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

HEPI: The early years

  • 1 August 2023
  • By Bahram Bekhradnia
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI’s President and its first Director.
  • In August, we are running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a blog series. This piece is the Foreword from that collection.

In the spring of 2002 I approached Sir Howard Newby, recently appointed Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), where I had been Policy Director for more than 10 years, with the proposition that HEFCE might support me in establishing a think tank devoted to higher education policy analysis.

I had for some time thought that there was need for such a body – other subjects of public interest like health, foreign affairs, environment and so on had think tanks devoted to them – but not higher education. It was true that HEFCE did some outstanding policy analysis – the HEFCE Analytical Services team produced what I still think was some of the very best research on higher education, unmatched before or since – but their work was limited to HEFCE’s immediate policy concerns.

I had previously made the suggestion to Sir Howard’s predecessor but without success. However, Howard Newby is a distinguished social scientist with a keen interest in policy – he had been Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – and he readily agreed. The slight fly in the ointment was that I was at the time a civil servant on secondment from the Education Department and for me to lead this new body he had to get the agreement of Sir David Normington, the Permanent Secretary. No objection was raised, and the establishment of HEPI was announced in the summer of 2002.

There was understandable concern among some – would it be truly independent given my background? Would the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) have the inside track when it came to getting consultancy contracts from public bodies? (HEPI does not carry out consultancy for UK bodies.) Why was the Board of Trustees exclusively male? (A fair point at the time, now redressed with four out of the five trustees female.) We encountered other issues, some arcane. It was important to establish HEPI as a charity, although the Charity Commission was initially not convinced that conducting research and policy analysis was an educational activity! But we overcame such hurdles, and on 1 November 2002 I sat in my office in Oxford (rented from the collegiate University) – and nothing happened. I turned on my computer and no emails! Of course I was going to have to take the initiative and hope that others would respond, a strange experience after being part of large organisations where I had been overwhelmed by correspondence.

We had hope, but no expectation, that HEPI would succeed and certainly not that it would approach its 21st birthday in the shape that it is now in. We had a guarantee of two years of core funding from HEFCE which was essential to enable us to find our feet and generate other sources of funds – and there is a lesson there for anyone thinking of attempting anything similar. The other thing to which I attribute HEPI’s ability to get off the ground as quickly as it did, and thrive subsequently, was the fact that we had outstanding and very senior support. Lord Dearing was our first Chairman followed by Professor Sir Graeme Davies, both giants in the higher education world. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, if Ron Dearing asked somebody to do something they would. We had an Advisory Board and a Board of Trustees comprising some of the most senior members of the higher education and business communities, including a number of senior vice-chancellors and the Chief Executive of Universities UK.

We quickly established ‘traditions’. The Annual Lecture which is always given by a highly distinguished speaker – in the early days alternating between a speaker from the UK and from abroad – was from the beginning sponsored by Blackwells, whose only stipulation was that at the reception afterwards we served real champagne and top-notch canapés. And the House of Commons breakfast seminar series, something that is expensive to run but for which we had no difficulty finding sponsors. At that time, we regarded both these ‘traditions’ as showcases to cement the HEPI brand and attendance was strictly limited to senior members of different constituencies (academic, business, government). In large part that was to demonstrate that HEPI was a senior and serious player in the higher education world.

Apart from myself and an occasional secretary we had no staff initially, but we soon attracted young secondees and interns as well as volunteers – often unsolicited – to write reports. Tom Sastry and Libby Aston were two and the outstanding John Thompson, a retired senior analyst at HEFCE, who was draconian in his insistence that every piece of analysis that we produced should be unimpeachable in its use of data. There were conclusions that we could reasonably have reached but which we did not publish because they were only ‘reasonable’ and not proved. Every report that we published – no more than seven or eight in any year, compared to the 25 or so more recently produced each year – was sent in printed form to our mailing list (open to everybody) and uploaded onto the website. Very often the web reports contained much more data and analysis than the printed versions, and we therefore called them ‘summary reports’ (almost all of our reports were based on analyses of data, mainly published data but sometimes gathered ad hoc). We took the decision at the outset that everything we produced was to be made freely available, as our mission was to ensure that discussions and decisions about higher education should be better informed by evidence than had been the case in the past.

I was nearly 12 years in post, and there were many highs and few lows. Among the highest were demonstrations of our independence and also, oddly, our influence. One of the first reports we produced was about the economic evidence for the expansion of higher education (not entirely positive) and Lord Dearing received a phone call from the Permanent Secretary of the Department saying that the then Minister wanted the report suppressed because it might be taken to undermine the Government’s policy. Lord Dearing pointed out to him how bad it would look if it were known that a Minister had tried to suppress the report of an independent think tank – and we heard nothing more. He also remarked how impressive it was that the Department thought a report from us was worth suppressing.

In 2006, we produced a report estimating that the enlargement of the EU would lead to an additional 25,000 to 30,000 EU students, which was denounced by the Minister at the time as a hopeless exaggeration (perhaps spooked by the newspaper headline ‘University invasion from the new EU states).1 In the event, the number of students from the new EU states reached 30,000.

Some time after, following the increase in home undergraduate fees to £3,000 a year in 2006, we produced an analysis, perhaps provocatively called The prosperity of English universities which showed how well off they now were.2 A disadvantage of an Advisory Board made up of such distinguished members of the higher education establishment was that they were very sensitive to any suggestion that universities were not in a parlous state financially – especially as at that very time there were difficult pay negotiations going on. The Advisory Board was hostile and did not want the report published. But as I pointed out to them then, the Advisory Board was precisely that – advisory – and we published anyway. There were no good reasons not to, other than that it might cause embarrassment. There were no quarrels with the analysis.

And in 2010, following John Thompson’s devastating analysis of the Government’s student fees policy, David Willetts, on the floor of the House of Commons, described the HEPI analysis as ‘eccentric’ but then a year later to the Select Committee admitted that HEPI was right ‘but for the wrong reasons’!3

Among our most referenced reports are the regular updates on student demand where, to our surprise, we found there were no sensible similar analyses produced officially. The Department did produce their own estimates but these were, curiously, based on taking individual government policies and estimating the impact each would have on demand assuming they were successful (which they often were not). Ours are based on trends and examine alternative scenarios, including students from poorer backgrounds increasing their participation, and similarly males matching the performance of females – as they had once done.

With regard to the latter, we produced a series of reports showing not only that men were less likely to go to university than women, but that once at university they did not do as well. One of those reports gave rise to a front-page headline from the Sun ‘Uni Sex Scandal’! It also elicited a comment from a Professor of Gender Studies accusing John Thompson and me of ‘castration anxieties’. A subsequent report that looked at the experience of graduates leaving university explored possible reasons why female graduates earned less than male graduates in their first job, dispelling the conventional wisdom that this was a function of subjects studied – the pay differential holds even within a subject.4

Then, there was our finding that students from state schools obtain better degrees than those from independent schools with the same grades. Unsurprisingly, that gave rise to fury from the independent school sector which attempted to rubbish the findings – but the analysis was unimpeachable.

But the series of reports with which I am most pleased are those The Academic Experience of Students, now known as the Student Academic Experience Survey. This series is based on large surveys of students and asks questions about a range of issues, most notably how much contact they have with staff, how many hours they devote to private study and so on. That has been conducted pretty well every year since 2006, which has allowed a long and valuable time series. And it shows an extraordinary consistency which enables confidence in its findings. For example, it showed that in 2006 students, on average, had 13.7 contact hours per week and in 2022 they had 13.4. It showed that in 2006 taking contact hours and private study together, students studied for 25.7 hours per week and in 2022 they studied for 26.1 hours (they also on average had 4.6 hours of placement or field trips but that refinement was not included in the early surveys).5

We were able subsequently to compare these figures with those of other European countries, with the unsurprising conclusion that students here were able to obtain their degrees with significantly less study than those in most other countries. Initially those reports received a hostile reception from vice-chancellors and others who argued that study – and especially contact – hours were a measure of input, but that what was important was the quality of the outcomes, which is a rather fatuous argument implying no relationship between how hard you work and the outcomes achieved or alternatively that English students are cleverer and that their educators are better than their European counterparts.

More generally, it has been an extraordinary period to be involved in higher education policy. In this time we have moved from the £1,000 fee, payable upfront, to the £3,000 fee with a loan to the £9,000 fee, also with a loan, which probably costs the government as much as the £3,000 fee regime.

In England, we have moved from HEFCE as the relatively benign guardian of the national higher education system and its interest in maintaining the health of the sector to the Office for Students (OfS), a body that appears incoherent, that has no interest in the sector and whose modus operandi is to wag its finger at universities and tell them that they should be doing better – however well they are doing.

And we have moved from higher education acknowledged to be a national as well as a private good to higher education as a commodity, like gas or water, which students purchase as consumers and which therefore needs a regulator to protect the student-consumers, as do gas and water.

And higher education is increasingly a victim of culture wars, with challenges in relation to freedom of speech, antisemitism and wokeness being levelled at institutions and their staff for simply doing what they believe is right.

There have been changes, and many of them have not been for the better, but all that is grist to our mill, and I am pleased – perhaps even a little surprised – that HEPI will soon have achieved its 21st year. Have we succeeded in our aim of ensuring that policy discussions and decisions are better informed by evidence? Difficult to tell, but I like to hope so. What is encouraging is the evidence that we have maintained confidence in what we do, and that we are a valuable resource worth nurturing. The facts that almost all universities are willing to pay a subscription to HEPI (originally encouraged by Sarah Isles, HEPI’s outstanding first Development Director), in return for which they receive few significant direct benefits (and therefore in essence pay to ensure that we keep going), and that we have 18 commercial partners are indicative of that, as is the fact that we remain the first port of call for both print and broadcast journalists wishing to make sense of what is going on – as is witnessed by the number of times that we appear on the radio or are quoted in newspapers.

I am so pleased that we have achieved this milestone, and that on every indication we are in as strong a place as we have ever been under the knowledgeable and enthusiastic stewardship of Nick Hillman, my successor as Director. And of course, I am delighted that so distinguished a group of higher education’s most knowledgeable and experienced experts have agreed to contribute these essays to help us celebrate.


  1. Bahram Bekhradnia, Demand for Higher Education to 2020, HEPI Report 22, March 2006
  2. Bahram Bekhradnia, The prosperity of English universities Income growth and the prospects for new investment, HEPI Report 26, September 2006
  3. John Thompson and Bahram Bekhradnia, The government’s proposals for higher education funding and student finance – an analysis, HEPI Report 50, November 2010
  4. John Thompson and Bahram Bekhradnia, Male and female participation and progression in Higher Education, HEPI Report 41, June 2009 and John Thompson and Bahram Bekhradnia, Male and female participation and progression in higher education: further analysis, HEPI Report 48, July 2010
  5. The initial, 2006, report Bahram Bekhradnia, Carolyn Whitnall and Tom Sastry, The academic experience of students in English universities, HEPI Report 27, October 2006 https://www.hepi. Subsequent versions are available on the HEPI website and the most recent edition is Jonathan Neves and Rose Stephenson, Student Academic Experience Survey 2023, HEPI / Advance HE, June 2023 https://

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  1. Alice Prochaska says:

    As a retired but still very much engaged academic boss on both sides of the Atlantic, I’d like to congratulate Bahram –and his successor — on the quiet but consistent success of his brainchild over the years. HEPI succeeds in providing advice and insights that are authentically independent, and usually right! I read it with enjoyment and profit, and admire what it is doing.

  2. Les Ebdon says:

    A fascinating and excellent account of the early days of HEPI and the context. What Bahram obviously cannot comment on is the suspicion, in those early days, that this was a vanity project which would not last and if it did might cause embarrassment to the sector. The former was always unfair and ultimately proven to be wrong. The latter was true on occasion but having to face uncomfortable truths was good training for the current more hostile environment. I remember having to appear on the Today programme to defend universities after the first Student Academic Experience Survey, not altogether an easy ride but helped by a late night briefing by Bahram. Thank you for your kindness and your legacy.

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