Bishop of Winchester responds to Augar review of post-18 education, proposes public service covenant for vocational graduates

winchester171116On 2nd July 2019 the House of Lords debated a motion “that this House should take note of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding led by Philip Augar”. The Bishop of Winchester, Rt Revd Tim Dakin, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this debate. Similarly, I thank Philip Augar and the independent panel members for the thorough review that they have undertaken. I welcome the publication of this report and the issues it raises. I declare my interests as the lead bishop for further and higher education, and as a governor of the University of Winchester.

I shall comment on three areas. My first point is about ensuring a genuinely rich ecology of higher education providers, and especially the contribution made by smaller and specialist institutions. A local example is the University of Winchester, a member of the Cathedrals Group association of universities, some of which are among the country’s smaller higher education institutions in terms of student numbers. One of the headline recommendations of the review is to lower tuition fees, which will reduce the funding institutions receive unless it is provided from other sources, such as grants for teaching. To enhance a diverse range of universities and secure the quality of provision, it is imperative to have a funding system that enables these institutions to flourish, and not simply larger universities which are generally more able to withstand funding turbulence.

It is true that the effect of the proposed changes will vary between institutions. However, I draw the Minister’s attention to some initial estimates on this matter. A headline tuition fee of £7,500 would reduce the income of some Cathedrals Group members by some 10% to 20%. One of the likely consequences of such a reduction would be fewer opportunities for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to access good local higher education provision—a particular strength in members of the Cathedrals Group, amounting to almost one in four students at one such institution.

It is vital to recall that universities are crucial centres for cultural provision, community and civic engagement, and support for local economies. I therefore support the report’s recommendation that teaching grants should replace any funding deficit, so that local communities do not lose out from a decline in university civic engagement, and, equally importantly, students do not suffer the loss of essential services, including provision for mental health and well-being—although I do share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the security of such a funding stream in the future.

My second point is how pleased I was to see the emphasis placed on the value of further education—not just in an abstract way but by addressing funding for the 50% of young people who never attend university. It is crucial to recognise the central value of further education as an essential public good in itself. Indeed, it is part of the basic educational infrastructure that opens opportunities for those from all backgrounds to access learning and training, enabling them to contribute to the cultural and industrial health of our society. Many noble Peers have already pressed the case here.

Furthermore, I am pleased that Augar is forward-looking to the changing landscape of the labour market. Our further and higher education sector must not only support the increasing number of 18 year-olds wishing to study at university, but be adaptable enough to meet the needs of a society demanding reskilled adult workers. It is crucial that further education colleges, particularly in towns that lack a university, receive a long-term increase in funding. Further education provides the training required to meet the future skills that will be demanded of a society in a fast-changing technological context, offering opportunities for adult learners to return to study and to reskill, especially for the emerging fourth industrial revolution driven by artificial intelligence. I would welcome in particular a commitment from the Minister that Her Majesty’s Government will reverse the underfunding of further education by implementing the recommendations of the report, although I recognise that he may feel unable to commit to this at present.

Thirdly, I support the review’s judgement that the value of a degree should include its social value, and in doing so we must move beyond a narrowly one-dimensional measure based entirely on graduate earning potential. Let me take a concrete example from one of the professions with a public service focus: nursing. Clearly, the restoration of a block grant for teaching would help offset any reduction in fee income and avoid adversely affecting the financial viability of this type of provision. Similarly, the reintroduction of maintenance awards may well go some way towards encouraging increased recruitment, and perhaps compensate for the sharp fall in nursing degree undergraduate applications that has resulted from the abolition of bursaries in April 2017.

However, such steps are insufficiently radical. They do not, for example, address anxieties about student debt that are particularly acute in professions such as nursing, where some 50% of nursing and midwifery trainees are mature students with other family, caring and financial commitments. Nor will they address the equally crucial crisis in staff retention, already visible in nursing, and in social work and teaching.

As a matter of public policy, we need to create more effective ways to incentivise people to join public-service focused professions and to avoid unintentional disincentives for the higher education institutions that educate and train them—for example, by placing too much weight on graduate earnings as a measure of institutional effectiveness. May I suggest to the Minister that a more radical approach would be through a public service covenant. Using the example of nursing—teaching and social work are other possible professions—undergraduates would commit to several years post-registration service to the NHS in return for their loan balance being written off.

I would welcome a response from the Minister as to whether the Government plan to review their higher education policy to address the recruitment and retention crisis in a number of critical public service professions, and whether he would be willing to meet with me to discuss how such a public service covenant might be introduced.

Viscount Younger of Leckie: ….. [Extract] Moving on to student finance, the teaching grant is an important issue raised by a number of Peers, including … the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester….

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester mentioned nursing bursaries, so I will make a few remarks. On the question of a public service covenant—an interesting idea—the right reverend Prelate may be interested to know that in our Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy we have committed to rolling out phased bursaries for more subjects and will announce further details in due course. Our teacher student loan reimbursement pilot also aims to increase recruitment and retention in biology, chemistry, physics, computing and languages. Teachers of these subjects who qualified from the 2013-14 academic year onwards and teach in one of the 25 eligible local authorities can apply for a reimbursement of their student loan repayments. Applications for such reimbursements open this autumn. I would be pleased to meet the right reverend Prelate to discuss his idea and take it further.