Last Thursday, HEPI hosted its annual University Partners’ Policy Briefing Day at Birkbeck, University of London.
For the HEPI team, the Policy Briefing Day is always one of the highlights of the HEPI calendar, providing us with the opportunity to connect with our valued partners from across the UK higher education sector and to reflect on our work over the past year.
The event was opened by the Master of Birkbeck, Professor David Latchman CBE, and as the opening slide of the day behind him (pictured above) showed, 2017 was the busiest year yet for HEPI. In 12 months alone, we published 18 reports and Policy Notes. This year, we have also started as we mean to go on, with 8 publications already – one of which was an externally-commissioned piece of work by the Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR), forming part of its evidence base for its inquiry into freedom of speech in UK universities.
The first part of the day allowed us to summarise some of this work: HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, outlined the problems behind differential fees and how people advocating for them tend to mean different things. I also charted the projected growth in demand for higher education in England by the end of the next decade, which can be largely put down to a growth in the population of 18-year-olds and a predicted rise in participation rates.
But it was not just the HEPI home team doing all the talking. The day also brought together experts from across the sector to discuss the stress points in the new system of higher education regulation. Views from across the full breadth of the sector were represented, from David Palfreyman, Bursar at New College, Oxford, and a Board member of the Office for Students (OfS), to Alexander Proudfoot, Chief Executive of Independent HE, detailing how new regulation could affect some of the newest higher education ‘providers’.
Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sussex, attempted to counteract some of the pessimism about recent Government reforms – particularly the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). He reminded us that the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) – the precursor to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – was far from perfect when it was new and argued that, over time, the TEF will bed down as a tool to help us improve teaching quality, as its metrics are improved and its methodology refined. In his opinion, ‘brand UK’ is not at risk of being tarnished by the TEF, but by current debates over the future of international students in the country and visa issues.
We were also joined by some experienced journalists to discuss higher education in the front line and the relationship between universities, the media and the wider community. Jack Grimston, speechwriter, consultant and former Sunday Times Education Correspondent, emphasised the important role academics play in helping universities connect their work with wider society. He quoted Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde as just one example of how universities constantly influence people’s lives through their presence in the media. He was also keen to emphasise the importance in building deep relationships with specialist education journalists.
Gillian Hargreaves, the former BBC Education Correspondent, followed with her take on reporting on developments in higher education which, for her, have been ‘anything but boring’. She explained that the media’s perception of higher education has been shaped, by and large, by two key misconceptions by the Government: the first that very few universities would charge the full £9,000 fees when the cap was lifted in 2012 and the second that the RAB charge would not increase so substantially. This has led to universities receiving unprecedented attention in the media. She acknowledged that very few domestic stories have ever dominated the press in the way that Vice-Chancellor pay has done in recent months.
Ceri Thomas, Director of Public Affairs and Communication at the University of Oxford and former editor of the Today programme and Panorama, agreed that the policy landscape since 2012 has not been ‘an easy recipe’ for maintaining universities’ popularity in the public eye. For him, however, the real problem lies in the fact that very few people understand exactly what it is that modern universities do – as exemplified by University of Oxford research in which, when asking focus groups of about 45 people what it is they think universities do, only one person said ‘research’.
As well as shocking us with the facts, Ceri Thomas also gave us all something to muse over on our way home when asking the killer questions:
How have universities become so disconnected and elite at a time when going to one seems completely normal? How have we become so marginalised at a time when we are so mainstream?
The answers may be as complex as the questions. However, if we can be sure about one thing going forwards into the new regulatory landscape, it is that HEPI will be as committed as it has ever been to fostering a healthy higher education sector for universities, their communities and for society as a whole.