Further education will need to contend with scrutiny from the Office for Students to access funding prescribed by the Augar review, says Martin Vincent

The Augar Review’s recommendations have the potential to address deep-seated imbalances in post-18 education and put colleges on more equal footing with universities, both in terms of prestige and funding. However, now we’ve had time to digest the report in full, the further education sector must quickly realise what this parity would mean in practice.

Philip Augar has recommended that the Office for Students (OfS) should become the national regulator for non-apprenticeship education provision at levels 4 and above, and establish a working group with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) to develop new regulation that covers this extended remit. Whatever the outcome, this means the OfS will be significantly more involved in further education. This will come with a layer of scrutiny that colleges and other vocational training providers are unfamiliar with and, arguably, unprepared for.

The most significant impact of this change will be in relation to funding. How new revenue streams for FE would be structured is only hinted at in Augar’s report. As an overview, it recommends that an additional £3 billion should be made available to FE annually, in addition to a £1 billion capital investment from the government in a newly formed national network of colleges.

Two specific measures it does recommend are free level 2 and 3 qualifications for everyone over the age of 18 and a drop in the tuition fee cap from £9,000 to £7,500, which will impact the growing number of colleges offering validated degree programmes.

We can expect that a system that is more dependent on teaching grants from the OfS will emerge to bridge the funding gap left by a reduction in student contributions. This means FE could be reliant on the OfS and subject to all of the accompanying regulation this brings for the first time – a radical departure for colleges.

The FE sector needs to prepare for a step change

Currently, the most significant regulations the sector must adhere to are the statutory provisions of The Higher and Further Education Act and the financial probity conditions and performance guidelines set by the ESFA. FE funding is not currently dependent on areas such as teaching excellence and student experience.

This would change if the Augar Review’s recommendations are fully enacted. Teaching grants from the OfS are linked to the body’s Teaching Excellence Framework and league tables that certify institutions as gold, silver or bronze depending on performance. The system is designed to increase competition and deliver value for money to students, but if colleges are not up to scratch, the funding could potentially be reduced or cut altogether.

Colleges would also have to officially register with the OfS to be eligible for grants. The Augar Review recommends that colleges are given protected titles to increase their standing at a national level. Achieving this status will inevitably come with conditions. For universities, the status of Registered Provider carries with it responsibilities, rules and standards covering everything from student welfare and education delivery, to engagement with the community. If an institution breaches any of these requirements, the OfS can launch investigations, levy financial penalties and, in extreme cases, remove teaching licences altogether. Colleges can expect a similar framework to be introduced and would be wise to start reviewing the steps that universities have taken to comply. 

Beyond this, colleges that offer validated degree programmes will need to understand how their relationships with universities could change if HE and FE are both subject to OfS regulations. If, for example, a college’s OfS classification drops from gold to bronze, a university that validates degrees for that institution may review the arrangement to protect its reputation.

The Augar review recommendations still need to be transposed into legislation, but it is likely to usher in changes that improve FE’s position. To take advantage, colleges and training providers need to understand and prepare for a corresponding step change in what is required of them in terms of regulation and compliance.