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

The state of higher education at the start of the 2021 academic year

  • 8 October 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

These are the remarks made by Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director, last night to the University Marketing Forum’s dinner.


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you. I know this meeting has jumped around in our diaries for a year or more, so isn’t it wonderful to be able to meet in person once again?

I am just back from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester – in fact, I haven’t been home yet. Unlike most people, I enjoy party conference season. It is like having the people who would be stuck in the kitchen talking about politics at a house party all converge in one place. If you are a political nerd, it is heaven.

Many universities are just starting term. As I bounced from fringe event to fringe event, it brought back fond memories of my own freshers’ week in the same city 31 years ago, back in 1990 – and not just because of the driving Manchester rain.

As a charity, HEPI is politically neutral – and rightly so – but decades before taking on my current role, I was involved in student politics. Indeed, as for many people, the experiences I gained then made up part of the road to my current role. As a student Tory, I was elected to the Students’ Union Council twice. Student (maintenance) loans were just – controversially – being introduced and national politics were so fraught that Margaret Thatcher resigned just a few weeks after the start of term. So being called ‘Tory scum’ by protestors on the streets of Manchester brought back fond memories of our student debates long ago.

Of course, such protests are an odd way to persuade people of the strength of your case. Has anyone ever changed their opinion because they were spat on, I wonder? It seems doubtful.

We clearly need more civil public debate but some people prefer to play politics rather than to do politics.

There are echoes of this in the current pay and pensions dispute in our own sector. When I am asked what keeps me awake at night professionally, it is the likely return of industrial action, as it seems certain this will be terrible for students after the pandemic-related disruption of the last two academic years.

Just as importantly, it is not at all clear if new strikes will deliver for staff. The list of demands is very long, with no sense of priority order. Does the balloting union care more about precarious contracts for temporary staff than about protecting the future pension entitlement of those on permanent contracts or is it the other way around? No one seems to know. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. And when everything is a priority, you are guaranteed to fail even on your own terms.

Sparks fly on university campuses

On Monday night, Tracey Thorn of the band Everything But the Girl Tweeted that it was exactly 40 years since she met her band mate Ben Watt in the bar at Hull Students’ Union. You may need to be of a certain age to understand the importance of that reference but it is a reminder that sparks fly when people get together on campus. It is also a reminder, incidentally, of the value of the creative sector, which is so often under attack but which gives meaning to so many people’s lives. (I am with whoever it was who said, it is science that enables people to live to 100 but it is the arts that make us want to’.)

Tracey Thorn’s tweet struck a chord with me because we hosted our own event on the fringes of the Party Conference to consider a forthcoming HEPI paper by Richard Brabner of the UPP Foundation about bridging the gap between universities and policymakers. When I got to the venue for our event, I realised it was the spot where I met my wife 29 years ago, just as my own parents met at a university in Wales around 60 years ago – another reminder of how higher education changes lives.

We met for our own event on the site of the old University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, UMIST, which merged with the Victoria University of Manchester on 30 September 2004 to create the wholly new institution that is today’s University of Manchester. It is often said that Manchester is one of the oldest universities in the UK but, legally speaking, today’s institution is actually newer than a post-1992 university – at 17 years old, it has not even yet reached adulthood – though for marketing reasons that you marketeers will understand better than me its logo says it was established in 1824. This all links to the interesting debate began by David Kernohan of Wonkhe on how we should categorise institutions.

In truth, the site we were on has seen better days … but it is about to see better days again as it is to be the venue for a new £1.5 billion innovation district called ID Manchester, situated as it is just a few metres away from the HS2 stop at Manchester Piccadilly. This is a powerful reminder, if any were needed, of the truism that ‘levelling up’ will not – cannot – happen unless universities are at its heart. The Government should regard our sector as a partner in the changes people all over the political spectrum want to see for our country and not as some sort of woke enemy.

ID Manchester is also a reminder that the difference between a regular city and a great city is often the presence of a university. And it is not just the really big places like Manchester that gain from the presence of a university – at the excellent MillionPlus fringe event earlier this week, I heard the Vice-Chancellor of UcLAN, Graham Baldwin, say that it was the presence of his institution which enabled Preston to shift from being a town to city status.

Barrow, Blackpool, Grimsby, Hartlepool, Thanet, Wakefield, Wigan – and Swindon

This all helps to explain why the most recent HEPI paper, written by the former Universities Minister David Willetts, argues that places like Blackpool, Hartlepool, Wakefield and Wigan should get their own universities too. That would be a good agenda for Michael Gove, the new Minister for Levelling Up, who – in response to a question from the journalist Michael Crick – agreed at one event this week that Grimsby, Thanet and Barrow should all get a shot at establishing a university of their own as well.

Some policymakers like to suggest we have too many universities and too many students but, as the Prime Minister himself asked in his main Conference speech, why should ‘half of York’s population boast a degree and only a quarter of Doncaster’s?’ Personally, if I were founding a new university, I would start with the county that the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, represents in the House of Commons: Wiltshire. It remains one of the very few English counties with no full university of its own and putting one in Swindon, say, would presumably make the Minister an even firmer advocate for locally rooted institutions.

The Spending Review

One of those UMIST buildings I was in this week is named after Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bouncing bomb, which – according to Wikipedia – is ‘designed to bounce to a target … in a calculated manner to avoid obstacles’ with a pre-determined timing of detonation. I like to think HEPI reports are a bit like bouncing bombs aimed at the heart of policy debates. To mix my metaphors, they are designed to upset applecarts and to get people thinking; they are not designed to tell people how to think, which is why – unlike those think tanks with a firm place on the political spectrum – we often put out papers that disagree with previous HEPI papers.

David Willetts’s paper is a good example of my bouncing bomb theory as it also argues for a shift in the student loan repayment terms in England at the Spending Review, which is now less than three weeks away. Specifically, he proposes a reduction in the English student loan repayment threshold, which was raised four years ago by Theresa May at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference. He suggests it should revert to its 2012 level of £21,000.

I don’t think anyone would argue that is likely to be a wildly popular policy – it would feel like a tax rise to many people. I have written that I don’t think money should be cut from education at a time of crisis: we know from earlier economic difficulties, for example, that having a degree insures people against the risks of future unemployment.

But given the Treasury is determined to save money on higher education, Lord Willetts is clearly right that saving public spending by getting more of the costs back from graduates is miles better than the main alternatives, such as a cut to fees or cutting student numbers. HEPI’s work suggests we will need 350,000 extra full-time places in England by 2035, so the return of student number caps would be a disaster. Again, it is a question of whether we want to play politics by opposing everything and shouting from the sidelines or whether we want to do politics by finding the best, or sometimes least bad, alternatives given the wider political environment.

Recruitment 2021

These days, I am a governor of the University of Manchester so it was particularly great to be back on campus after 18 months of virtual meetings, just as it is a real pleasure to be here in person. In the past few weeks, I have also visited Bucks New, Lancaster, Lincoln, Northumbria, Solent and the Arts University Bournemouth. It was been wonderful to be back on the road and to see the enthusiasm of staff – everyone from vice-chancellors through academics and professional services staff to campus security teams – for getting back to normal and to give their students a first-class student experience.

Yet this year’s recruitment round has of course been mixed. Mary Curnock Cook’s annual analysis of the results for HEPI shows some disciplines, most notably English, have taken a knock and DataHE’s very useful analysis shows how different sorts of institutions have fared differently. But overall demand is up from home school leavers and the international numbers are healthy too in the circumstances, despite a sharp fall in EU students thanks to the B-word. So you clearly all deserve hearty congratulations for a job well done.

Those of us in this room may not be surprised by the popularity of higher education but it is still pretty amazing that, after so much criticism has been directed at our sector and after all the disruption of the last year, it remains by far and away the most popular option for young people and continues to grow in popularity each year.

If policymakers seriously want more people to take alternative routes like degree apprenticeships, they need to ensure those opportunities actually exist in significant numbers. Last year, the number of young people starting a degree apprenticeship was less than 1% of the number starting a traditional degree – as Professor Andy Westwood valiantly sought to explain to a sceptical audience at this week’s Conference.

International students, Black students and male underachievement

So you won’t find a bigger fan of our sector than me – and not just because universities support HEPI so ultimately pay my wages. Yet at HEPI we do not limit ourselves to only saying the nice things because, if our sector is to remain competitive, we must be open to our failings so that we can address them. Indeed, it is the raison d’être of a policy body to work out how we can all be even better in the future. So before I end, I want to touch on three areas where we might, perhaps, as a sector look to improve if we are to remain competitive: international students; Black students; and young men.

One recent HEPI report, produced in conjunction with the Universities UK International Unit and London Economics, considered the financial benefits of hosting so many international students – and we have separately looked at the non-economic benefits too. We showed that, on conservative assumptions, the net economic gain to the country is over £25 billion a year and that every single part of the UK benefits.

We have written to every one of the 650 Members of Parliament in the House of Commons to give them the data for their own constituencies. But as you know more than anyone, the market for international students among English-speaking countries is fierce and we need continually to improve our offer if we are to maintain or improve our market share.

One area where some international students often raise concerns with me is the quality of the careers support to which they have access. There are lots of reasons why people go to higher education but the number one reason in poll after poll is to achieve a rewarding career. It is not the only reason but it is the single most important one.

It is not that they want to be millionaires, though none of us would mind that; it is that they want fulfilling lives. Yet international students sometimes ask if they are paying more but receiving less in terms of the careers and employability support on offer. Next week, we will publish new research with Kaplan International Pathways, a HEPI Partner, that gets under the skin of this issue through a wealth of new qualitative and quantitative data so that we can understand it properly for the first time. I cannot say more now because to do so would be to break our own embargo, but do come along to our online launch on Thursday if you would like to know more.

We have also, similarly, been working with another HEPI Partner, Unite Students, to push forward what we know about the experience of Black students in student accommodation. Debates on decolonising the curriculum, which HEPI and others have been involved with, tend to leave aside the issue of the non-academic student experience. So we are now exploring whether some students find their accommodation less welcoming or less safe than other students. The research is not complete yet so I do not know what it will show but we must continue to ask such searching questions if we are to stay ahead and deliver for all students.

The final area I want to touch upon is those groups that fall behind educationally. There are many of them, with care leavers and travellers at the very bottom. The scale of the remaining gaps should shame our society now that we are well into the twentieth century and it is one reason why further expansion of our sector will be necessary if we are to reduce these chasms.

Let me focus very briefly on the biggest group that is falling behind: young men. It is a major social problem how badly boys do in our education system. I could see gaps beginning in the very earliest years of schooling during my time as the Chair of the Curriculum and Standards Committee at my local infants’ school. By the time young people reach the age of 18, the gaps are huge. The latest Higher Education Initial Entry Rate Percentage is just over 50%, meaning we have now hit Tony Blair’s famous target. But it is nearly 60% for women and only around 45% for men. This summer, the Teacher Assessed Grades seemed to push men even further behind women.

The figures for men and women also serve as a reminder that anyone who wants to reverse the recent growth in student numbers, as many people at this week’s Conference wanted to, would reverse that fantastic growth in higher education participation by women. I take a different approach: I want to see further growth so that at least as high a proportion of women or even more can go and the proportion of men can start to catch up. (There was a cracking piece on why the sector should continue to expand by Tony Blair in the Sunday Times the other day that I would urge you to read.)

Anyway, overall it is clear that the educational underachievement of young men is a major social problem. Yet no Secretary of State for Education has ever made it a priority. I urge Nadhim Zahawi, as he gets his feet under the table, to make sure it is in his top three priorities for the next few years. If it were right to care about the education system letting women down in the past, then it is right to care about it letting men down now.

Whenever we flag the educational underachievement of boys, we face criticism. People respond by pointing out that, after leaving education, women face steep obstacles in the labour market. That is an undeniable and sad fact so, to such critics, I would simply say: it is possible to care about more than one social problem at the same time. That’s why we have recently published one of the most comprehensive studies of the graduate gender pay gap, which is another problem we must tackle too.

What are universities for?

Let me end on a positive. David Cameron used to say the key to answering tricky questions is, first, to respond with some personal information, then to mention some local information and then – finally – to end on something about the national picture.

For me, the answer to the question ‘what are universities for?’ is very easy to answer on each of these three levels: they transform individual people’s lives; they transform cities and regions; and they provide the skills, the knowledge and the cutting-edge research that delivers progress – as the current vaccine success proves.

As university marketeers, you have an incredibly tough job to do cutting through the noise of modern life and the current attacks on universities to display your institutions to the world successfully. But we can at least all be certain of one thing: you have a really great product because we all have the privilege of working in a sector that, quite literally, transforms lives.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    An interesting read, as ever.

    What does “… educational underachievement of boys,” actually mean? If all it means is that today fewer men than women go to University and boys get lower grades than girls in exams, why should we be concerned, let alone believe there has been a failure in our educational system?

    Assuming the facts are true, what do we expect / seek? Are we looking for equality of outcome?
    If so, I think this is rather silly.

    We are individuals. We are not all the same shape or the same height. We do not have the same skills or abilities.

    When we look at gender groupings it is very clear that, on average, males are taller than females.

    When we have a situation of almost equal opportunity for educational achievement and girls do better, why can we not just accept this?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *