others on the panel. Whilst very able in themselves, the depth of experience on the panel is nevertheless limited; particularly with respect to the demands of science degrees and the additional challenges these place upon less advantaged students. 

The remit of the panel was to consider the following.

Choice and competition across a joined-up post-18 education and training sector
A system that is accessible to all
Delivering the skills our country needs
Value for money for graduates and taxpayers

A research briefing paper from the House of Commons in February (The Forthcoming Review of Post-18 Education and Funding) explored the various options and predicted a spring release of the report. This is the best analysis available to date and defines the limitations that Augar is working under. See Figure showing an overview of the constraints.

Taken from the House of Commons Briefing Paper 8490

Despite Augar’s task appearing to be comprehensive, according to the House of Commons research it must also be “consistent with the Government's fiscal policies to reduce the deficit and not place a cap on the number of students who can benefit from post-18 education. Only student contributions towards the cost of their studies, including the level, terms and duration of their contribution will be considered.”

It is hard see how the future of post-18 education succeeds in “delivering the skills out country needs” in a “system that is accessible to all” without spending more. 

Delivering skills. 

One thing that is essential in Higher Education is the need to address the quality of its courses. This underpins the challenge of delivering skills. Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) raised some very valid points earlier this week regarding assessing the quality of university courses with “If we oppose every existing method of assessing the quality of university courses, we should propose some new ones of our own”. The idea of consulting students is just one facet of how this might be achieved. However, an over reliance on student feedback is not a good idea. TEFS has stressed that the external examination system should be strengthened and include detailed assessment of the curricula and its delivery. Hillman rightly stresses that a degree is defined to a great extent by the level or effort demanded of the students with “a ‘Mickey Mouse degree’ is: any course, irrespective of discipline, that fails to engage their students sufficiently hard.” See also TEFS 4th January 2019 'Is teaching intensity the Achilles heel of our universities?' 

The Advance HE student survey with HEPI last year concluded that nearly 25% of the students surveyed had total workloads below 20 hours per week. Effectively they were in part-time study masquerading as full-time. This year’s survey is due very soon and will probably show a similar trend. In calling for students to work “between 30 and 39 hours a week”, Hillman concludes that “No one could pretend such a measure would provide finely-grained comparative assessments of different courses. But it might just help build a consensus around the idea that there is a minimum level of commitment necessary for successful higher-level study, as well as a minimum level beneath which a true full-time higher education experience may not exist.”

Certainly the amount of teaching time has declined over recent years and this seems to coincide with more students in part-time employment. For my degree in the early 1970’s, I had 32 hours timetabled per week with a minimum of 20 hours of independent work needed on top of this. A part-time job in term-time was out of the question. This study regime would be almost impossible for students today if they rely upon income from a part-time job(s). When I started teaching in 1980, in what is now a Russell Group university, the contact time was between 28 and 30 hours per week. Additional study time in the region of 20 hours per week was needed. By the time I left at the end of 2016 the contact time had reduced to 15 hours per week. This is an astounding fact that is replicated across most institutions and is driven by increased student numbers taught by fewer staff pro rata. But Hillman is quite correct. We must return to more demanding courses as a matter of urgency if universities are expected to be “Delivering the skills our country needs”.

Accessible to all: Defining who can benefit.

The catch is in the expectation of Augar that it should “not place a cap on the number of students who can benefit from post-18 education”. So who can benefit? There is intense speculation that A-Level grades below a cut-off of 3 Ds will not be considered to be sufficient to guarantee benefit from a university education. But access to all is not so easily achieved if the workload for students is increased to that of past years. Also, it does not address the idea of equality and fairness for all that might benefit. Those with less time to study will not benefit, regardless of their A-Level grades. There is a paradox in an increase in workload and ensuring fair access without more support.

How students balance jobs with studies.

The work ethos in universities is a now a very harsh one with consequences for staff and students. Another HEPI report this week ‘Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff’ highlights the escalating situation up to 2016 at least. It is doubtful that things are better in the intervening three years and they are probably much worse. Many staff work in excess of 50 or 60 hours per week and that was my experience for much of my 37 year career. This often reached over 80 hours per week during the busiest period in the second semester. The recent ‘revelations’ about staff mental health in universities comes as no surprise to me and I know that this is not reported to management in many cases.

Similar time demands fall onto students with financial needs and part-time jobs. In my experience, two scenarios are typical. 

Firstly, consider a student might who works for at least five hours every evening in a carry out restaurant near campus. This amounts to the equivalent of a full-time job for 35 hours per week. Study is fitted into any spare time during the day and comes out at around a total of 70 hours work per week. This is not impossible but could easily flounder with illness, loss of the job and the pressure of having no social life.

Secondly, consider a student
who travels home every weekend to start work at a local hotel on ‘back to back shifts’ till Sunday evening. This can amount to between 25 to 30 hours per week. Others may have to agree to additional shifts with employers during the week day if they can fit this in alongside their course timetable. I have seen first-hand the effects of making minor timetable changes at the last minute. The overall result in any scenario is damage to attainment driven by a financial constraint. Yet most universities are unaware of the extent of the issue amongst their students. This may be because there is an assumption that students do not work more hours than they declare; if they are asked at all or do declare. Also, that many have no outside working commitments and it is very ‘uncomfortable’ to consider how unfair their course demands are toward those not so fortunate. The Office for National Statistics employment data reveals that over 60% of students have no part-time work in term or in the holidays. (see TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies.’ But it seems that for them the demands of university courses are far too low and they are in danger of lacking focus and drifting.

The evidence.

There is a scandalous lack of evidence about the actual hours worked by students and the impact this has on attainment. Yet this is at the core of providing fairness and a level playing surface alongside those not impacted by jobs. Hillman is right in calling for an increase in working hours on full-time degreed courses or classify them as part-time. The demands of our university courses, particularly in the practical sciences, must be improved if skill levels are to be improved. But this has to be accompanied by careful time management of staff, a limit on part-time jobs and better maintenance support for the students that need it. It will be interesting to see if Augar addresses this point. Failing that, the House of Commons is planning a so called ‘Evidence Week: why scrutinising evidence matters’ from the 25th June. This may be a chance to seek to raise the evidential bar on the pressure put upon students that achieve ‘access’ but then don’t get a fair crack at their degree studies.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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