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

On being a higher education think-tank

  • 17 July 2023
  • By Ronald Barnett
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London and President of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society.  Among his more recent books is The Philosophy of Higher Education: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2022).

I have been invited by HEPI to write this blog on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary and in the wake of the report commemorating this achievement, and I am delighted to share some thoughts in this context.

I suggest that there are six conditions a think-tank – which is what I take HEPI to be – has to fulfil in order to gain a significant level of legitimacy.  A think tank should:

  • Found its analyses and proposals on unimpeachable evidence and reasoning
  • Reach out to its constituencies, both within its sector and beyond to the relevant policy network
  • Secure broad-based support for its work
  • Be accessible in multiple ways
  • Exhibit disciplined concern for its objects
  • Be willing to speak truth-to-power and to withstand the turbulence that will sometimes ensue.

It seems to me that HEPI has scored remarkably well on each of these six criteria.  It has commissioned work from those who can speak authoritatively about higher education and who, very often, have conducted fresh research or scholarship in the field.  It has reached out to its constituencies in face-to-face meetings (both large and intimate), in publications and via the internet.  It has secured very broad tangible support for its work, apparent not least in the range and number of its subscribers (both among higher education institutions and in the private sector).  Its body of work is readily accessible, being free both of academic jargon and of bureaucratese.  It has trod delicately the line between advocacy for the sector and sterile neutrality.  And it has demonstrably been willing to speak truth-to-power (as Bahram Bekhradnia poignantly observes with examples in his chapter in the anniversary report).

Surely, it is only through such a record of achievement that we can account for HEPI having gained the traction that it has, both in Government circles and in the media.  (How often have we come to hear Nick Hillman speaking on the networks about some major higher education issue of the day.)  But there are other dimensions in play that make the stature that HEPI has attained all the more remarkable.

The first is the matter of diffuseness.  Most institutions and services, even in the public domain, have a more or less readily understood set of aims and even values.  Higher education does not.  Indeed, it is part of the meaning of the idea of the university that it be a space where matters are kept on the table and where dispute is to be encouraged.  HEPI has had to pursue its work in a context, accordingly, where there is not just fuzziness but downright internal and public dispute over the ends of higher education.  For example, the culture wars in the wider society are now seen, often with some stridency, deep inside universities.  This is egg-shell territory for HEPI.

A second dimension is the iceberg phenomenon, as we may term it.  To mix our metaphors, and to steal a phrase from Jonathan Grant’s essay, much of higher education is under the radar.  And these hidden layers are often large forces, effecting movement in the sector, such that over time, changes amount to revolutions (see David Sweeney’s essay on research).  The ground is all the time moving under HEPI, such that it itself has had to be fleet of foot.

These reflections pose challenges to HEPI.  Large and unseen – and conflicting – forces are shaping the world such that unpredictable events are liable to erupt.  Applications to study in higher education might nosedive, new technologies (Chatbots) might cause a loss of trust in the truthfulness of academics’ claims, or the supremacy of research in the Global North might be assailed by rival epistemologies of the Global South.  But if these possibilities reflect the complexity of global systems, higher education has to cope too with the supercomplexity represented by rival sets of values and perspectives on the world.  Witness the skirmishes over trans-rights and over no-platforming.

An unheralded virtue of HEPI is that it has not just contributed to the public sphere in and around higher education but that it has actually enlarged the public sphere.  It has brought into play a public space for dispassionate reasoning, imagination and dialogue about key issues and, in the process, formed a bridge between the polity and the sector.  However, these reflections – about the complexity-in-depth of the currents at work – suggest that, in its next twenty years, HEPI might seek to bring to the surface of public debate somewhat hidden and even intractable matters.

Here are eight such issues:

  • The relationship between research and teaching: these two functions have not just been pulling apart in the UK but are frequently in tension with each other.  (Celia Whitchurch’s data suggests that this situation is worsening.)
  • The relationship between leadership and management: both functions are crucial but, especially in a situation of complexity (and supercomplexity) they are profoundly different.  Moreover, a story of the UK could be that management has come to trump leadership whereas – arguably – management should be on tap and not on top.
  • The end of criticality: at a time when critical thinking should be expanded into criticality (to enable, for example, graduates to be whistle-blowers in their professional situations), critical thinking is disappearing as the marketisation of higher education becomes ever stronger.
  • The public good: A marketized system finds difficulty in acknowledging the contribution of higher education institutions to the public good.  Might the sector itself derive ways not only of identifying institutions’ different contributions to the public realm but also develop collectively ways of assessing those contributions, and presenting those findings?  (This could assist the debate about the funding of higher education as between the state and private contributions.)
  • The 50% problem: An age that sees half of a population proceeding into higher education, and half not enjoying the benefits that it brings, produces a new form of societal cleavage (with the latter part of society ripe for ideological take-over).  What are the responsibilities of universities in such a situation and how might those responsibilities be discharged?
  • (Mis)trust in the universities:  The recent UPPI/HEPI report on their Public Attitudes to Higher Education Survey indicated that a large portion of the population have never set foot in a university and have little conception as to their purposes and functions.  How might universities work to dislodge the ensuing public mistrust of universities?  
  • Planetary health: Given a phrase advanced especially by The Lancet and the Rockefeller Foundation, is not the greatest responsibility in front of universities that of enhancing planetary health in its totality?  How might universities develop their mission in this way?
  • Student anxiety: Student anxiety is not new – it was identified in the 1960s – but arguably it has taken on new dimensions in the 21st century, as students are faced not only with immediate problems of living but are also sensitive to societal and environmental crises and on a global scale.  This is not a matter of better counselling but of existential challenges of life.  What responsibilities befall universities here?

This list of difficult issues which lie just under the surface indicate the huge and murky forces that are structuring the world of higher education.  Some are calling for a new Robbins or a new Dearing (both of which commissioned research to assist their inquiries).  But that model, of a massive inquiry every generation, even when backed by solid research, is outré in the fluidity of the twenty-first century.  What is surely needed is an ongoing and organised space of systematic review, analysis, and policy advice, continuously informed by serious research and deep scholarship.  And, indeed, there are vibrant research and scholarly efforts that are inquiring into all eight of the issues just listed.

Step forward HEPI (!) – for it would take just a few tweaks in its brilliant pattern of activities for this idea to be brought off, with its proposal of forthright analysis and advocacy on the one hand and a continuing process of inquiry into hidden but very large and wicked issues, and all informed by serious research and probing and rigorous scholarship. 

Let’s bring the researchers and scholars into direct engagement with the movers and shakers of the policy network in some, at least, of HEPI’s gatherings.  Here’s to HEPI mark 2.

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