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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Extract from a speech to the Open University

  • 9 July 2014
  • By Nick Hillman


Thank you for inviting me.

HEPI is the UK’s only specialist think-tank on higher education: we are independent, non-partisan and a registered charity. Our goal is to shape the higher education debate for the better, with research. Or, to put it another way, using evidence to help politicians resist the temptation of saying stupid things. We are supported by the majority of universities across the UK, and I am very grateful for the Open University’s long-standing support.

You rarely hear a bad word said about the OU. That is quite right because you have been broadening access to higher education and transforming lives for five decades. I was very struck by the figures in David Watson’s report for the Leadership Foundation that shows you not only lead the field in credit transfer but beat the whole of the rest of the sector put together. I am alive to the work you do bringing education to the widest possible audiences because, as a secondary school History teacher, I used to love going through the lists of your BBC2 programmes to see which ones I could use with my top-end classes. Now, you have grabbed the initiative with FutureLearn.

Political parties and the founding of institutions

As a keen amateur historian, I am interested in the origins of our institutions. There aren’t many HEIs in Britain with origins drawn directly from a political party. But this time last week, I was speaking to a GuildHE event at Ashridge Business School, which was originally founded by some Conservatives as a ‘College of Citizenship’. And now I am here at the OU, which the Labour Party can lay a good claim to founding. I wasn’t aware until quite recently just how quickly other politicians sought to take the credit too.

For example, just before the 1970 general election a colleague ribbed Margaret Thatcher (the shadow education minister) by claiming the proposed new University of Buckingham was ‘Thatcher University Limited’. She rejected this, saying: ‘That is the Open University’. She bitterly pointed out that her fellow Conservatives in the shadow cabinet were, at that time, ‘refusing money’ for the new venture. In office after the election, she fought a successful campaign to save the OU. That says a lot about the potential cross-party appeal of what you do.

Public policymaking

As a special adviser to the Coalition Government, I deeply appreciated the open and willing way in which you approach public policy. Too often, people splutter about changes emerging from Government without having made any attempt to inform the officials and politicians driving policy. That is not a criticism that can be made of the OU. Indeed, the OU was the first university I visited when I started working on HE policy back in 2007, when I came to hear about the problems being caused by the ELQ (Equivalent and Lower Qualification) changes. I vividly recall the group of students I met then, such as the young woman who could not go away for a residential HE experience due to her caring responsibilities. She was not bitter about it because she felt she was getting at least a good student experience as her sibling who was studying elsewhere at much greater expense, which is of course more than reflected in your National Student Survey scores. The OU was also one of the first institutions I visited when I became the Director of the HEPI earlier this year, when I particularly enjoyed seeing some of your world-class research.

A safety valve?

So I don’t have a bad word to say about what you do. But part of the reason for my obsequiousness is that I want to focus a little on one way in which the OU might be a hindrance to the wider HE debate. It’s not your fault; indeed, it reflects your success. But it does worry me how often the OU’s strengths are sometimes used by others as an excuse not to do things. That may sound heretical but it’s not a particularly original thought, for the great Californian academic, Martin Trow, wrote almost thirty years ago that the OU can be ‘a kind of safety valve’ for the rest of the university sector.

Let me give you three potential examples of the consequences. It is possible that the OU’s willingness to recognise prior qualifications is hindering others from believing they need to do so. Research-intensive universities have been known to exempt themselves from offering part-time courses on the grounds that the OU serves that function for the country as a whole. There is, as yet, no serious competition to the FutureLearn platform, which helps explain why large parts of our HE sector still do not have a reasonable online presence.

So, while the OU has been a great driver of innovation in our HE system, I do wonder if parts of the HE sector have allowed your welcome appetite for innovation to blunt their own.

This is an extract from a speech that also covered the decline in part-time numbers and other issues of relevance to the 2015 general election.

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