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Developments in higher education policy: the good, the bad and the ugly

  • 7 July 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

This morning, HEPI Director Nick Hillman is delivering this short speech to the Annual Conference for the staff of UPP, a long-standing HEPI Partner.


Although it didn’t happen on this occasion, I often get asked before speaking at conferences to submit what I am going to say many weeks in advance. I am afraid I always have to refuse because the policy environment moves too fast. Never is this more true than now. Just 48 hours ago, there was no Conservative leadership election, we had a different Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we had a Secretary of State for Education, a Universities Minister, a Schools Minister and a Children’s Minister, all posts which are now vacant.

The last few hours show yet again that only fools make political predictions, particularly if those predictions involve Boris Johnson. I might reinsert to my regular presentations the old cartoon by Matt from the Daily Telegraph that first appeared just after the Brexit vote. It shows two freshers chatting. One says to the other, ‘I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.’ The current mess also, incidentally, as I Tweeted out this morning, confirms an old truth: that politics that it is a team game rather than an individual sport.

I recently wrote a report on the tenure of vice-chancellors. It shows that, on average, vice-chancellors have served for eight years when they stand down. Do you know when the last time the most senior education minister stayed in post for that long? In fact, there has never been one. Nadhim Zahawi did less than 10 months. There have been six Secretaries of State for Education since I joined HEPI eight-and-a-half years ago. This has kept my job interesting but is clearly very far from ideal for public policy.

I have been asked to speak today on ‘Developments in Higher Education’. But I have already used up two of my seven minutes, so I can only skate over the surface of all that is going on. In the time remaining, I want to focus on three different areas of policy, which I have badged ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’.

The good

Let’s start with the positives. The UK higher education sector has shown the most incredible resilience over the past three academic years: during COVID, UK universities moved to new ways of working, with their staff rising brilliantly to meet the challenges; they provided their buildings for the vaccine programme and to house medical staff; and their research helped provide much of the solution to the pandemic in the form of vaccines.

It remains the case that no UK university has ever gone bust despite many predictions to the contrary. Indeed, while not every institution is the same and some are much stronger financially than others, only last week the Office for Students declared, ‘Universities remain well placed to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic’.

Other predictions you used to hear from people outside our sector, though not from us at HEPI, such as the idea that demand would tail off even from home students as a result of the pandemic or that students would opt to stay living at home once the lockdowns lifted, have also proven false. It would be wrong to say our institutions are better than they were before the crisis but they have been battered and yet remain very strong.

In many respects, the crisis emphasised the importance of having a good and resilient education system that transforms people’s lives rather than pulling the rug from under that system. The results of the 2022 Advance HE / HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey show the bounceback in terms of the student experience is well underway, even if it was hindered by the unwelcome industrial action.

No wonder our higher education institutions continue to ride high in external assessments, whether it is international league tables or initiatives like the Research Excellence Framework.

The bad

That is the good. But the bad, certainly in the eyes of every vice-chancellor I meet, is the current funding model, which looks increasingly unsustainable, at least if we want to maintain our quality. The tuition fee cap for full-time undergraduates in England has only gone up once since 2012 and will be frozen until at least 2024/25. Inflation of 10% is fast eating into the unit of resource for educating each student. No likely future Conservative or Labour administration is likely to want to fill that gap when the public finances are in such a state.

As the media are increasingly reporting, this is encouraging the more prestigious universities to focus a little more on students with uncapped fees, such as international students and postgraduates, and a little less on home undergraduates. This is a problem for many reasons but partly because the number of 18-year olds in the UK is currently growing significantly. At HEPI, we’ve predicted we need 350,000 extra places for full-time students in England by 2035.

The one other thing we must mention under ‘bad’ is the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on students. This is also something flagged up by our recent survey with Advance HE. I know, not least from Jon Wakeford’s Foreword to our report on the history of student accommodation, that this is a priority for UPP to flag, talk about and address. That is great to see, not least because not having enough money to live on has a direct impact on student engagement, continuation rates and wellbeing.

The ugly

Finally, the ugly, which is the only way to describe the way in which the problem of educational disadvantage among the most excluded groups in our society is at risk of being overlooked.

Recent realities, like the English regulator’s focus on tackling so-called ‘low-quality courses’, new Minimum Entry Requirements and ministerial commitments to ‘getting on rather than getting in’, all seek to address genuine problems, whether or not you or I would seek to address them in that way. But I worry that these policies could on their own, and unless we are careful, have the effect of shifting the spotlight away from the most excluded groups of all.

We have today published a report – awful timing I know – by my colleague Dr Laura Brassington on the most excluded ethnic minorities of all when it comes to UK education: Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. By the age of 19, the proportion of pupils who have progressed to higher education in England is:

  • 81% for Chinese pupils;
  • 64% for Asian pupils;
  • 60% for Black pupils;
  • 48% for Mixed pupils; and
  • 39% of White pupils.

For Gypsy / Roma / Traveller pupils, it is between 6.9% and 10.7%.

In other words, people in every other group are much more likely to make it to higher education.

So our report, produced with the kind support of the University of Sussex, makes some practical suggestions. As well as discussing the things a new Government might do to help, the paper suggests institutions should consider signing the Gypsy, Traveller, Roma and Showmen and Boaters into Higher Education Pledge, initiated by Buckinghamshire New University, and work towards having something very modest like 20 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students each. (Our data suggest that, currently, the Russell Group collectively educate only around 30 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students, not much more than one each, although there are – admittedly and importantly – reasons why some people who have grown up in these communities choose not to disclose their backgrounds.) The sorts of changes we have proposed are not huge but they would make a big difference to the groups in our society who are currently the most excluded from having equal educational opportunities.

I will pause there because if I go on for much longer, my speech will need re-writing as the political environment will have changed yet again.


  1. albert wright says:

    I am amazed by the strong differences in the percentages by ethnic background of students over 19 entering HE.

    81% for Chinese pupils;
    64% for Asian pupils;
    60% for Black pupils;
    48% for Mixed pupils; and
    39% of White pupils.

    Is this a recent trend or is it long term?

    What are the reasons behind the figures? Do the people from different ethnic groups have a different attitude to education / HE, are they more able / intelligent, do they work harder ?

  2. Nick Hillman says:

    Thanks for the comment, as always, Albert. In terms of the data over time, this is available here:

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