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

Was 2022 a bumper year for books about education?

  • 3 January 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

It has sometimes felt like the past year has seen a torrent of valuable books on education, including higher education, even if there has not always been the time to read and digest them properly – there are good reasons why HEPI papers are designed to be read in one sitting or, as we tell our authors, to be ‘short enough to read on a single train journey’ [of, admittedly, indeterminable length].

So here we bring you a round up of just some of the books first published in 2022 which are worth a look.

  1. Richard Reeves, Of Boys and Men: Why the modern male is struggling, why it matters, and what to do about it – Richard, who was once a big name in UK think-tank land and is now a big name in US think-tank land, dives deep into the controversial area of boys’ low educational achievements, which leads to a shortage of male students and results in (according to one sub-heading in the book) ‘pink campuses’. As HEPI has itself found out in the past, it is generally a thankless task to write about the educational underachievement of boys but it is an important issue nonetheless. Reeves’s book, which quotes HEPI’s work on the issue, proposes the – perhaps – counter-intuitive idea that boys should start school a year after girls: ‘The main reason for starting boys late’, Richard writes, ‘is not so that they will be a year older in kindergarten. It is so they will be a year older when they get to middle and high school.’ One of Richard’s best lines is: ‘The correct answer to the question so many teenage boys hear, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” is something like, “Because, Mum, there are sexually dimorphic trajectories for cortical and subcortical gray matter!”’
  2. Nigel Thrift, The Pursuit of Possibility: Redesigning Research Universities – The former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick takes aim at research universities for being too big, too focused on students and too uninterested in grand ideas. In a piece for the Times Higher, he explained his somewhat pessimistic outlook thus: ‘as I have looked back at past thinking on universities I have realised that a practical idealism about them did once exist (and given the existential threats the world now faces, that idealism isn’t an accessory, it is a must-have). In the 1960s there was a flowering of new ideas about universities and individual institutions were not scared to make major innovations. We need the same effort now. Maybe not a new Robbins report but something close. And if the government won’t do it, universities should.’
  3. Peter Hitchens, A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System – This book is not primarily about higher education but is rather about selective schooling, which is a major feeder for selective universities. Hitchens’s argument is that grammar schools gave way to comprehensive schools because there were not enough grammars to soak up the demand from the growing number of young people, leaving these selective schools without the support they needed to thrive. Hitchens attacks comprehensives for, in his view, the low-quality education they offer, which he declares has had a knock-on consequence for the quality of UK universities. HEPI will be running a positive review of this book in the next few days and, while I had hoped to balance it out with an alternative view given Hitchens’s book should prompt a debate, the handful of academics and educational commentators that I have asked to review the book have all turned me down flat – I could almost see the steam coming out of their ears when I mentioned the author’s name. At the very end of December 2022, another sort of selective school – independent schools – got a good going over in the second edition of The State of Independence: Key Challenges Facing Private Schools Today, edited by headteachers David James and Jane Lunnon. This books is worth a mention here too because of the range of contributing authors, many of whom have been deeply involved in higher education policy debates, such as Sam Freedman, Claire Fox, Ralph Lucas, Ann Mroz and Jonathan Simons as well as the Vice-Chancellor James Tooley and the Social Mobility Commission Chair Katherine Birbalsingh. (I’ve contributed to the book as well.)
  4. Dennis Sherwood, Missing the Mark: Why So Many School Exam Grades are Wrong – and How to Get Results We Can Trust – Dennis’s blogs for HEPI on the unreliability of exam results have been among the most successful pieces we have ever published – one piece of his is the fourth most well-read piece HEPI has ever put out – and his new book explains his case against the current GCSE / A-Level grading system in more detail. HEPI’s review by Rob Cuthbert concluded: ‘ At present, the school examinations system has a fail grade. As an examiner might say, it “must do better”. This book shows the way.’ I am quoted on the dust jacket as saying ‘Everyone in UK education should reflect upon the problems identified in this powerful book – and then decide what to do about them’, and I stand by the thought.  Will 2023, I wonder, be the year Ofqual finally respond directly to Dennis’s points rather than obfuscating by mixing up two separate issues: the question of grades that change after a requested re-mark; and the question of systemic unreliability? Or will universities and employers come to understand the flaws in the grading system and come to put less focus on applicants’ specific grades?
  5. Steven Jones, Universities Under Fire: Hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education – Over the summer, HEPI ran two reviews of this important book by a Professor at the University of Manchester which looks at the current challenges faced by UK universities. One of these reviews (by me) took issue with the arguments and language (‘the book’s extreme pessimism about the direction of policy and the impact that this has had does not square with the sector’s successes’) while the other review (by HEPI author Liz Morrish) broadly supported the strong critique put forward (‘Jones lays out precisely where intervention and restructuring are necessary if the sector is to recover its sense of purpose and public trust’). Steven previously co-authored a HEPI paper on governance and, in 2022, co-authored one of our most well-read HEPI papers of the year, looking at the future of UCAS personal statements, which is likely to be a policy area ripe for further discussion in 2023.
  6. Simon Kuper, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK – In 2022, there were three Oxford-educated Conservative Prime Ministers and HEPI’s review of this high-selling book, written for us by Oxford student Daniel Dipper, ended by encouraging people to deliver change: ‘The future doesn’t have to look like Chums and I don’t anticipate it will, but we all need to play our part to make sure that is truly the case.’ The continuing role of the University of Oxford in our national life was reflected in other books first published in 2022 too, including Gill Evans’s new history of the institution since the North report 25 years ago, which HEPI will soon be publishing a review of by Mike Ratcliffe.
  7. Joanna Bourke, Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People – The autumn of 2022 saw the publication of this detailed history of one of London’s oldest higher education institutions, from its genesis at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand, which included the Quaker George Birkbeck, to today. The Times Literary Supplement got Tristram Hunt, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Education and current Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, to review the book and he noted: ‘what Bourke’s institutional biography reveals is that the college has, in fact, undergone multiple iterations over the past two centuries, and might naturally be about to embark on another such transformation.’ The book also shows some higher education debates change less than we might like to think – one anecdote that stood out for me was the no-platforming of Enoch Powell, who had been booked to deliver the 1968 Haldane Lecture on ‘A Citizen Voluntary Reserve’ but who was uninvited by Birkbeck’s Master after Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech meant a substantial demonstration was likely. Almost half a century later, David Willetts was scheduled to give the annual J.D. Bernal Lecture at Birkbeck but it similarly had to be cancelled on police advice due to evidence of organised protests.
  8. Roger Brown, The Conservative Counter-Revolution in Britain and America 1980-2020 – The former Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University and a very long-standing friend of HEPI’s continues his battle to get the world to turn against ‘neo-liberalism’. This book is not about higher education as such but, as Roger explains at the start, he has long been interested in ‘the part that Neoliberal policies of underfunding and privatisation have played in destroying or compromising so many aspects of our once highly regarded public realm: not only the university but also the BBC, the NHS, the Civil Service, local government, social services, the arts (take your pick).’ If you do not have time to read the whole book, there is a useful summary of the arguments by Roger on the Compass website. On becoming the Chief of Staff to the Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills back in 2007, one of the first letters I read was from Roger; it sought to persuade my boss that policymakers in the UK / England should avoid going down the US route. So Roger has been ploughing this furrow for a long time and, while I may sometimes struggle with his apparent tendency to impugn the motives of those with different ideological persuasions, perhaps the political pendulum is swinging Roger’s way once more?
  9. Martin Betts, The New Leadership Agenda: Pandemic Perspectives from Global Universities – HEPI’s past work on higher education systems in other countries has led me to think the closest parallel to the UK is Australia (not, as some people seem to think, the United States). Betts’s book collects interviews with past and current higher education leaders, a majority of whom are in Australia. The recent HEPI review by Dr Troy Heffernan explains the book ‘is an opportunity for those interested in higher education administration to learn about the complexities of leadership and what it looks like to tackle the issues confronting a sector plagued by underfunding, that has been forced to turn to corporate models of management, and, subsequently, is increasingly shaped by further cost-cutting measures and increased competition.’ Heffernan concludes, ‘Readers may find some of these issues confronting in terms of what choices executive managers must make, but Betts has provided a succinct and detailed overview of what university leadership looks like in the twenty-first century.’
  10. W. Joseph King and Brian C. Marshall, Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education – It has been a bumper year for education books in the United States too by the look of things with, for example, Forbes’s detailed round-up of 2022 US books on higher education starting with this book, which ‘discusses how higher education leaders can help institutions adapt to the changing economic, social and political forces that increasingly challenge them’.

I am not sure if it reflects the publishing industry’s practices, the state of educational research or my own failing, but it is notable that most of the authors mentioned above are men – the Forbes list referred to above has a slightly more even mix, so is worth checking out for this reason alone. Do suggest other books that should have been in the list in the comments section below.

During the past year, the HEPI blog has also featured various reviews of important and topical books that were first published in 2021, including:

At HEPI, we’d like to run further reviews beyond the forthcoming ones mentioned above in 2023, so please do get in touch with an idea if you have one.

HEPI’s most read blogs of 2022 can be read here:

1 comment

  1. Dr Bernard Lisewski says:

    Hi Nick

    Thanks for your review to which I’d add Teaching Excellence?: Universities in an age of student consumerism by Andrew Gunn (2023)


Leave a Reply

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