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How I got into education policymaking

  • 2 November 2017

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of students at the University of Oxford on how I ended up working in education policy. There was high demand for the session, so I am posting the remarks here in case other people seeking policymaking roles are interested in what I said. Please forgive the excessively personal nature of the remarks, which is unavoidable given the theme. Also, given the party political nature of some of my comments, please rest assured that HEPI is a non-partisan charity that works with people of all (mainstream) political persuasions.

I always wanted to work in politics or policy but did not know how to go about it. I have a decent degree from the University of Manchester, but I am right of centre in my politics and graduated almost 25 years ago, in the days when the Conservative Party would typically find staff by phoning the careers’ services at Oxford and Cambridge to ask if there was a nice young chap – and it would be a chap – that they could send along.

So, after university, I followed most of the rest of my family into teaching and spent around five years as a History teacher in secondary schools. There were aspects of the job I loved and others I didn’t. As a result, after a few years, I returned to university as a postgraduate.

While there, I spotted an advert in the Guardian for a job at Tory party HQ. I applied, got an acknowledgement and then waited months for more news. When it didn’t come, one of my academic referees suggested he follow up with a Tory MP he knew. That MP was David Willetts, who coincidentally was looking for a researcher. So he interviewed me, I got the job and I ended up working for him between 2000 and 2003 and also 2007 until 2013. (Much later, the Tory party itself did offer me an interview but, by then, it was too late.)

The original interview with David Willetts didn’t go brilliantly. I thought he was the shadow secretary of state for education and that I would be okay because I had been a teacher, but it turned out that – due to a recent reshuffle – he was actually the shadow secretary of state for social security (since renamed work and pensions). When he asked me if I knew about the benefits system, all I could think to say was that I had claimed unemployment benefit. But I got the job because I was more experienced than others. Plus there probably weren’t many people my age – mid-20s – prepared to take a pay cut for a potentially insecure role, whereas I was prepared to work for 20% less than I had earned as a teacher two years beforehand just to get my foot on the ladder.

In 2003, with the Tories in the electoral doldrums, I was asked to apply for a job on pensions policy at a trade association for the insurance industry in the City of London. I was offered the role, accepted and found myself still working on policy but on double the salary I had earned as a researcher at the House of Commons. Yet I missed being in the centre of events at Westminster and, at the time, the trade association had a culture reminiscent of the worst caricature of the civil service. I was bored stiff.

So I was intrigued to be invited to go back to work for David Willetts in 2007. By that point, the Tory Party was doing better, with David Cameron in charge, and I was offered a good wage, so I joined a trickle of people making the move back. When I accepted the job, David Willetts was the shadow secretary of state for education. So I was confident that I would finally end up working on schools policy. Yet, by the time I started a few weeks later, a shake-up meant he was the shadow minister for universities, innovation and skills. I never expected to work solely on higher education policy, but that is where I ended up – and where I have been for over a decade since, with no regrets.

After almost three years, I stood in Cambridge at the 2010 election, and was the runner-up. There was a week following the election when no one knew what sort of Government there was going to be and I did not know whether I still had a job. Once the Conservative:Lib Dem Coalition was set up, it still wasn’t at all clear if my boss would get his own special adviser (spad) because David Cameron asked him to be number 2 to Vince Cable in the Business Department, which at the time had responsibility for university policy. But I walked into the department alongside David Willetts the day he was appointed and my post became a fait accompli.

(The civil service machine got their own back by insisting I took a pay cut and never seeing through any of the promises I was made about future pay rises. But, as the political adviser to a Government committed to austerity and big public expenditure cuts, I could hardly complain too much about that.)

I stopped being a spad in late 2013 for three reasons. Firstly, I knew my minister could stand down at the next election, so the job had a finite life. Secondly, the life of a spad is not easily compatible with being a parent. Thirdly, and most importantly, the job I currently have became vacant and I thought then (and think now) that it is one of best jobs in British higher education because of the freedom to range widely over important policy areas (while of course remaining answerable to trustees, an advisory board and regulators like the Charity Commission). If anyone is interested in knowing more about the life of a departmental spad, I wrote up my experiences for the Institute for Government.

Because HEPI is a charity, it is important that we are reasonable, non-partisan and happy to talk to people across the political spectrum. At the 2015 election, both the Tories and Labour (mildly) complained about things I had said, which suggested we were getting it about right.* We never set out to offend anyone intentionally but we try to follow the evidence and that can sometimes upset people – especially those in political roles who must take account of other factors, like public opinion and the opinions of their colleagues, alongside the best available evidence.

When I was first appointed as Director of HEPI, there were many people in the higher education sector who questioned whether someone with my political background could run an independent think tank effectively, especially when it comes to discussing Government policy. But I said then, a little pompously, that our role is to speak ‘truth unto power’ and that is what we have sought to do, whether that power lies in Westminster, Whitehall, the devolved administrations or universities themselves.

I don’t know how applicable these personal experiences are for anyone wishing to enter education policymaking now. But five key things I have learnt are:

  1. Prepare properly for interviews…
  2. Seize opportunities when they arrive, from whatever direction.
  3. Be patient.
  4. Be flexible.
  5. In resource-constrained sectors like policymaking, your terms and conditions are unlikely to change much after you have accepted the job. So only accept a role if you are content with them.

Outside of the mainstream civil service (and increasingly even there), policymaking roles can be fairly insecure, for they are typically reliant on funding streams of questionable sustainability and often report to managers who may themselves be at risk from the next reshuffle or funding crisis. But, for me at least, taking on such risks have been worth it because it is a very rewarding sector to work in, where you can make a real positive difference.


* The Conservatives disliked my negative remarks on restricting international students and Labour disliked my negative comments on substantially reducing tuition fees.


  1. Mihaela Nestor- Penoy says:

    Great article, Nick Hillman! A person with your qualities is a great asset for education. Good advice that you give so generously, I will share it among my students in Bucharest.

  2. Clare B says:

    HEPI has broken new ground under Nick’s leadership: getting much more coverage in the media than before, publishing more policy work, with an impressive range of erudite contributors, building relationships with more universities and developing a more sustainable financial model which will help secure its future. Heeding his advice, as stated in this article, would therefore seem a sensible thing to do.

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