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

WEEKEND READING: The next 20 years – rediscovering the social purpose of higher education

  • 26 August 2023
  • By Jonathan Grant
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by Dr Jonathan Grant, founding Director of Different Angles Ltd, a consultancy that focuses on the social impact of universities and research.
  • We are currently running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a series of blogs. This piece is the thirteenth chapter from that collection.

In his book, The Living Company, Arie de Gues observes that most companies either go bust or are acquired within their first 50 years of existence and that it is a rarity for companies to survive for over a century let alone 200 or 300 years.1 He wanted to understand the characteristics of companies that did survive this long and identified four key characteristics: they were sensitive to their environment; they had a strong sense of identity; they were tolerant; and they were conservative in their financing. In reading HEPI’s twentieth anniversary report, I found myself reflecting on these characteristics. Clearly not all universities in the UK are over 100 years old but they seem solidly to meet these criteria.

In this final essay, I want to draw on the lessons of the last 20 years to gaze into the crystal ball to think about the next 20. The diversity of topics covered in the preceding 13 pieces is vast and thus difficult to pull out commonalities, but one framing would be around the alliteration of celebration, change and challenge. As we navigate these ‘in-between times’, we can forget the extraordinary impact that higher education, as a sector, and HEPI, as a think tank, has had over the last 20 years (as Bahram Bekhradnia and Roger Brown recount).2 During that time, UK universities have grown from graduating almost 600,000 people in 2003, to over 900,000 in 2022.3 In and of itself that is a considerable achievement as not only has it provided individual enlightenment for many people, but it has contributed to the economic and social wellbeing of the UK and beyond. Put alongside the indisputably impactful research undertaken in UK universities (as evidenced now by two rounds of REF assessment), and the unique contributions universities made to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard not to feel immense pride in the sector. More recently, and perhaps spurred by macro-political concerns around levelling up, we have seen many universities (re)discover their commitment to their locality, embracing the idea of being anchor institutions through civic and community engagement.

As these institutions go on to deliver on these three missions, HEPI sat alongside them celebrating their success, but also challenging universities to think about their responsibilities through analysis and advocacy. Through their many hundreds of reports and events, HEPI has shaped a more robust and evidence-based debate around higher education for two decades. Counterfactual arguments can, at times, be puerile, but it is worth reflecting on how the sector would be without HEPI or at least a think tank that is focused on higher education.

But in celebrating these successes we should not lose sight of the changes that have occurred, nor the challenges that are faced today. As Mark Corver points out, the two biggest trends over the past 20 years go hand-in-hand – that is increased participation in higher education with the need to share the costs of tuition. Sometimes, in debating the fee structures in the UK we forget the primary driver which is the increase in the number of people going to universities. During HEPI’s lifetime, this has increased from 42% in 2006/07 to 52% in 2019/20, meeting the 1999 50% aspiration of Tony Blair’s Labour Government but more importantly transforming the lives of many millions of young people. But that change could not have been afforded solely by the state meaning that, in some form, the costs of a university education had in part to be met by individual students. The debate therefore is what is the ‘form’ and what is the ‘part’. Currently, as Claire Callender describes, with the exception of Scotland, we have incomecontingent fee loans with the variables of income thresholds, interest rates and duration being used to determine the balance between public and private contributions.

This quite radical shift has had a number of consequences (some I suspect unintended). For example, as Chris Millward points out it has reduced the levers that central government has over universities, which may explain some of the frustrations that governments seem to have with the sector (ie they have lost control). This has resulted in a shift to a regulated system in governance with a more corporate model being adopted by many universities as Michael Shattock explains, leading to a focus on ‘customers’ ie students, a realisation of the need to improve teaching in many parts of the sector, highlighted by Alex Bols and Graeme Wise, and the introduction of new staffing models, which Celia Whitchurch outlines. The knockon consequences of these changes (which are often loosely packaged as ‘marketisation’) have had at times stretched to breaking point the higher education system in the UK, as evidenced by recent industrial disputes, negative newspaper headlines over a range of topics and local conflicts around issues such as housing. On the latter point, William Whyte provides a history of the positive and negative impacts of universities on their communities, including the rediscovery of their civic roles.

Concurrent with these inwards facing trends, the sector has had to contend with a number of external changes such as devolution. Additionally, and as Ellen Hazelkorn describes, the nexus of Brexit and ‘Global Britain’ have had profound effects on the sector (again for good or bad) and others which are slightly under the radar (for example, at least in England, the separation of further education and higher education as Andrea Laczik and Josh Patel describe).

The one area that has witnessed gentle change is perhaps research as David Sweeney argues but even here there has been a quiet evolution with a focus on application (impact), concentration of activity in universities and more recently the emergence of a number of interconnected concerns that are packaged as ‘research culture’. On this last point it is curious that today it is often the research funders (for example, the Wellcome Trust leading on research culture) which hold the policy levers that Chris Millward notes are largely absent for central government. Furthermore, they are using that power to create change that arguably is the responsibility of universities and the sector more broadly.

And that is a nice segue into my final ‘C’ – challenges. At times I suspect they can be overwhelming for many senior leaders in universities. The list is long and (in policy jargon) ‘wicked’, that is there are no easy solutions, whether it is: adaptation to climate change (international students and academic travel); the emergence of new technologies (AI being the go-to example); the precarious state of both the universities’ workforce and its overall finances; student mental health and wellbeing; or the ‘populism, polarisation and post truth’ of the culture wars.4 Who would want to be a vice-chancellor? The good news, however, is that – firstly – if any sector can navigate these issues, it is surely universities with their intellectual heft and that, as seen, they possess the characteristics of the ‘living company’, giving confidence in their long-term survival. Looking into the crystal ball, what will the fortieth anniversary report by HEPI focus on? Clearly prediction is a fools-game, but there do seem persistent issues that, if resolved, would shape the direction of travel. On that basis two plausible scenarios come to mind. The first is a positive re-articulation of the social purpose of higher education and the second is more a muddling through scenario (much like the recent past). I thought about, and rejected, the doom and gloom narrative that universities enter a perpetual decline, given their history of resilience and adaptability. I hope I am not being complacent.

So my muddling through scenario assumes that the trends of HEPI’s teenage years continue into its early 20s. That is that issues around fee structures, cross-subsidies, purpose and mission remain largely unsolved. The higher education sector and government continue to grind along, never quite falling in love but neither engaging in outright warfare. Despite political and popular concern around immigration, international students will continue to fund research deficits and further education will remain as the poor cousin to higher education. Research culture, precarity and staffing models will continue to be debated but without much meaningful change.

This might sound a bit too much like the ‘doom and gloom’ scenario I rejected, but it is basically the status quo. And it is not all bad; student lives will still be transformed through higher education, research will continue to make meaningful contributions to society, not least to some of the existential challenges we face like the climate crisis, and universities will continue to strengthen their connections to their place.

I also think this is quite a likely scenario (at least for the next five to 10 years): if the Labour party manage to form a government after the next election, then I suspect they will commission (yet another) review, partly as a tactic to kick higher education into the long grass. If I were advising party leader Kier Starmer this is what I would do as, basically, he will be facing more pressing priorities. If the Conservatives form the government there is nothing to suggest a change from the current approach, except perhaps a gentle shift away from the cultural wars to something more technocratic.

There are many good reasons to be cynical about ‘another review’ but in the vein of optimism, let us see that as a launch-pad for a new or re-discovered social purpose for higher education. Taking another leaf out of the Australian policy book, perhaps this will result in an ‘accord’, or new social contract, between universities and society mediated through local and national government.5 Such a vision could articulate why universities are so critical to the success of the UK and identify a number of forward-looking aspirations for the sector and government to work on and deliver together. Some of this could be re-purposing tired slogans (like ‘Science Superpower’) but backing them up with meaningful policies around sustainable funding, Horizon (and beyond) and people (visas, postgraduate training and a reputation that the UK is a welcoming place to live and work). But other proposals could be more radical, for example, setting a new aspiration that 70% of young people will go to university by 2035. This is a position that HEPI Director Nick Hillman has advanced and something I firmly align with as it will benefit both society and the individual.6 In return, universities could commit to being the catalyst of sustainable economic growth, both nationally but also in their locality. This would mean taking seriously their civic and community responsibilities by buying locally, being cognisant of their impact on local communities (for example, on housing) and paying a living wage.

None of this, it has to be said, is all that radical but by capturing it in an accord between the sector and government it would have has strong symbolic power, allow society to hold universities to account and legitimise the role of higher education following a period when its reputation has been tarnished through a range of issues such as on free speech, ‘fat cat’ salaries and marking boycotts. However, there could be radical consequences. For example, increasing participation to 70% is likely to require investment in half a dozen new universities. This would create an opportunity to fill in higher education cold spots, which could be ambitiously modelled on the US land-grant universities of the nineteenth century.7

However, such an aspiration will not be met until the debate over student funding is once again settled. As noted above, increased participation in higher education means that its costs have to be shared between the individual and the state – and potentially employers. To me that is undisputable, so then the debate becomes a technical one on how best to share those costs and whether such a system should be progressive, regressive or neutral when looking at the background of prospective students.

At the same time, universities could learn from the health sector in establishing something akin to academic health sciences centres or networks, where they partner with further education institutions and other schools and colleges in their districts to deliver locally relevant educational pathways (a bit like the recent announcement by the Mayor of Greater Manchester).8 Finally, UKRI and other government departments could deliver on the old promise of moving to 100% full economic costs.9 Not only would this create a sustainable research funding environment, but it would shift the motive for international student recruitment from one of needing cash to one of creating a culturally diverse educational experience.

The combination of a new accord, the continued expansion of the sector, a change of motivation for international student recruitment, a shift to fully funding research, a recalibration of the student fee regime and a purpose focused on educational systems embedded in localities, could mean that the scale of change of the last 20 years is mirrored in the next 20. It seems to me, as we reflect on the optimism that characterised HEPI’s early years and how, to a degree, that has declined, we need to rediscover a vision that can be energising and purposeful. Such a vision for universities was captured succinctly by the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann: ‘A university is, first and foremost, a social undertaking to create social good’.10


  1. Arie De Gues, The Living Company: Growth Learning and Longevity in Business, 1999
  2. John Ralston Saul, The Collapse of Globalism:And the Rebirth of Nationalism, 2005
  3. HESA data students-2003-04/introduction and
  4. Moisés Naím, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, 2022
  5. Katherine Williams and J Grant, ‘A comparative review of how the policy and procedures to assess research impact evolved in Australia and the UK, Research Evaluation, vol.27 no.2, pp.93-105
  6. Nick Hillman, ‘We must continue to expand higher education’, 30 September 2017
  7. Stephen M Gavazzi and E Gordon Gee, Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher education for the public good, 2018
  8. Mayor of Greater Manchester, ‘Mayor unveils new plan for equal pathways to technical education and university for school leavers’, 16 March 2023
  9. HM Treasury, Science and innovation investment framework, 20042014, 2004 innovation_120704.pdf
  10. As part of her Penn Compact initiative, President Guttman committed to this principle, expressed originally by the University of Pennsylvania’s founder Benjamin Franklin https://gutmann-archived.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

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