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Who controls higher education policy?

  • 23 November 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

HEPI Director Nick Hillman delves into the biography of the most important UK civil servant of modern times, Jeremy Heywood, to search out lessons on how higher education policy is set at the centre of Whitehall.

During a recent period of COVID-induced isolation, I finally got around to reading What Does Jeremy Think?, the lengthy biography of Jeremy Heywood written by his widow, Suzanne. He variously served the Blair, Brown, Cameron and May Governments as Cabinet Secretary, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Head of the Home Civil Service, Downing Street Chief of Staff and the first Downing Street Permanent Secretary. Whether people know it or not, all our lives have been touched by the multiple decisions that Jeremy Heywood was involved with.

Above all, the book conveys in enormous detail what life is like for the planet-sized brains who make it to the top of the civil service. The most moving sections, however, are on Heywood’s family life, including on the challenges, faced by many couples, of conceiving and also on the pressures put upon the spouses of high flyers. The final pages painfully cover Heywood’s smoking-induced lung cancer, for which he received the first diagnosis on the morning after the 2017 election.

Frustratingly, despite the huge number of domestic and international issues covered, there’s no deep analysis of policy. The book is akin to a diary, with 54 chronological chapters – though without the scurrilous anecdotes that typically enliven political diaries and with the addition of a good dose of hindsight.

I turned to it with just one purpose, however: to remind myself of how Whitehall operates, given the big decisions potentially coming higher education’s way in the next few weeks. And, on this, it provides three really useful reminders.

First, it emphasises the importance of the crucial relationship at the heart of UK government, that between Number 10 and the Treasury. Time and time again on big issue after big issue, including – for example – in the conversations on New Labour’s 2004 tuition fee reforms, this axis is shown to be more important than anything that gets decided in what are sometimes dismissively known in Whitehall as the OGDs (Other Government Departments). A huge amount may be expected of the new Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, who is clearly a big hitter. But he still won’t be able to do anything significant that the Treasury and Number 10 decide to block.

Secondly, it proves how very little time is spent at the centre of Whitehall thinking about any one area of domestic policy, such as higher education in England. There are around half a dozen pages that mention higher education in this whole very long book. This is despite the huge reforms that took place in the time period covered (such as the introduction of £1k, then £3k, then £9k fees), which were among the most controversial aspects of the Blair and Coalition Governments. In one sense, this shows the importance of the higher education sector using every opportunity to engage with the centre of government so that, when big decisions are made, they are based on good evidence. In another sense, however, it brings to mind the apt phrase of Giles Wilkes, once a special adviser to Vince Cable, that political disputes tend to be resolved only when they are raised up through the Whitehall machinery until they reach ‘a level of greater indifference.’

political disputes tend to be resolved only when they are raised up through the Whitehall machinery until they reach ‘a level of greater indifference.’

Thirdly, the lengthy sections on the financial crisis during Gordon Brown’s Government are a powerful reminder of the unbreakable relationship between the health of the economy and how much money is available for supporting public services, including education. The primary cause of England’s high fees / high loans student funding model was not, as is so often claimed, some right-wing desire for ‘neoliberal marketisation’; it was the economic backdrop when it was instituted.

The primary cause of England’s high fees / high loans … was the economic backdrop when it was instituted.

Any of the likely changes that could be announced in coming days, such as decreases in the student loan repayment threshold (or, less likely, new student number controls), will have the same driving force behind them. After all, the deficit in Brown’s final year was 10% of GDP; in 2020/21, thanks to the pandemic, it was almost half as much again, at 14.5%. Debt as a percentage of GDP has risen above 100%, way higher what it was when the Coalition felt the need to allow £9,000 fees.

For all these reasons, the book is worth reading, though there are two caveats. The first is the possibility that a controversial figure may have escaped even-handed analysis. The scandal over supply-chain finance poses questions over Heywood’s role, given he brought Lex Greenshill into Number 10 after they were colleagues at Morgan Stanley. Was he too keen on putting such people at the centre of Whitehall? There is no hint of an answer in any of the 500+ pages.

The second risk is that, as with Tony Benn’s diaries that are so heavily used by modern historians, an important figure becomes a dominant one. Heywood comes across as being at the centre of pretty much every top-level decision for years and is painted as the smartest and most important person in any room. That may be fair, though the book’s subtitle, Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain, seems to imply this one official begat everything important about the country in which we live.

Nonetheless, the more engaging chapters do, indirectly, amount to a persuasive argument that the current Number 10 set up might be smoother if Heywood were still alive. As Theresa May told Heywood’s widow just after his funeral, ‘I think people will look back and notice when he stopped’.

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