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Head of CSIC champions modern engineering as multidisciplinary endeavour at Lords debate on funding

last modified Jul 10, 2019 02:52 PM
Professor Lord Robert Mair welcomes investment in further education and brings focus to funding of higher education at a Lords debate on the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding.

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The wide-ranging review led by Philip Augar was announced in February last year by Prime Minister Theresa May and the independent panel undertook a programme of stakeholder engagement and evidence gathering before publishing the report in May this year, setting out findings and policy recommendations for government consideration.

Viscount Younger of Leckie opened the debate on behalf of the Government by thanking all contributors to the review, which received almost 400 responses to the call for evidence.

In his speech, Lord Mair reflected on the headline recommendations following publication of the review that the cap on higher education student tuition fees should be reduced from the current £9,250 per year to £7,500, and that the term of repayment should increase from the current 30 years to 40 years. He acknowledged the contents of the review beyond the headlines with “very important consequences for higher education and substantial benefits for provision in further education”.

Welcoming recommendations for further education, Lord Mair set out the potentially major impact on reviving the fortunes of vocational and technical education, which are also critical for engineering. He said: “It is highly significant, for example, that in Germany 20% of 25 year-olds have a higher technical qualification, whereas in the UK the figure is only 4%. I therefore warmly support the report’s recommendation that the Government should provide FE colleges with a dedicated capital investment of £1 billion over the next spending review period.” Lord Mair also strongly supported the recommendation that the Government restore maintenance grants of at least £3,000 per year for socio-economically disadvantaged students.  

Bringing focus to the funding of higher education, Lord Mair warned against potential consequences of a reduction in student tuition fees for universities if the shortfall is not replaced. He said: “If the lost income is not replaced by the Government, universities will be faced with tough choices. Faced with a cut in income for teaching, there is a risk that they will decide to cut provision in expensive courses such as engineering, despite the country badly needing more engineers.”

Recognising the Augar review’s systems approach to the funding of the whole post-18 landscape, Lord Mair argued that financial sustainability would only be achieved if its recommendations are implemented as a whole: “It would be highly risky to cherry-pick and implement only individual recommendations in the report.” Considering the proposed fee cut and a directed top-up – “in other words, a managed market” – Lord Mair questioned the process of identifying a subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers. The review recommends the Office for Students (OfS) determine the value but Lord Mair reflected on this exercise as “far from straightforward and is bound to be controversial”. While acknowledging the likelihood of engineering being favoured by such an exercise, as courses “offer some of the best value for money for the taxpayer in terms of economic returns and graduate salaries”, Lord Mair noted modern engineering is a “multidisciplinary endeavour that increasingly relies on close collaboration with the arts and social sciences”. There must not, he argued, “be a risk of penalising important disciplines such as languages, social sciences, humanities and arts in favour of STEM subjects”.

Lord Mair stressed that it is important that “any changes to the funding resulting from the Augar review do not impact on the sustainability of research and innovation activities within UK universities. It is also important that changes in funding do not discourage the young from pursuing STEM subjects”. Concluding his speech Lord Mair said: “Finally, it is vital for the country that our world-class research is not jeopardised in any way by the Augar review.”

Read the full Hansard report of the debate held on 2 July here.

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CSIC is an Innovation and Knowledge Centre funded by EPSRC, Innovate UK and industry. We develop cutting edge sensing and data analysis models to provide a powerful platform for delivering data to enable smarter whole-life asset management decisions, for both new infrastructure and existing assets. CSIC collaborates with partner organisations across policy, standards and industry adoption to effect transformative change, deliver benefits to all stakeholders and establish the UK as a global leader in digital construction.