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365 days of higher education policy

  • 22 November 2019
  • By Rachel Hewitt

This week marks a year since I first joined HEPI as Director of Policy and Advocacy and it seems I couldn’t have picked a more interesting year to do so. In that year, I’ve seen three higher education ministers (Gymiah, Skidmore, Johnson and then Skidmore again), two Brexit deadlines passed and one election called. I’ve authored reports on students’ views on the financial sustainability of universities, on wellbeing and mental health at university, student polling on Augar, funding and the cost of living and this week, co-authored an election briefing. I’ve had the chance to visit universities up and down the country and across the breath of the sector. It has cemented my belief in the role that universities play and the impact that higher education policy can have.

As I have been reflecting on the last year, a couple of themes have stood out in the way higher education policy has changed:

A shake-up in ministerial priorities

When I joined HEPI, Sam Gyimah was in post as Higher Education Minister. His focus was very much on free speech on campus and the ‘monoculture’ of the student body. He also took action on students’ mental health and ruffled some feathers in the sector by saying universities needed to act ‘in loco parentis’ to students. He has been consistently critical of Brexit and the negative impact it will have on higher education.

Chris Skidmore has taken a fairly different approach. He has focused on underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in higher education, including care leavers and disabled students. He has had the most higher education experience of recent ministers, having worked as an academic at the University of Bristol. He has recently adopted some of the Government rhetoric about low value courses – although preferring to call them low quality courses and resisting the temptation to define them solely using data on graduate salaries. Although he wants universities to retain strong links to the European Union, he has been loyal to the Government, supporting both Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s deals. 

While both ministers have taken different stances, they were aligned in their understanding of the importance of getting out and visiting universities, something that will hopefully be continued by whoever takes up the post after 12th December. Sam Gyimah is now a Lib Dem candidate, and Chris Skidmore is waiting to see whether his party retains power and what position he takes. For the HE sector, it’s likely we’ll soon be seeing the seventh higher education minister in seven years. 

The rise and fall of Augar

When I joined HEPI last year the sector was eagerly anticipating the publication of the Augar report. Once due to be published before last Christmas, the report was delayed awaiting the Office for National Statistics decision about the treatment of student loans in the national accounts. As we wrote at the time, this simple accounting decision has had wider impact, making higher education appear more expensive. It is the likely driver for the current Government’s great interest in LEO data and cracking down on ‘low value courses’ and has given Labour more headroom for their removal of tuition fees. It’s impact should not be underestimated. 

When Augar was finally delivered it received a mixed reception. We at HEPI were positive about the report which considered many of the big issues in HE, such as trying to tackle the decline in part time students and reintroducing maintenance grants for the poorest students. However, its challenge has been the timing of its delivery. While it was well received by Theresa May, it appeared just a week before she stood down. Since Boris Johnson took over as leader, it seems to have had little attention, perhaps influenced by his brother’s stance, which has been to consistently speak out against the necessity of the review. While we don’t yet know what will appear in the Conservative manifesto, it seems unlikely we will see the bulk of the recommendations enacted. The carefully considered report does not fit with current political priorities, with the lower headline tuition fee unlikely to be a vote winner amongst students

I have spent a lot of time in the last year talking about the instability of higher education policy. However, at no point in that time has the future been quite so uncertain. A Conservative majority could lead to more of the same, a Labour majority would mean radical overhaul and anything in between leaves us with more uncertainty. What is certain is that we are unlikely to see a calmer waters over the next 365 days. 

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