The Augar Review means universities will need to be smarter with their assets
Universities are one of Northern England’s greatest assets. From the collegiate beauty of Durham, to the red brick majesty of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle, to increasingly impressive newer universities such as Sheffield Hallam and Bradford - the North’s higher education sector is a major employer and a huge source of global research and innovation.
Investing in these institutions is central to the Northern Powerhouse agenda and is rightly climbing up the news agenda.However, the North’s universities face a number of challenges over the coming years as a result of shifting trends in higher education and increasing political pressure to reduce tuition fees. The government-commissioned Augar Review, released this week, recommends a series of changes to further and higher education, designed to dramatically impact the admission process, how degrees are delivered and, perhaps most importantly, how universities are funded.
The report focuses on four key areas: choice, accessibility, skills and value. On choice, the report suggests a rebalancing of funding and emphasis to further education by providing more funding to support technical and vocational training. It also reflects a desire amongst politicians of all stripes to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the reintroduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 per year for students from lower income backgrounds. On skills, the aspirations of the government’s emerging Industrial Strategy will be central to ensuring the further education sector is geared towards equipping students with the tools they need to compete in the jobs market of the next 50 years.
It is on the issue of value where the Augar Review has been most outspoken. Since the introduction of £9,000 a year tuition fees in 2012, there has been increased debate about what students should expect from their university in terms of contact time, career development and assessment feedback. The report has met predictions by recommending annual tuition fees reduce from £9,250 to £7,500. Universities would receive top-up grants from government but work in a way that promotes ‘quality’ degrees like STEM courses which are perceived in some quarters as higher value than arts, humanities and social science degrees. From early analysis, it seems highly likely there will be financial implications for our universities in the North of England which benefit significantly from the range of degrees on offer.
Should the incoming Prime Minister accept Augar’s recommendations of a reduction in fees and increased pressure on improving accessibility, universities will need to be more innovative in how they utilise their assets and increase revenue. With strong links with local businesses and the public sector, many universities are already well placed to adapt to this new funding environment. The University of Manchester recently announced ambitious plans for ID Manchester, a new £1.5bn Innovation District which will be delivered in partnership with the private sector. The University already has strong links with major employers such as Rolls Royce, Siemens and Unilever, providing investment in new facilities and research.
Similarly, a planning application was submitted earlier this year for the proposed Leeds Innovation District, a project jointly developed by the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University, the NHS and Leeds City Council. Along with commercial space for small and medium sized companies, the development will also incorporate student housing and new learning facilities for students hoping to enter sectors such as film, fashion and television. Universities across the North will need to develop these collaborative relationships with private and public sector partners as the higher education funding environment becomes more challenging.
Health and social care is likely to be an area where research and innovation partnerships, incorporating universities, local authorities and the private sector, are increasingly crucial. The University of Central Lancashire launched its ambitious ‘One Health’ strategy last year, working with the NHS, local councils and commissioning bodies to develop new courses in subjects such as occupational therapy. Ensuring value in higher education is not just about fee levels but providing students with sufficient opportunities to develop the skills they need to thrive in their future career.
The Augar Review raises significant funding questions for government in rebalancing higher with further education to help close skills gaps. Many universities in the North of England are already well placed to adapt to this new environment, particularly through the partnership working across the private and public sectors that is delivering quality education for the region’s diverse cohort of students.
Higher and further education will remain one of the North’s most important sectors, and the Augar Review's recommendations for a change to existing funding arrangements will provide opportunities to innovate, as well as challenges to overcome. This report also gives Universities in the North an opportunity for fresh thinking on how they collaborate with other institutions on construction procurement and deliver more efficient, modern estates.