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Accessing higher education when some people don’t want you to go: HEPI Speech to the Sixth Form Colleges Association Winter Conference

  • 18 January 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

Speech to the Sixth Form Colleges Association Winter Conference by HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, delivered on Wednesday 18 January 2023.

This speech considers:

  • how well prepared (or not) people are for higher education;
  • the current pressure on higher education places; and
  • how the political environment is affecting educational policy.


It is great to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I am a fan of the sixth-form college sector in part because, personally, I think it is unhealthy for any young person to stay for too long at just one school and in part because I taught at the wonderful Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge when I was training to be a teacher almost thirty years ago, so saw its strengths close up.

It is also good to be able to repay Bill Watkin, your Chief Executive, who delivered a speech for us at HEPI a couple of years ago. In the depths of lockdown over Christmas 2020, we hosted a light-hearted balloon debate on the serious topic of: what is the right age for academic selection to kick in? This is, as you know, an issue that has plagued English education for most of the last century and the debate – in which Bill spoke up for age 16 as you would expect – remains up on our website and is still well worth watching.

My employer, the Higher Education Policy Institute or HEPI, is the UK’s only specialist think-tank for higher education and a non-partisan charity. Our work is supported by most (130) UK universities as well as firms with a major interest in the health of our higher education system. We are very small as we like to partner with other organisations depending on what we are working on at any time; I think of ourselves as a micro-organisation that looks at the macro picture. We complete around 25 written projects each year – one a fortnight on average – and host a similar number of events, many of which are free to attend. So do check us out if you’re not already familiar with our work.

We also run a daily blog, which I would urge you to sign up to receive at the bottom of our homepage. On Monday, for example, we ran a very moving piece from Naimat Zafary, who came to the UK on one of the last flights from Kabul as the Taliban re-took Afghanistan. Naimat is now studying for a PhD at the University of Sussex and is using his position as a Chevening Scholar to highlight the terrible obstacles being put in the way of Afghani girls who want access to education. His blog reminded us that:

Educating women is … essential for the future of a nation as they take on the effective voice and tools to shape their own society, to create better opportunities for themselves and their children. As a precursor to suffrage, educated women change a nation’s balance of power and its order of priorities. It is both why it is so needed and why it is resisted by the Taliban who seek to put the clock back, even if the country starves as a result. …

Our reach may be imperfect, interrupted, partial. But maintaining a lifeline matters, and we are not without any ability to act. Nelson Mandela once wrote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It is my urgent request to U.K. universities that we rise together to challenge this apartheid of our own age, that we give meaning to our values through action. That we let Afghan women and girls know they are neither forgotten nor alone. And that one day in the future, we will applaud their own long walk to freedom knowing we played our small part in it.

Is there anything, I wonder, that the Sixth Form Colleges Association or you as individual members might be able to do to help the young women of Afghanistan meet their full potential?

A. Traversing the gap between voluntary and compulsory education

A few days beforehand, and more parochially, UCAS used the HEPI blog to tell the world about their coming reforms to higher education applications, including explaining how the blank-box personal statement is to be replaced by a series of short-form questions.

This was the main recommendation of a HEPI Debate Paper published late last yearand, except perhaps for some slightly unfortunate language around ‘learning styles’, UCAS’s proposals, which are now open for consultation, seem to have gone down well as a way of making the university entry system fairer. Lee Elliot Major, the Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and himself a former HEPI author, for instance, has said: ‘No one should underestimate how important this reform will be in helping to level the playing field in university admissions’.

If anyone here today thinks the design of the UCAS form is just a point of boring procedural detail, I can tell you that the UCAS blog explaining the changes led to the busiest time we have had on our website since the A-Level results row of August 2020 – in other words, it has been the second busiest time ever. So there is, rightly, massive interest in how you traverse that gap between compulsory education up to the age of 18 and the next phase of education which, for a bigger proportion of young people than ever before, means higher education.

Yet a survey we published with Advance HE last year showed just 11% of undergraduate students find higher education to be exactly as they expected it would be. Some older work we produced with Unite Students confirms that, in some respects, people arrive ill-prepared for higher education. We found, for example, that:

  1. only half of university applicants realised rent would be their biggest cost aside from tuition fees;
  2. close to two-thirds of applicants thought they would get more contact time at university than they have had at their school or college, when this will only be true for a minority; and
  3. only around one third of applicants with a mental health condition had declared it (or planned to declare it) to their prospective university.

On the last of these issues, student mental health, there has been huge progress in recent years, including since we undertook the poll, as universities have invested far more time and financial resources in supporting students who can benefit from active support for their mental health. One of the many reasons I am proud to be a governor of the university where I was an undergraduate, the University of Manchester, is that they have recently pooled resources with four other higher education institutions in Greater Manchester, with the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust and the NHS Greater Manchester to create the Greater Manchester Universities Student Mental Health Service.

However, there remains much to be done to support students’ deteriorating mental health and wellbeing across the higher education sector. I am particularly worried about the lingering impact of COVID on the coming generations of undergraduates. It seems to me that we need to talk more about whether the intelligence that you have about your students could be better shared with their next educational institution.

I know there are data handling concerns, I know that undergraduates are legally adults and your students generally are not and I know that sometimes people want a clean break when they go off to university, leaving their childhood behind. But it is not quite as simple as that: we would think it extraordinary if a primary school did not tell a secondary school about the extra challenges faced by a transferring pupil and, unlike physical health conditions, serious mental health conditions tend to first show themselves at the sort of age people are at when they typically move to higher education.

At the very least, please do urge your students to be open with their forthcoming higher education institutions about any needs they may have, so that support can be considered and put in place before they arrive. There are thousands of staff in higher education keen to ensure freshers feel like they are diving smoothly into the warm waters of higher education rather than being dropped into the freezing Arctic Ocean. They won’t always get it right but they can’t help if they don’t know.

There are thousands of staff in higher education keen to ensure freshers feel like they are diving smoothly into the warm waters of higher education rather than being dropped into the freezing Arctic Ocean. They won’t always get it right but they can’t help if they don’t know.

On the other issues in my list about preparedness for higher education, less progress has been made. Take awareness of living costs. Just last week, it was confirmed that maintenance support for English students is going up by under 3%, while inflation is hovering around 10%.

Many students do not receive the quoted figure anyway because no official body properly tells parents of young people approaching university just how much they are expected to contribute alongside the means-tested maintenance loan – all such parents are expected to contribute, remember, unless they are someway below average household earnings and surviving on £25,000 or less, which is a threshold that has not gone up since Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.

Indeed, many parents are expected to contribute over £5,000 a year to a student child’s living costs, which is the sort of sum they may very well need to prepare for in advance. So whenever I speak to Year 12 and Year 13 pupils, I always say to them, if there is only one thing you remember from my presentation, it is to go home and talk to your parents about the upfront contribution the Government expects them to make to your living costs.

Remember, the whole conversation about going away to university and living costs while you are there has to start earlier and run deeper here than in many other countries because UK students are much more likely to move away from home for their higher education. It is why I often describe the UK higher education system for typical young full-time learners as being based on a ‘boarding school model’.

On the other issue in my list about preparedness – contact time – different courses and different universities clearly offer very different models of direct engagement. (Since COVID, there is also the added complication of how much of a course is delivered online and how much is delivered in person, which is an issue on which I receive lots of emails but not my topic for today.)

When I was the Special Adviser to the Universities Minister in the early 2010s, the most reliable figures our civil servants could find on undergraduates’ contact hours came from the annual HEPI / Higher Education Academy Student Academic Experience Survey. A decade on, that same survey, now known as the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, remains the best source for both contact hours and class sizes.

I am immensely proud of this survey which is our flagship piece of work and it has, over the years, led the public debate on students’ value-for-money perceptions, wellbeing and workload while also being subjected to lots of incremental improvements. But polling is expensive and we and our partners can only afford to poll 10,000 students each year compared to the official-but-sanitised National Student Survey, which has well over 300,000 respondents. I am very surprised that there continues to be no official survey of contact hours or other key engagement measures in our sector. In fact, we’re going backwards on such things because the catch-all student satisfaction question is currently being removed from the National Student Survey in England (though not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, regrettably meaning yet more divergence throughout the UK).

If official measures of student engagement existed, there would be three clear benefits:

  1. First, it would be much easier for you and your students to compare courses and to match your students to the best course for them.
  2. Secondly, it would be easier to track changes in higher education provision over time – the fee cap for full-time home undergraduates in England has risen just once, by £250, in the past decade and, while policymakers might like to think this has enforced greater efficiency, you know better than me that in education ‘efficiency’ is sometimes just a synonym for ‘less’. You can ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ but it is generally a better strategy for supermarkets than educational institutions;
  3. Thirdly, better information on things like contact hours and class sizes would also go some way to pricking the status hierarchy we have in higher education because, remember, it is not always the oldest and most prestigious universities that have the best teaching – as Mary Curnock Cook pointed out in a rather controversial blog post on the HEPI website last year.

in education ‘efficiency’ is sometimes just a synonym for ‘less’. You can ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ but it is generally a better strategy for supermarkets than educational institutions

B. Admissions trends

As well as thinking about the transition to higher education, Bill asked me to dwell upon coming admissions trends. There are some big red flags here. On the one hand, we have a growing number of 18-year-olds and unprecedented levels of aspiration. As you may know, 97% of mothers of young children want their child to go to university – they won’t all go and they shouldn’t all go but, given that only 46% of today’s young men are currently expected to go to higher education before they reach the age of 30 – still someway below Tony Blair’s 50% target for 2010 – we can be confident that demand will continue to grow. On a conservative basis, we have calculated the need for 350,000 extra full-time places in England by 2035.

On the other hand, some recent policies have been aimed at dampening down demand. Some might see the attack on BTECs as part of this. Moreover, less than a year ago – back in February 2022, that’s four Secretaries of State for Education ago – the Government began a consultation on new Minimum Entry Requirements for higher education as well as new student number caps.

We are still waiting for the final decisions on such things and, in the intervening period, I have been having a spat with some higher education commentators about it all. Some people feel it is worth (reluctantly) accepting student number limits as a way of protecting spending-per-student in higher education during difficult fiscal times. I understand that argument and how sincerely it is held as well as why it might help institutions trying to deliver a top-notch education to all their students. But I would still argue educationists should not be in the business of seeking to block access to education.

To me, it seems as crazy to say to a school leaver who is likely to benefit from higher education ‘sorry, higher education is now full for this year, so you are not coming in’ as it would be to say to a GCSE pupil, an 11-year-old or a five-year-old, ‘sorry, all this year’s places are already taken, go off and find something else to do instead’.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that blocking ambitious people from benefiting from higher education is bad for the economy and society as well as for the individuals involved. You sometimes hear it said that it is nonetheless understandable that a right-of-centre government might want to limit access to higher education on the grounds that universities make people left-wing. Even I, a former Conservative general election candidate who came second in a university seat, do not accept this has any validity as a reason to stop someone from accessing higher education. Besides, it is wrong for two reasons:

  1. first, even the most fervent warriors-on-woke have been unable to find evidence to show that universities make people left wing – a recent Policy Exchange paper found young people planning to attend university are already ‘as left-wing and supportive of political correctness’ as those already there;
  2. secondly, if you actually want to win the votes of younger people, standing in the way of their educational ambitions is likely to be no more successful than standing in the way of their desire to own a home.

So there are good reasons why policymakers who try to block people’s access to higher education tend to find it a very uncomfortable place to stand for long. A year on from their consultation, it must soon be time for Ministers to say what they have decided about the future number of higher education places. I fervently hope that they come down on the side of aspiring young people and their families.

C. Political environment

In the first part of my speech, I spoke about the transition to higher education and in the second part I spoke about rising demand for higher education. In this final part, I want to address the wider political environment in which universities are operating, which Bill was keen that I should address.

The first thing to note here of course is the volume of change recently among our political masters, which has been unprecedented. The turnover is deeply unhelpful but actually the problem has long existed, albeit on a somewhat lower level in the past: only yesterday, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee noted, ‘There have been 35 ministers responsible for skills in the past 25 years’. You have to go back over a century to 1902 to find a top-level government minister with responsibility for education who approaches even the average tenure of a retiring vice-chancellor, which is eight years.

Another awkward fact of life for university managers trying to engage with policymakers is shifting Whitehall boundaries. I am simplifying a little in the interests of time and so as not to cross your boredom threshold and so it is not actually quite as neat as this, but broadly speaking:

  • in David Cameron’s time, there was one Minister in one department overseeing universities’ teaching and research functions;
  • in Theresa May’s time, there was one Minister in two Departments overseeing universities’ different functions;
  • in Boris Johnson’s time, there were two Ministers in two Departments overseeing universities; and
  • under Rishi Sunak, there are now three Ministers in two Departments with responsibility for higher education.

A typical university strategy lasts five-to-ten years so will almost certainly outlive many education ministers and quite possibly various Whitehall reorganisations. In the schools and sixth-form college sector, you must share this frustration with recent political shenanigans, except for the fact that Nick Gibb seems to be the Ariston of education policy, rather impressively going ‘on and on and on’.

Beyond those areas I have already spoken about, such as the level of maintenance support for students and the number of student places, there are a couple of other live higher education policies occupying current policymakers’ time to flag before I end.

The first is the B3 condition of registration at the Office for Students. This is more interesting than it sounds. In brief, B3 is the main (but not the only) mechanism to deliver the Government’s commitment to root out low-value higher education courses. This is to happen by investigating degree courses that perform comparatively badly on continuation, outcomes and progression metrics.

Unlike some people, I have no problem with the general idea. If you’re going to have an Office for Students regulating higher education institutions and if higher education is to receive large public subsidies, then it is valid for the regulator to assess how things can be done better for students in the future. The B3 process is already leading to some useful conversations in institutions about their offering of courses.

But the reality is a lot more complicated than the theory because, as someone wise once said, ‘higher education is a process masquerading as an outcome’. Moreover, at a practical level:

  • Does the Office for Students have the resources to do a fair job without cutting corners when assessing thousands of courses at hundreds of registered providers?
  • How does the announcement that the Quality Assurance Agency will no longer be the Designated Quality Body for English higher education affect the whole area of assessing quality?
  • Will the Department for Education seek to go over the heads of the Office for Students to block courses it doesn’t fancy in ways that go beyond B3?

I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do know that, even in smooth political times, education reforms tend to take a frustratingly long time to take effect.

  • GCSEs were first announced in 1984 but it wasn’t until 1988 that they were first – somewhat chaotically – awarded. (I was in the first cohort, so remember it well.)
  • The tripling of tuition fees on which I worked took two years despite not needing new primary legislation.
  • T-Levels were first announced as an idea in 2016 but the first T-Levels were not awarded until six years later, in 2022.

This combination of rapid political change at a surface level combined with ‘slow policy’ when it comes to much of the substance of many educational reforms explains why, as a policy wonk, I tend to urge educational leaders to stick to their institutional missions rather than to try and second guess the whims of policymakers.

You need to engage constantly with those in power of course, to work to improve the evidence they have at their disposal and to invite them to your colleges repeatedly – until they say yes and have paid more than one visit. But when most major education reforms take more than two years and there is a general election less than two years away, as is currently the case, then you may find you go down a dead end if you modify your strategy to suit a current political fad.

If you want to know more about how policymakers think, look out for the new paper we’re publishing at one minute past midnight tonight on how best to engage with them. It is based on various interviews HEPI has conducted with former ministers, special advisers and civil servants [and will be available here].

I dwell on all this in part because the biggest policy coming higher education’s way is, potentially, the proposed Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which is designed to enable step-on step-off reskilling and upskilling throughout people’s lives. First announced in 2020, we were told by Ministers back in 2021 that this would bring ‘revolutionary change into further and higher education’, that it would be the ‘rocket fuel that we need to level up this country’ and even that it was akin to ‘the revolutionary ideas that shaped the founding of our NHS’.

In the last Queen’s Speech in May 2022, we were promised a Higher Education Bill that would put the flesh on the bones of the policy. We are still waiting.

When the Lifelong Loan Entitlement was first mooted two-and-a-half years ago, the implementation date of 2025 seemed far in the distance but half the time has elapsed already and we are still waiting at the platform rather than halfway to the destination. As a country, we cannot afford to have Avanti levels of service when it comes to raising skills. Officially, the Government website says ‘We are analysing your feedback’ on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, but if it’s said that since last May and if the policy is to be ready to go by the time of the next election, we need to see the promised legislation immediately.

When the Lifelong Loan Entitlement was first mooted two-and-a-half years ago, the implementation date of 2025 seemed far in the distance but half the time has elapsed already and we are still waiting at the platform rather than halfway to the destination.


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. HEPI has an incredibly busy spring lined up. For example:

  • we hosted our first event of the year this morning (on international students, which you can watch back on our website) and we are currently advertising eight other events, including our first Annual Lecture since pre-COVID times, which will be delivered by Andreas Schleicher of the OECD; and
  • as I have mentioned, we are publishing our second report of 2023 tomorrow, on how to engage with policymakers, while our third will be out on 2 February in the form of the second annual UPP Foundation / HEPI Public Attitudes to Higher Education survey.

But we always need content and there is more interest in issues that straddle schools / colleges and universities than in anything else we do, so please do continue to engage with us in the months and years ahead.

Thank you.

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