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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Looking back on HEPI’s first 18 years

  • 16 November 2020
  • By Bahram Bekhradnia

The blog has been written by Bahram Bekhradnia, who founded HEPI in 2002 and was its Director until January 2014, since when he has been HEPI’s President.

When HEPI was established 18 years ago, few might have expected it to endure so long, and with such success. We had planned a party to celebrate HEPI’s coming of age and this blog is a poor substitute, but it has provided me with the opportunity to reminisce.

I came out of the now much lamented HEFCE where I was Policy Director, and there was a risk that HEPI might be regarded as another semi-governmental creation, and indeed for its first three years HEPI received a modest but critical amount of public money. This was a privilege and a benefit available to few other similar bodies as they start up, but was a reflection of the fact that Sir Howard Newby – the then Chief Executive of HEFCE – recognised the absence of any independent think tank concerned with higher education: health, transport, foreign policy all had independent think tanks, but higher education did not, and that was a gap that HEPI was intended to fill. It also provides a lesson for other similar ventures. Core funding is essential – few bodies can become financially established immediately. The problem is that core funding often comes with strings attached – the requirements of those providing the core funds. I was fortunate that HEFCE attached no such strings. Indeed, it recognised that it was essential, if HEPI and its work was to be authoritative and credible, to be seen to be independent of any outside – especially any official – body.

It didn’t take us long to establish those credentials. Early on, one of our first reports concerned the personal and public economic benefits of higher education. Our conclusion – that the economic benefits were not clear-cut – caused great concern in Whitehall, particularly as the Prime Minister had not long before announced a 50% participation target and student fees were being introduced, partly on the basis of the economic benefits to the individual. Lord Dearing, the first HEPI chair, received a call first from the Permanent Secretary of the Education Department, and subsequently from the Minister of State for Higher Education, attempting, not too subtly, to have the report suppressed. To his great credit Lord Dearing was having nothing of it and pointed out to them how awkward it would be for the Department and the Minister if word got out that they had tried to censor an independent think tank.

We had brushes with other parts of the education establishment. A later Minister of State for Higher Education described HEPI as ’wrong about this as it is wrong about everything’ when we assessed that the expansion of the EU would lead to a large increase in students from the EU – an assessment that was correct to within 10%. And more recently a Minister for Universities on the floor of the House described our analysis of the likely cost of the 2010 reforms as ‘eccentric’, only a year later to acknowledge to the Select Committee that it was right but ‘for the wrong reasons’! I could go on. We produced an assessment in the mid 2000s – The Prosperity of English Universities – which established that, following the introduction of the variable fee and loan regime, English universities were better off than they had been for decades. That caused great discomfort to UUK and the university heads on the HEPI Advisory Board, who were involved in pay negotiations, and, again, would have been happy to see the report suppressed.

Perhaps because of the perception of our independence, perhaps because of the quality of our analyses, or perhaps just because we are filling a gap that badly needs filling – whatever the reason – the support we have received from the sector and beyond is extremely gratifying. The most concrete manifestation of that is that the majority of universities in the UK are making a modest but crucial contribution through their membership of our institutional Partnership; and a significant number of corporate Partners have joined our corporate Partnership scheme, which is now nearly 10 years old. Both are incredibly important to us and we are grateful to our Partners: we hope we are providing them with a valuable service – we assume that their continuing support means that we must be. Their support is especially important in view of one of our first decisions, that all of our publications would be freely available. That closed off one possible source of income, but our mission to ensure that knowledge and evidence about higher education should be widely spread in order to ensure that debate is better informed meant that this decision was essential. It is as important – actually more important – for to us to inform discussions in the pub as to engage in academic discussion.

I stepped down as HEPI Director seven years ago, and in the years since, under Nick Hillman’s directorship, HEPI has gone from strength to strength. It has changed – as is right. It is now much more inclusive, covering a much wider range of subjects and provides an invaluable forum for people to inform about a far wider range of subjects than ever was the case. And it remains the go-to body for authoritative and independent support, comment, information and advice. Indeed, judging by the HEPI team’s ubiquitous media presence, it is more so now even than previously. Nor is it just in this country that that is so. At the last count, HEPI had provided advice to governments and universities in 20 or so different countries. And through all this time, of course, the fact that higher education has undergone one reform after another has made it all the more important to have a body like HEPI able to inform, analyse and critique the changes.

Successive Ministers have come and gone with their prejudices and ‘convictions’, believing that the changes introduced by the one before itself need changing or replacing – the most recent nonsense being that the quality of universities can be judged by how much their graduates earn. Thank God for a body like HEPI able coolly and with evidence to point out the absurdity of this and the next fad to be imposed on the higher education system.

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