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‘The Landscape for Globally Engaged Research Universities’ – Speech to the World Universities Network

  • 14 October 2021

This speech was delivered by HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, to a private meeting of the World Universities Network on the afternoon of 14 October 2021.


It is a huge pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me to address your prestigious and important group.

The Higher Education Policy Institute or HEPI, of which I am the Director, is an Oxford-based think tank supported by most UK universities and a small number of corporates. We produce around 25 reports a year on a wide range of issues – recent topics include student funding, universities’ contribution to tackling climate change and the graduate gender pay gap – and we host a similar number of events.

We are UK-focused but we do sometimes look at other countries to see what similarities and differences there are and what we might learn from other systems. For example, we have written reports on the AustralianNew Zealand and German higher education systems and we have hosted speakers from South Africa, Singapore and Brussels.

Just this morning, we have published a new report and hosted an event with Kaplan International Pathways on the grossly under-researched topic of careers support for international students. What do they expect? What do they get? What do they plan to do after study? It has been many months in the making as it brings together qualitative work from focus groups and quantitative data from an opinion poll. We have given it the title Paying more for less?, with an all-important question mark, as our evidence shows a mixed picture and we hope to start a conversation rather than to claim our report should be the final word.

I have been asked to speak today about ‘The Landscape for Globally Engaged Research Universities’, with a particular focus on ‘declining respect for expertise’, but I hope you will forgive me for broadening my scope a little. There are too many challenges facing us all, particularly perhaps research-intensive universities, to limit ourselves solely to the continuing scepticism against expertise, which – in many respects – may actually be receding now that the vaccine is enabling the world to revert slowly to something more like normal life, and with the end of Donald Trump’s Presidency.

So I would like to start by touching upon funding and internationalisation before moving to some of the topics around scepticism and expertise that could be said to come under the umbrella marked ‘culture war’.


In the UK as elsewhere, higher education institutions face a battle for resources and nowhere is the battle more fierce than in research-intensive universities. This is because research is so often underfunded, whether it is sponsored by private companies, charities, governments or cross-national institutions like the European Union. As a result, research has to be cross-subsidised by income from other sources, some of which (like hosting conferences and subsidies from student accommodation) have been under severe strain during the pandemic.

The costs of higher education in the UK are particularly steep because of our long tradition of sending people away from home to study. I call it the ‘boarding school model’ of higher education and it does indeed stem from the role that boarding schools have played in our educational history: if you left home for an educational institution at the age of 8, as upper-middle class kids once typically did, then you were not going to return home at the age of 18 to attend a local university.

The popularity of living away from home to study also stems from the dominance in England of just two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, which had no competitors for centuries. (The Scottish story was a little different.) When newer universities were finally founded, they were often in the image of the existing ones and the English tradition of turning diversity into hierarchy then cemented the tendency of people to apply to a selective institution often far away from where you grew up.

A HEPI paper on the history of student accommodation by an architectural historian at Oxford, the Reverend Professor William Whyte, confirms the tendency to live away has not abated even as the sector has grown. This has left us with a much less even university sector than in, say, most European countries, with the 24 UK Russell Group universities, which claim to ‘produce more than two-thirds of the world-leading research produced in UK universities’ as perhaps the most visible part of the sector.

There is an English saying that some things are ‘deceptively simple’. In fact, many public policy questions are deceptively complicated. People cannot see the wood for the trees. University funding is horribly complicated close up but it is remarkably simple at its core. There are only really three options: public funding, private funding or a hybrid. In the UK, we have gone down the route of hybrid funding, though to a different extent across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So in England, for example, we have a funding system where most of the costs for home students are meant to be paid by students through fees that are backed by income-contingent loans that do not need to be repaid until after graduation. This has protected universities’ income for teaching and, by reducing the burden on taxpayers, it has – critically – allowed us to start the shift from a mass higher education system towards a universal one.

This growth has not been without its detractors but around 60% of young British women enrol in higher education, which is a wonderful turnaround from the woeful educational opportunities offered to most women in the past – though the enrolment rate of young men is sadly much lower and the gap between the genders has been getting bigger, as in many developed countries. Politicians across the political spectrum (like Tony Blair and David Willetts) are now calling for new universities in the remaining cold spots. It seems unlikely we can make our rather divided society less divided without them.

But the current English student funding model has two flaws from which others should learn.

  • First, the student loan repayment terms are so generous that more than half the money is predicted never to be repaid. We have a loan that is currently more like a grant than a loan. This is a problem that our Government is likely to tackle later this month by sensibly toughening up the repayment terms so that they come to resemble more closely those in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.
  • Secondly, no politician dares to raise fees, which is procedurally challenging – so the fees have risen only once by just £250 since the current system was instituted a decade ago. In fact, our policymakers often sound like they would actually prefer to lower fees, on the very strange assumption that students would be happier if they were to have less spent on their education. As it is, the amount of money available for teaching each student is being eaten away by inflation and inflation is rising quite fast, so the problem is getting worse: £9,250 in 2012 is already worth only about £7,500 in 2021.

As a result, we are now moving to a world where English universities lose money on teaching home students, just as Scottish universities have long done. So no longer is it just research that is underfunded; teaching home students is too, meaning there is another shortfall to be made up and you have to spread your available resources ever more thinly. If Ministers were to reduce fees, as some would like, this problem will clearly get worse.


In the UK, as in many other countries, we have tended to think that a sharp increase in research spending might step in to save the day, at least for research-intensive universities like yours. After all, our Government, like administrations across the developed world, has adopted a clear target to raise spending on research and development. In our case, the target is to raise the number to 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027 – which, incidentally, is the theme of a webinar we are running next Thursday. Do come along. Sometimes, as in Theresa May’s 2017 General Election manifesto, our policymakers have even floated the idea of moving above 2.4%, which is around the OECD average, to 3%, closer to the US, Japan and Germany’s figures.

Given that we in the UK have historically spent only around 1.6% of GDP on R&D, this represents a huge positive commitment for the future. And given that we direct a higher proportion of our research spend towards universities than is typical, it is potentially a big vote of confidence in our research-intensive universities.

But it is becoming ever clearer that we have all been far too credulous. Such R&D targets almost always get missed, as the very important work on our website and elsewhere by the Portuguese economist Adão Carvalho shows. It remains unclear why scientists and researchers, who deal with evidence every day, as well as policy wonks like myself have taken long-term political promises on research funding at face value when none of us usually approaches other political commitments that way. And as sure as night follows day, our own Government is now seemingly backtracking from the commitment it made just last year and reaffirmed earlier this year to spend £22 billion of public funding on research and development by 2024/25. Just as we will find out what the future is for university tuition fees later this month, we will find the same out for research spending.

We have tended to fix all these funding issues by attracting huge numbers of international students. Other countries, perhaps most notably the Group of Eight research-intensive universities in Australia (at least before the pandemic), have done the same. Although in the UK we have a very good product to sell, with lots of league-table topping research-intensive universities and teaching all taking place in the English language, we have still had to work hard to attract people.

From 2010 to 2019, for example, three successive Governments (the Coalition, David Cameron’s majority Government and Theresa May’s minority Government) sought to put international students off coming to the UK. Yet the demand remained so strong that, as our own recent research with Universities UK’s International Unit shows, the cohort of international students arriving in 2018/19 have brought financial benefits of almost £30 billion to the UK (or over £25 billion net). Since 2019, things have got better policywise – except where EU students are concerned. For example, the UK’s post-study work rules have been liberalised somewhat, making us more competitive.

But even though most experts – such as the British Council – believe international student numbers will continue to grow around the world (which I agree with), ever-expanding numbers of international cannot be a permanent route to riches for any individual institution because:

  1. unforeseen events like the pandemic or shifting geopolitics can have a dramatic impact, exposing an over-reliance on one source of income – especially perhaps where international students particularly hail from just one part of the world, such as China;
  2. institutions may have rubber walls that let them expand but there is a point at which the rubber becomes taut and can be stretched no more and, as the incoming Vice-President of UCL, Professor Michael Spence, told Times Higher Education earlier this year, ‘If you are not going to grow in an unbridled way, you have to have a clear strategy about what you are – and what you are not – going to do’; and
  3. many countries are improving their domestic universities fast just as the growing recognition of climate change is leading some to question whether so many people should make so many long-haul flights for the purposes of education – meanwhile edtech is also making some forms of education more accessible without travel.

Freedom of expression, respect for expertise and misinformation

It would have seemed odd to have come and spoken to you today and not to have mentioned these sorts of pressures. Ask any vice-chancellor of a UK research-intensive university and they will tell you their top concern is whether their financial model is sustainable. But I was asked to address myself to the issues of freedom of expression, respect for expertise and misinformation. So let me do that in the second half of my remarks.

If you were to look at the public debate, you might think there were two sorts of people: those who love universities and those that hate universities.

  • The former tend to focus on the role of universities in educating the future labour force, in pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge and in providing the threads that bind society together through support for the communities in which they are based.
  • The latter tend to think too many people go to university, that university managers are overpaid and that universities are part of some ‘woke’ agenda that is diverting society from what really matters in life.

At last week’s Conservative Party Conference, this apparent division was brought home to me when I attended one event hosted by the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs that was attended almost exclusively by university sceptics and then went to another event hosted by a group representing modern universities attended almost exclusively by those who support universities. This apparent division is abundantly clear in the United States, where research shows 67% of Democrats and just 33% of Republicans think universities have a positive impact on their country.

Many people strike both poses simultaneously. So they might like old universities but dislike newer universities. Or they might approve of attending higher education when it comes to their own children but dislike the idea that lots of others should go. Or they might respect university research while wondering about the quality of teaching. Or they might respect engineers but think social science is a waste of time – or vice versa.

The Conservative administration in charge at Westminster, like many Governments around the world, could also be accused of reflecting a bit of both of these extremes. Government Ministers have often implied that too many people enrol in full honours degrees, that universities do not do enough to convert their research discoveries to marketable propositions and that they hamper free speech. On the other hand, Ministers regularly talk about moving from a low-skilled to a high-skilled economy, about rebalancing wealth across the country via ‘levelling up’ and about being a scientific superpower. None of that can happen without universities.

I am not accusing the Westminster Government of being contradictory, even though there are clearly some tensions between these two positions. One might even just about conceivably argue that their two-headed approach is nuanced and sophisticated, though I personally tend to think it is a little confused, as it can produce some strange episodes.

Our recent research on attitudes towards higher education, conducted with the UPP Foundation and Public First, shows – however – that almost half of the British public neither hold strong views nor hold nuanced views about universities. When asked if they think universities are having a positive impact on the direction of the country, 43% say yes and 11% say no but the biggest group are the 46% who don’t know or don’t care. In the long-term, the battle for hearts and minds depends on converting some of these people so that they become advocates for the sector.

How can we do this? Let me suggest five ways before I end.

First, we need to expose the contradictions among those who are negative about universities because they often have little in common.

For example, there is a difference of opinion between: those who think universities have become too vocational, worrying too much about the labour market roles their graduates will go on to and not focusing enough on education for education’s sake; and those who think universities do not do enough to give their students work experience and to get them into the labour market as quickly as possible. The answer to this conundrum is not to come down on the one side or the other but to remind people that diversity in education is good. Given the UK alone already has something like 2.5 million students in higher education, it would be extraordinary if any one answer was right for all of them.

The pull of league tables can encourage universities to all chase the same goals but that is crazy as you cannot have more than 20 universities in the top 20, say. League tables are not going to disappear of course, so I welcome the gradual proliferation of them; we should have a diversity of league tables if we are to have a diversity of provision. And while not all institutions can be good at everything, big research-intensive universities can certainly be good at more than just research. For example, the University of Manchester, where I am a lay governor, was recently declared by the Times Higher Education as number 1 in the world for caring about sustainability.

Secondly, we need to reflect upon, and expose, the fact that even people who say they distrust expertise actually do tend to value it on close reflection, at least in some circumstances.

It was the senior Government Minister, Michael Gove, for example, who said, ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’ during the Brexit referendum. This led the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford to say she was ‘embarrassed’ that her institution had educated him.

But as the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove founded the Education Endowment Fund, which is the biggest funder of schools research in England (including research undertaken at Oxford University). I am not defending his dig at experts back in 2016 but it is also worth pointing out that the full quote shows he did not actually condemn all expertise but only those ‘organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.’

Thirdly, we need to bring more people on to campus.

In our research with the UPP Foundation, we found two-thirds of people had not been on a university campus for five years or more (and one-half of the two-thirds had never set foot on one). I find this the most shocking statistic of all of those that we collected. Clearly, it needs to change if we are to shift those high levels of neutrality towards a more positive position. By the way, I suspect that lots of people go on university premises without even realising it, perhaps to a university-owned museum or university-supported theatre – so we need more people on campus but we also need more visible evidence of universities’ support for their local cultural institutions.

Fourthly, we need to recognise that language matters.

That same research with the UPP Foundation, for example, found very few people favour ‘decolonising the curriculum’ but a majority support broadening the curriculum to take different perspectives on board, which could in reality mean something very similar. If we speak in academic-ese and it doesn’t resonate with people’s lives, we are not well placed to complain when people do not engage with us. I would go so far as to say I find it the strangest single feature of our sector that we like to use exclusionary language rather than language that really speaks to people who might not have engaged with the higher education community before.

My fifth and final point for bridging the gap between the public and institutions comes from a recent HEPI paper written by the former Education Editor of The Times, Rosie Bennett, about how universities engage with the media.

I asked her to set down on paper what she thought universities needed to know about her trade so that they could gain a deeper understanding of why they are written about as they are. She produced a very elegantly written paper, the crucial key insight of which was that universities are no longer regarded by the media as an education story; they are now regarded as a consumer story. She also predicted that will not change in the foreseeable future, as more and more people benefit from higher education.


I will end here as I have used up my full half hour and I want to ensure there is plenty of time for discussion. But to recap, I have argued:

  • first, that traditional funding routes are often no longer enough to cover the true costs of multi-faculty research-intensive universities;
  • secondly, that the international scene in relation to research-intensive universities constantly changes and policymakers should therefore not regard the international strength of research-intensive universities as able permanently to make up shortfalls in national support; and
  • thirdly, that research-intensive universities need to become more skilful at walking the tightrope between scepticism and expertise if they are to convince neutral and disengaged observers of their worth.

1 comment

  1. Brian says:

    The procedural problem on raising fees was made unnecessarily challenging by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 when a wash-up period concession was made to make any change in fee levels subject to affirmative resolution of the House of Commons, when it was possible to uprate fees by inflation via negative procedure (i.e. no vote needed) using the previous Higher Education Act 2004. Ministers scored an own goal by doing this as even inflationary rises now require Parliamentary shenanigans.

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