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

Higher education policymaking in the UK before HEPI

  • 2 August 2023
  • By Roger Brown
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by Roger Brown, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Policy and former Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University.
  • In July and August, we are running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a blog series. This piece is the first chapter from that collection.
  • On Monday 14th August, 11am, we are hosting a webinar with UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant: you can register here.

It may seem difficult to believe now that, only 30 years ago, there was limited interest in the working and funding of the nation’s universities or in the opportunities they offer to their students. By the start of the twenty-first century though, that had changed and there was a role for a specialist higher education think tank. Reflecting here on the policy climate at the time of the creation of HEPI, I draw on the perspective that I have acquired over that time from roles in central government, a funding council, two representative bodies, a national quality agency, institutional leadership and critical writing about higher education policy.

As a Civil Servant in various Departments, including the Cabinet Office, from 1976 to 1990, I was very aware of two longstanding features of UK government policymaking.

The first was Whitehall’s strong predilection for local ‘internal’ sources of information and evidence – the famous ‘not invented here’ syndrome. The second, which reflected and contributed to the first, was the weakness of the links between civil servants working in a particular area of policy and the ‘outside’ experts based, usually in a university, sometimes in a think tank.

Both these features were certainly found in higher education policy but higher education had its own policy pathology, summarised in the following reflection of Sir Eric Ashby, former Master of Clare College Cambridge and Chair of the University Grants Committee:

 All over the country these groups of scholars, who would not make a decision about the shape of a leaf or the derivation of a word or the author of a manuscript without painstakingly assembling the evidence, make decisions about admission policy, size of universities, staff-student ratios, content of courses and similar issues, based on dubious assumptions, scrappy data and mere hunch.1

Three particular things brought all this home to me.

In 1987/88, I was a member of an interdepartmental working party trying to determine future student numbers. The 1987 White Paper Higher education: meeting the challenge had suggested two trajectories, one more conservative, one more ambitious.2 The working party spent at least a couple of years arguing over this, yet by the time we finished, actual numbers in the system far exceeded even the expansion the Department for Trade and Industry (and Employment) had been advocating. One of the main reasons was the success of the new GCSE, which meant many more students staying on into sixth-form, perhaps an unintended consequence of Sir Keith Joseph’s decision to merge the old O-Level with the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). Yet I do not recall much discussion of the GCSE or changes in the school curriculum in our meetings. In turn, of course, this unanticipated expansion was one of the reasons for private funding rising up the policy agenda.

When the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics came to an end in early 1993, I worked briefly as Head of Research and Strategy at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). I was really shocked at how little proper research had been done into many aspects of higher education: such matters as the research-teaching relationship, staff-student ratios (again!), future employment needs and patterns and the use of IT in student education. The CVCP embarked on its own work on the long-term future of higher education while no one else was doing so.

In the middle of the 1990s, the Government established the Dearing Committee of Inquiry. Although its Terms of Reference were quite broad, for politicians at least its real role was to make private funding of teaching more acceptable. Nevertheless, it instigated inquiries on many aspects of higher education. A colleague of mine, who was seconded to the committee’s secretariat, complained about how little proper knowledge there appeared to be within higher education on many of these questions, and how much research they had had to commission (and later publish), much of it from outside higher education. In private, Sir Ron (later Lord) Dearing, HEPI’s first Chair, made similar remarks to me.

All this was fairly astonishing given the greatly increased scale and importance of the sector and higher education’s much-vaunted role as society’s Research and Development arm.

This then was the context in which HEPI was conceived, but as always there was a micro aspect as well.

Someone I then knew well was Professor (later Sir) Howard Newby, at this time Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (previously Vice-Chancellor of Southampton, and subsequently Vice-Chancellor of the Universities of the West of England and of Liverpool). Howard had been Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council. Both he and I therefore had considerable experience of government policymaking, at a time when some of the major generalist think tanks were starting to show an interest in higher education. We agreed that there was a need for a dedicated policy think tank that would sit between – but be independent of – the Government and the sector, and which would study and comment on precisely those issues that were important for policy but which had been under, or poorly, researched either by the sector or by those outside it.

Building on these conversations, Howard was able to get wider support for the idea (including from the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Skills), while I gave some thought to the structure and resources HEPI would need. I am delighted to be able to say that under first Bahram’s and now Nick’s leadership, HEPI has more than fulfilled this remit, so I am delighted to be able to contribute to this celebration.


  1. Eric Ashby, ‘Introduction: Decision-Making in the Academic World’, The Sociological Review, vol.7 no.1, 1959, pp.5-13 p6
  2. Department for Education and Science, Higher education: meeting the challenge, 1987 wp1987/1987-higher-ed.html

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