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

WEEKEND READING: Looking back and looking forwards

  • 2 September 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • This blog by Nick Hillman was written as the Afterword for HEPI’s 20th Anniversary Collection.
  • We have been running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a series of blogs over the summer. This piece is the final one.

Since HEPI was founded in 2002, it has published around 160 Reports (blue books), 50 Policy Notes and over 30 Debate Papers (red books, but originally yellow Occasional Papers) as well as over 1,500 blog posts.

This is not anything like a complete record because some of HEPI’s written output, including many of the most substantial pieces, have been one-off projects. In the month of May 2023, for example, we produced a detailed report with Universities UK, Kaplan and London Economics on the economic contribution of international students as well as a lengthy report with SUMS on how the terms and conditions for academics compare to those of other professionals. In June, we published the 2023 iteration of the Student Academic Experience Survey with Advance HE, which is rightly regarded as a flagship.

In the last two decades, we have also hosted hundreds of events, ranging from our large Annual Conference, regular Annual Lectures and a biennial research conference (in conjunction with Elsevier, the sponsors of this collection), through expert policy seminars and webinars on specific issues to regular small dinners enabling us to delve more deeply into issues in a more private setting. In the last five years alone, we have hosted around 100 events – despite the pandemic making planning more difficult than ever for much of the period in question.

None of this would have been possible without the support of our University Partners and our corporate Partners, currently numbering 136 higher education institutions and 18 corporations. In addition to funding HEPI’s work, the Partners help to inform our output – I often remark that HEPI is only ever as good as the intelligence it picks up from those with whom we work. It is also worth noting the constant contribution of Times Higher Education and Research Fortnight to HEPI’s impact over the whole of the past 20 years. Along with many education journalists at national and local media outlets, they have been crucial in bringing our work to a wider audience. As a sector, we have been blessed to have had such good specialist journalists.

Over the 20 years since HEPI was founded in the circumstances so vividly described by Bahram Bekhradnia and Roger Brown in the preceding pages, engagement with the organisation’s work has grown enormously. Growth was gradual but consistent until the COVID pandemic began, at which point HEPI faced some unprecedented challenges but also saw a particularly sharp increase in engagement – perhaps because people were spending longer in front of their screens and there were new educational challenges to confront.

Despite our expectations, this greater impact did not reverse once COVID began to dissipate and, today, our influence is continuing to climb. In 2023, we expect to have nearly a million website hits (despite the fact that most people read our new output via daily emails – or even via our hard copy publications – rather than on the website). In part, this increase in engagement with HEPI is to do with a rising volume of output – in the academic year of 2022/23, we published more than ever before. But it also reflects the pace of policy – since 2014 alone, there have been 10 Secretaries of State for Education at Westminster, three general elections, two referenda (in Scotland and on Brexit), multiple pieces of major new legislation affecting higher education institutions and students, the establishment of UK Research and Innovation and, in England, a new overarching regulator in the Office for Students.

HEPI is proudly UK-wide in its approach and the pace of change has been rapid in recent years across England, Scotland and Wales. Political stasis in Northern Ireland has perhaps meant less change there, but it has not stopped lively debate over how to ensure Northern Ireland secures more student places as well as a more sustainable funding system.

On a number of occasions, HEPI’s work has been recognised via awards from others, perhaps most notably winning the One to Watch Award in the Prospect Think Tank of the Year Awards as well as being shortlisted in two other categories alongside much larger organisations. Despite this record of achievement and our future ambitions, HEPI is – and may well remain – a small organisation. It has always had fewer than five full-time equivalent members of staff and, for much of its life, has had only around half this level of staffing.

This small size comes with important challenges; every member of staff has to display cross-cutting skills and to muck in. But it also brings opportunities because we can act more nimbly than larger organisations. For example, a request from a journalist to a university for a comment from a vice-chancellor may have to go through a big press office and any response may take too long and be filtered too much, making it too slow and too anodyne, for the media to use. In contrast, HEPI has no press office and the policy team will aim to speak immediately and directly to the media as soon as a request comes in.

Being small also forces us to work in partnership with other organisations, which is a boon. Instead of thinking we could write most of our reports in-house, as a much larger think tank might feel compelled to do, we tend to reach out to experts elsewhere on whatever the issue is at hand. That is why our roster of authors has been so diverse over the years.

HEPI is completely reliant on its small staff team and the organisation has been blessed with some exceptional staff over the years. Clearly, HEPI would never have got off the ground without Bahram’s ideas, expertise and wisdom and he was supported in his role as Director by his very efficient wife Jean.

While it is invidious to pick out just a few other people to namecheck, in HEPI’s early days its core contributors included Tom Sastry, now Head of Sustainability at Research England, and Libby Aston (now Libby Hackett), who went on to found the University Alliance before later moving abroad to work with the higher education sector in Australia, where she is now the inaugural CEO of the James Martin Institute for Public Policy.

As Bahram notes in the Foreword, Sarah Isles, HEPI’s Development Director from 2008, helped engineer the shift from HEPI being funded by HEFCE to financial independence, via the establishment of a University Partnership programme and a corporate Partnership programme.

Today, HEPI’s experienced Director of Partnerships, Lucy Haire, has further broadened and deepened our relationships with others to such a degree that, in this year of our 20th birthday and despite the heightened sense of political and financial uncertainty, we have more Partners, more University Partners and more projects on the go than ever before. As an experienced educator herself, Lucy has also increasingly contributed to HEPI’s policy work.

In recent times, we have beefed up our policy team, with a new Director of Policy and Advocacy role being instituted in 2017. This has since been filled by exceptional women, including: Dr Diana Beech (now CEO of London Higher); Rachel Hewitt (now CEO of MillionPlus); and, since early 2023, Rose Stephenson (who came to HEPI from her role as Project and Policy Manager at the University of Bath). HEPI’s policy team has also been boosted in recent times by a Policy Manager position, a role first carved out by Hugo Dale-Rivas, who was followed by Michael Natzler and then by Dr Laura Brassington and, from July 2023, by Josh Freeman.

Over the years, we have also welcomed a stream of (paid) interns, who have helped ensure HEPI’s output has reflected the experience of contemporary student life. All of them have contributed to our output in important ways. One of our interns, Vicky Olive, won an award for her research from those hard-to-please folk at Wonkhe and a number have gone on to successful careers in education and policymaking, including Alice Rubba (now Head of Skills Strategy at the Department for Education) and Bethan Cornell (until recently Senior Private Secretary to the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education and now working for the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology). Other interns who made an important contribution to HEPI’s work over the years before moving upwards in their careers include: Nicholas Robinson; Poppy Brown, Charlotte Freitag; Megan Bowler; and Mia Liyanage.

Given that two of HEPI’s Policy Managers started off as interns, the programme has been a good source of new staff for HEPI itself too. So if we at HEPI have any influence over such things, I urge other organisations to ensure that internships are always properly paid: you lose out on exceptional talent (and risk breaking the law) if you insist that any team members should work for free.

The whole HEPI team is also very grateful to Tony Bruce, a former head of policy for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, who not only authored a HEPI report over a decade ago but has – for many years – written HEPI’s termly Policy Briefing Paper. This has proved a particularly useful resource for lay governors, senior managers and student representatives. It is as important to our success as much of our more public-facing work.

When it comes to HEPI staff, a special mention must be reserved for Emma Ma. Emma joined HEPI in 2015 from Oxford University Press, initially as an Executive Assistant but since rising to become the Head of Events, Publications and Operations. As anyone who engages with HEPI knows, Emma is often the first point of contact, and an unfailingly helpful one, and she also holds much of the organisation’s institutional memory. For me as Director, she has long been the keystone of the team and I personally owe her a special debt of gratitude. To the degree in which HEPI has been successful in recent years, much of the credit rests on Emma’s shoulders.

I also want to note the support HEPI has received from its four Chairs. The inaugural Chair was Baron (Ron) Dearing, who will always be remembered as a key architect of the UK higher education system after his seminal report of 1997. He was followed by Professor Sir Graeme Davies (2005-2015), Professor Sir Ivor Crewe (2015-2021) and, most recently, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone (2021 onwards). The role of Chair is an interesting but somewhat time-consuming voluntary position, yet it is vitally important given the legal duties of any charity’s Trustees and also for holding the whole HEPI staff team, including the Director, to account for their day-to-day activities.

Over the past 20 years, numerous experienced and high-profile people have supported the Chair and HEPI’s staff by serving as HEPI Trustees and Advisory Board members. At the time of writing, HEPI’s Trustees are: Sir David Bell; Mary Curnock Cook CBE; Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow; and Professor Dame Helen Wallace. The Advisory Board members are: Alison Allden OBE; Professor Carl Lygo; Professor Nick Pearce; Professor Iyiola Solanke; and Professor David Sweeney CBE.

HEPI has always sought to be more transparent on its funding and more independent in its approach than most other think tanks. We regard both these features as critical to our past and future longevity. The influence of many think tanks waxes and wanes according to the political weather and changing fads. But being transparent, independent and specialist has helped to build trust in HEPI’s work across the board. Our goals remain to be respected across the political spectrum for speaking truth unto power and to be an important part of the higher education policymaking ecosystem, both of which we have sought to do every day since we were first founded.

This collection marks HEPI’s twentieth anniversary but it would be wrong to bring it to a close without mentioning another important milestone: the sixtieth anniversary of the Robbins report.

From today’s perspective, the most striking thing about the Robbins report is how much has changed. When the report came out, there were 321,000 students in UK higher education, three-quarters of whom were men. There were just 31 universities (including seven new ones). In 2023, after the Dearing (1997), Browne (2010) and Augar (2019) reports as well as the older Robbins report, the number of students is nearly ten times larger, at 2.9 million. While men still outnumber women in the higher echelons of universities, among students women outnumber men to such a degree that male educational underachievement is now a pressing social problem (and one on which HEPI has – controversially – published more than most). Today, there are over five times as many (160) universities as in 1963, not to mention hundreds of other higher education institutions.

Despite this extraordinary societal achievement, many people think we are now at a fork in the road. Should the different parts of the UK continue striving for expansion, aiming at providing higher education places to ‘all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’, in line with the famous ‘Robbins Principle’? Or is it time to veer off in another direction, perhaps by boosting vocational education while capping places on routes regarded as academic?

In his famous ‘more-will-mean-worse’ piece opposing the expansion of higher education, Kingsley Amis said university graduates resembled ‘poems or bottles of hock’ and were ‘unlike cars or tins of salmon’, before concluding ‘you cannot decide to have more good ones.’ This is patently false. Demand for graduates has not declined as the number of students has gone up. The OECD has shown that, across the world, there is no natural limit on demand for graduates, nor is there any natural limit on demand from people to better themselves through higher level study.

Policymakers expect a renewed focus on quality and want to know higher education courses are delivering for students and employers. They also often remark, correctly, that there have not been enough good alternatives to full-time residential three-year honours degrees for those who want to learn on the job, or study part-time or enrol as mature students. But it does not automatically follow that we must be at a fork in the road.

There are not really two alternative routes, one marked ‘better vocational education’ and one marked ‘more academic education’. The word ‘higher’ in ‘higher education’ – and in HEPI’s own name – refers to the level of education, not the type of education; it is not a signifier of whether something is vocational or academic.

So the so-called alternatives to traditional higher education are actually generally just different routes to the same sort of goals: degree apprenticeships are still degrees, for example.

The question staring us in the face as we look towards HEPI’s next 20 years is not therefore: should we limit higher education to boost further education? It is: do we want more education at higher levels or not? To me, the answer is an unequivocal yes, given rising life expectancy over recent decades and the skills shortfall that is plaguing employers. Twenty years after HEPI was founded and 60 years on from the publication of the Robbins report, is it time to adopt something akin to that report’s educational ambitions for the next 30 years, taking us to the middle of the twenty-first century?

As we approach the sixth general election since HEPI’s foundation and notwithstanding the fact that HEPI is a think tank rather than a lobby group, it is worth noting that the evidence HEPI has marshalled over the years suggests all political parties would be wise to adopt policies that recognise the potential of higher education institutions to contribute to the greater good. It is hard, perhaps nigh on impossible, to achieve the priorities of all the major political parties – goals like quicker economic growth, fewer skills gaps and a stronger society – without universities playing a major part in terms of education, research and civic engagement.

The alternative approach, one of holding down the financial resources for teaching and research, further entangling higher education institutions in divisive culture wars and blocking the unprecedented levels of educational aspirations within families up and down the UK, would likely prove a poor electoral, educational and economic strategy.

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  1. An extraordinary body of work over a sustained period of time. There is a great need for a similar initiative in Australia where our current Universities Accord is calling for a research centre which is important but a policy think tank such as HEPI focused on surfacing global best practice at such innovative and disruptive times that the next 20 years promise to be would learn even more from HEPIs lessons I feel.

  2. Denis Blight says:

    HEPI is now well and truly part of the furniture. Its reports are invariably valuable and to the point. My focus is on international student recruitment so I bemoan the absence of an Australian chapter of the Institute.


  3. As we look forward to 2050 in Australia in terms of policy changes to our HE and tertiary system to address once in a generation change, the parallels with the UK reflecting on its own outcomes 20 years after its own review are worth learning from.

    Where is our version of HEPI going to fit in to shine a light on global best practice in a period ahead of even greater change and disruption?

    A Commission will be important, and long term research also. But isn’t there a place for us all to have space to think, debate and learn and reflect on where we and others are and how we progress further?

    And a space free and independent from our existing governance and alignments where other current conversations do and will take place.

    Will our reflection on what we create in this space observe that we changed higher education for good? I hope so.

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