The Week

The Week, 25 February 2022

In a week in which Russia invaded Ukraine, all eyes have rightly been on this horrific and unforgivable act. The focus must of course be on implementing the harshest and most debilitating response possible, but in due course, we must also reflect on the deficiencies in our strategic foresight — as with the pandemic, it appears our risk assessment and preparedness fell short.

Away from foreign affairs, the Government continued to shape its domestic agenda. Yesterday, the Minster of State for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, announced the long-awaited response to the Augur Review of higher education funding. The Department for Education have published a command and consultation paper outlining their plans to build “a fairer and more sustainable system”. The paper notes that since 2016-17 the cost of the HE system has increased by almost 45 per cent, and by the end of the Parliament it will have increased by 66 per cent. The Government’s aim is to deliver a more sustainable system while reducing student debt and improving outcomes.

On student financing, key policies include abolishing the above inflation student loan interest rates (about time!) and reducing to £25,000 the salary threshold at which graduates pay back their loan. The latter has caused some consternation, but it’s worth remembering that the Augar Review actually recommended £23,000, based on the principle that you start repaying your loan once you start accruing the financial benefit of ‘being a graduate’ (i.e. the threshold should be equivalent to the median earnings of all working age, non-graduates). That seems pretty fair, especially when many degrees cost more than £9,250 and are therefore being subsidised by general taxation.

The Government is also consulting on the case for minimum entry requirements and student number controls. Cue further consternation, on the former in particular. The Government has suggested two options: a minimum of a pass in GCSE English and Maths or two ‘E’ grades a A-Level. Clearly there are possible risks with this, for example excluding an academically capable student who endures a traumatic experience during their GCSE year, but in principle, having a basic level of capability seems sensible.

Also on Thursday, the Chancellor delivered the annual Mais Lecture, containing much of what you would expect to hear from Sunak. He promised a return to budgetary responsibility and lower taxes, but was clear that achieving this would take time (the idea of self-funding tax cuts, he said, is ”neither...serious or credible”). What is required instead is a “new culture of enterprise”.

To this end, Sunak announced he would focus on three priorities: “Capital. People. Ideas.” He will cut tax on capital investment; use tax incentivises to encourage companies to invest in better training the adult workforce; and overhaul tax breaks for R&D investment. All welcome.

But perhaps the most interesting part of his speech was his positing of the market in the context of the State and civil society. “For all that there is a moral and material case for the market, I recognise its limits”. First, because the market disrupts, and as we have seen, can leave people behind, the role of Government (through public services) is essential. Second, wealth creation is good, but we must “guard against...turning a market economy into a market society”. And third, the market alone cannot deal with crises and “periods of profound disruption”. A pitch for the next round up the career ladder?

Onto our recommended reads... ****

Our first read this week is a report by the Public Accounts Committee on public money lost due to fraud in the Government’s various pandemic schemes. One example given is the Coronavirus Job Retention (Furlough) Scheme, through which £5.3 billion has been lost to “fraud and error”, equating to 8.7 per cent of total funding allocated. More worrying still, the report notes that the Treasury “does not yet know” how much taxpayer money has been lost in total. We wholeheartedly commend the very sensible recommendation that Government work out how much could be recovered for every pound spent doing so.

Next, we’ve been reading this article by Clare Gerada in The Guardian. Reflecting on 30 years as a GP, she laments the loss of the personalised relationship between communities and primary care, writing that she became as “impersonal as the driver delivering a pizza”. She argues that end-of-life care has become more complicated as life expectancies have increased and patients are dying with “often three or four serious long-term conditions”. Gerada reaches the conclusion that, oftentimes, there’s “nothing much she can offer patients” who, at the end of life, cannot receive respite from simple painkillers and antibiotics. The article raises interesting questions about how we conceive of primary care — and in particular, the predominance of GPs over forms of community support that can offer different, and often more appropriate care.

Our final read this week is Baroness Cavendish’s independent report into social care. Commissioned by the Government, this report was slipped out (very!) quietly on Monday. We haven’t had a chance to go through it with a fine tooth comb, but it starts with exactly the right questions: “What does a happy old age (or adulthood) look like? How can we keep people independent for longer? How can we build relationships and give people a life?” Clearly with an ageing population, an honest debate about how to make social care spending sustainable in the long run is necessary, but to start that conversation we also need a positive vision for social care.

Have a lovely weekend,

Patrick King

Research & Events Assistant