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Discussing Augar, the Tory Leadership election and what university is for

  • 29 May 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

When we start planning each year’s HEPI Annual Conference – which this year is taking place on 13 June at a prestigious central London venue – our first act is always to check our informal ‘HE clash calendar’.

Higher education policy is such a busy field these days that it can be hard to find a date for our flagship get-together that doesn’t clash with another major happening.

There is no watertight way of doing this. Sadly, back in 2017, Theresa May didn’t check the date of our Conference when choosing to have a general election on 8 June.

As a result, the polling stations opened just a few hours after our Conference came to an end. Our flagship speaker, the then Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, reluctantly but understandably had to pull out in favour of some last-minute campaigning in his constituency – though the Institute for Fiscal Studies valiantly stepped in to save the day.

We ended the final session of the day by asking our panellists to predict the election outcome, though none of them (nor me, as the Chair) was any more accurate than the opinion pollsters.

When I turned the telly on at breakfast the day after the election, just 36 hours or so after our Conference ended, I was surprised to see one of our attendees delivering an acceptance speech, having just been elected as an MP. I hadn’t even known he was standing. Perhaps he was so certain of victory (or defeat), that he was happy to spend the day before the election at our Annual Conference instead of campaigning. But I like to think it was because our programme had so much to offer.

This year, macro political events are guaranteed, once again, to be a common discussion point at our Conference as the shortlist for the Conservative Leadership and thus the post of Prime Minister will be published in the same week, possibly even on the very same day.

Another challenge when devising a conference is picking a theme that you think will be current when the date eventually comes around. Many higher education organisations have been caught out on this – most notably those which have organised events around the recommendations in the Augar report only to find the much-delayed report did not appear in time. Given the near certainty that the Augar report will be published tomorrow, this is an elephant trap we hope to avoid. We hope our speakers will take the opportunity to respond to the various recommendations in the Augar report but, in case that were not possible, we opted for a broad theme: What is University For? Future-proofing the sector in the age of risk and regulation

So, we are confident that both the battle for the Conservative Leadership and the Augar recommendations will be very live issues on the day.

As previously explained on this blog, the HEPI Annual Conference will also include the launch of the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, which this year has new questions on topics like accelerated degrees, feedback and disclosure of mental health conditions to students’ parents. We are also going to cut the data for some of the old favourite topics in new ways, enabling us to paint a more complex and accurate picture of today’s full-time undergraduates.

The advantage of running this Survey year after year (with the same partner and the same polling company doing the fieldwork at the same time of year) is that we are able to improve it in the light of experience as well as to build one of the longest, more comprehensive and most authoritative time series of data on the reality of students’ lives.

In past years, our Conference has also been an event on which other people have hung their own big higher education stories alongside our own. While it seems a lifetime ago, it was just last year that Sam Gyimah launched a wealth of Longitudinal Employment Outcomes data at our Conference, while Lord Mandelson gave a barnstorming performance that won him a loud ovation. Three years ago, UCAS coordinated a major new data dump as part of a speech by Mary Curnock Cook, their previous CEO (and current HEPI Advisory Board member).

Sometimes, conferences can take an unexpected course, as at one HEPI event back in 2015, when Sir Anthony Seldon managed to get the whole room to perform mindfulness exercises.

I have no idea exactly what will happen at our Annual Conference this year. But I am confident it will be a stimulating day when we meet on Thursday, 13 June in central London because our current line-up of speakers includes:

  • Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore MP
  • Chief Executive of the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge
  • the incoming President of Universities UK, Professor Julia Buckingham, and a trio of other vice-chancellors
  • the Chair of Royal Holloway University of London and experienced parliamentarian, Dame Margaret Hodge MP
  • Stian Westlake, science adviser to three government ministers and author of the critically acclaimed book, Capitalism Without Capital: the rise of the Intangible Economy.

Having seen the large and varied list of people who have registered to attend, I am also confident it will provide some excellent networking opportunities.

Every institution that already supports HEPI is entitled to at least one free place and subsidised additional tickets, while full-price tickets are competitively priced.

We can’t wait to see you there.

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