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Staffing, access, fees and expansion: Remarks from today’s MillionPlus / HEPI Conservative Party Conference event

  • 4 October 2020

Below are the remarks made by Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director, at Sunday morning’s MillionPlus / HEPI event at the (virtual) Conservative Party Conference, with the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, on the theme, ‘Back in Business: What can modern universities do to support Britain’s recovery?’ The video of the session can also be watched below.

Thanks for attending this MillionPlus / HEPI event linked to the Conservative Party Conference. HEPI is the UK’s only independent think tank specialising in higher education. We are supported by most universities across the UK as well as a small number of corporates, for which we are very grateful.

I will make just four points.


We’ve – quite rightly – heard a lot about the big challenges faced by students in recent days but I’d like to start by noting the extraordinary contribution of higher education staff. Every single member of staff that I have spoken to since March has been working their socks off to provide the best possible environment for students.

The start of term has had its disruptions, and we all feel for students stuck in quarantine or self-isolation, yet it would have been a whole lot worse without the tireless work of so many people over so many months.

Access to education

My second point is to welcome last week’s announcements from the Prime Minister about improvements to apprenticeships, adult learning and student loan entitlements. They are in line with our own submission and the submission of MillionPlus to the Augar Review.

There may be some devil in the details that are still to come but, from what we currently know, it looks like a sensible set of reforms that will improve access to learning for people of all ages. The package was welcomed by colleges and universities alike, which I hope heralds the collaborative way in which both sectors are likely to respond when the changes come on stream next year.

Only last week, HEPI hosted an event at which Andrea Nolan, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University, one of MillionPlus’s members, reminded us of the successful ways in which the college and university sectors have historically worked together in Scotland.

At the same event, another speaker, Lee Elliot-Major, the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility, drew attention to the way higher education institutions add value to people’s lives that goes far beyond what is measured in graduate earnings data. That is true at the individual level and the societal level: as someone wise once said, ‘science lets us live to 100 and the arts make us want to’.

Carrots and sticks

One way of interpreting what was announced last week is that it was the ‘carrots’ from last year’s Augar report. That could mean the ‘sticks’ are still to come, perhaps from the Chancellor in the spending review.

One particular threat is a potential big reduction in the tuition fee cap. I think that would be a grave mistake, as it could leave institutions with fewer resources to deliver all the things that MillionPlus’s Chair, Rama, has just rightly pointed out that they do – and which will be doubly important in the coming recession.

A big fee cut would also make the Institute for Fiscal Studies’s warning about more than 10 universities going bust extra likely. I will leave the full details of the economic contribution made by universities to others, except to note that the people in the town where I grew up – a relatively deprived town in a relatively well-off part of the country – would have (and still would) benefit no end from the presence of a university.

Aspiration and expansion

Finally, given we are at a virtual Conservative Party Conference and despite the fact that HEPI is a non-partisan charity, I want to end with a political point.

There have been times in the recent past when it has occasionally felt like policymakers from the right of the political spectrum are most interested in beating up on, rather than celebrating, the higher education sector – the focus has been on negative issues like supposed free speech violations, grade inflation and student union politics. Those might be important issues, but it risks leaving the false impression that positive stories, like the expansion of higher education, are the exclusive preserve of the other side of the political spectrum.

In fact, history suggests that administrations of both political colours have, in the end, had to recognise the very high aspiration levels that exist within Britain, as well as the demand of employers for more higher skills. Senior Conservative figures like Alec Douglas-Home, who accepted the Robbins report, Ken Baker, who set a goal of 30% higher education participation, and George Osborne, who removed student number caps, have been just as favourable towards higher education expansion as Labour figures like Harold Wilson, whose administration founded the Open University, and Tony Blair, who set the infamous 50% target.

So I would like to end with a reminder from the current Prime Minister, who said during his time as the Shadow Higher Education Minister that, ‘It must be good for society and the economy if the number of people getting degrees of one kind or another increases.

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