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

In praise of Dr Tony Bruce

  • 15 April 2024

In this blog, HEPI brings together a number of memories of Dr Tony Bruce from those who knew him well and who worked alongside him.

Nick Hillman (Director of HEPI)

Last month (March 2024) came the devastating news that Dr Tony Bruce, who wrote HEPI’s termly Policy Briefing Paper for HEPI Partners, had died after a short illness.

Tony’s funeral will be taking place tomorrow (Tuesday) and donations in his name can be made to The British Red Cross Society and / or The London Library here (type in ‘Bruce’ to find the right page for donations and the details of the funeral arrangements).

Tony was already writing HEPI’s termly Briefing Paper before I joined HEPI a decade ago as our Founder and now President Bahram Bekhradnia had signed Tony up partly on the basis of his excellent work heading up the policy function at Universities UK.

Bahram could not have found a better person. Tony was utterly reliable, always making sensible suggestions about what to cover, always submitting his copy on time and always having constructive suggestions to make. His analysis was carefully worded and unfailingly judicious.

On hearing the news of Tony’s death, HEPI’s previous Chair, Professor Sir Ivor Crewe, who worked closely with Tony at Universities UK, said:

he was indeed an absolute rock, dedicated to the welfare of the university sector, with such level-headed judgement about the condition of the universities and the impact of government initiatives or changes in the market.

Any think-tank director knows the biggest challenge is finding people who can write well for policy-focused audiences – that is, in a style that is interesting, accessible and topical. Tony was a natural at this. So the process of preparing our Policy Briefing Papers for publication was always a delight and the whole HEPI team (especially Emma Ma and me, as we had the most to do with Tony in recent years) thoroughly enjoyed engaging with him.

Those who knew Tony well won’t be surprised to hear of the quality of his work because he was also a keen historian, authoring books on The Purchase System in the British Army and The Last Crusade (on the war in Palestine, 1914-1918) as well as producing an Encyclopaedia of Naval History covering the sixteenth century to current times. 

While Tony regaled us with stories from his considerable professional experiences at each year’s HEPI Christmas lunch, including just a few months ago, he was always very modest about his own considerable achievements – indeed, it was clear that his more recent duties as a proud grandfather had become his most important focus. So it wasn’t until after Tony died that I put two-and-two together and realised that – under his full name of Anthony Bruce – he was the author of the brilliant Illustrated Companion to the First World War, which I relied upon heavily during my days as a secondary school History teacher.

All of us who have worked at HEPI over the past 20 or so years will remain forever grateful to Tony for helping to put our organisation on the map and protecting the quality of our output.

We are honoured to have known him.

Viv Stern (Chief Executive of Universities UK)

Tony Bruce was on the UUK interview panel when I was offered my first job in the organisation as a junior Parliamentary Officer. I learned a great deal from him. 

Over the last few weeks, I have spoken to many of his former UUK colleagues. We all feel a sense of enormous loss. Tony was an exceptionally gifted policy professional. One former colleague, Antoinette Titchner Hooker recalls that Tony brought rigour and an emphasis on evidence-based policy to UUK’s work, and thereby more authority to its voice. ‘He was kind and generous with his advice, and always encouraging to staff’, she said. Another colleague, William Locke, recalls the way Tony championed Maggie Woodrow’s work on widening participation, setting the agenda at the beginning of the century and influencing both government and the funding council. He added, ‘The historian of military history in Tony probably also led to this appreciation and emphasis on longer term strategic issues, which was rare in policy circles but was (and still is) crucial’.

Brendan Mulkern particularly recalls the contribution that Tony made in leading the USS employer representative function for many years. ‘Even then, the JNC [Joint Negotiating Committee] meetings could be fierce, with very direct exchanges. Tony was the master of the calm and thoughtful response, taking the heat out of the situation. I never saw him lose his cool, not once.’ Joanna O’Brien recalled his work on longer term strategy, and his contribution to bringing the CDP and CVCP together following the merger of the two organisations. She said, ‘Tony’s work on funding, student contributions and pensions was complex and politically difficult, but he was hugely knowledgeable and intellectually incisive, so he did it all with aplomb’.

As the then Director of Communications, Lesley Perry put it, ‘every policy department in public services should have a Tony Bruce. There wasn’t anything Tony didn’t know about higher education and its ramifications. Add to that brilliant writing skills and an (almost) unflappable ability to turn his hand to anything he was asked to do, and you had the best colleague you could ask for.’ My predecessor as CEO, Diana Warwick, agrees: ‘Tony’s solid advice and his unfailing ability to deal with the plethora of urgent requests for advice RIGHT NOW was a secret weapon in a CEO’s armoury when dealing with so many competing claims. Added to that, he was one of the easiest people to work with and an entirely reliable colleague. He got on well with everybody inside and outside the organisation.’

he was one of the easiest people to work with and an entirely reliable colleague. He got on well with everybody inside and outside the organisation

That was also my experience of Tony. Despite his vast experience and standing in the higher education sector, he always made time for me as a snotty infant lobbyist. He encouraged and promoted me, giving me my first shot at policy. I still try to channel a bit of Tony’s calm good humour when faced with things that seem grim and intractable. I miss him, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have learned from one of the true greats in the higher education policy sphere.

Bahram Bekhradnia (Founder and President of HEPI)

Tony was one of the mainstays of UK higher education policy. He was already Communications Director of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals – the body that preceded Universities UK – when I joined the higher education sector in 1992, and was notable for his incisive, even-handed and honest approach to policy issues. On the many occasions when, as Policy Director of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, I found myself on a different side of an argument, he was a formidable but scrupulous adversary. When he finally retired from Universities UK, he was asked to specialise on higher education pensions, and became one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the country on the question, and although I had no dealings with him on that somewhat esoteric but important topic, I have no doubt that he continued his fair and honest approach with those on the other side of whichever table he was on.

Such was my admiration for Tony and his work, that later, when I had established HEPI, I invited him to author a HEPI report, which itself was highly impressive – so much so that I asked him to produce the termly HEPI analyses of recent policy developments. These proved to be among the most influential of HEPI’s outputs – as witnessed by the fact that Nick Hillman, my successor, invited Tony to continue to produce these. Tony was humane, honest, highly intelligent and insightful and a wonderful colleague – and full of surprises (who would have guessed that he had written books on military history?). I am among the many people who will miss him greatly.

Roger Brown (Former Chief Executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics)

I first worked with Tony Bruce when we were colleagues together in the Clerk’s Department of the old Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in October 1974. Sixteen years later, I made him my deputy when I became the first (and last) Chief Executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics. We subsequently worked together at what is now UniversitiesUK and at HEPI (and in fact I think it was me who suggested Tony to Bahram when he was looking for someone to produce the policy briefs).

Tony was a marvellously quick, thorough and perceptive writer. He was one of the best policy analysts I have ever come across

From the start, Tony was a marvellously quick, thorough and perceptive writer. He was one of the best policy analysts I have ever come across. Personally, he was unfailingly kind and supportive as well as utterly reliable. His passing is a sad loss for HEPI and for the wider higher education policy community.

If anyone would like to add their own memories of working with Tony, please do leave a comment below.


  1. Chris Hale says:

    A lovely tribute to Tony. I had the privilege of working with him at Universities UK, early on in my career. He was very supportive of me personally, giving me lots of opportunities to develop and grow. He had great humour and was very approachable, not buying into some of the more hierarchical approaches that were prevalent in the sector at the time. I was sad to hear about his death and thoughts are with his family.

  2. Professor Sir Roderick Floud says:

    Most university staff do not realise how much the higher education system relies on the behind-the-scenes work of the staff of Universities UK. It is they who negotiate with the government, the research councils and learned societies, charities and EU agencies; they become expert in esoteric fields and make sure that new policies are workable and efficient. It is now over 20 years since I, as President of UUK in 2001-3, worked with Tony Bruce, but the sad news of his death reminds me how excellent he was as colleague and advisor. He was a fount of knowledge about the system, always helpful and unflappable, responsive to unreasonable demands for instant briefings. The university system owes him a great deal.

  3. Fiona Waye says:

    Thank you, Nick, for pulling together these wonderful memories of Tony. I worked with Tony for many years and could not have asked for a better manager. Not only was he incredible knowledgeable as many colleagues have already stated (there didn’t seem to be anything he did not know about higher education policy!) he was also one of the kindest, and helpful people I have ever met. This friendship and support continued after he left Universities UK and I look back with fondness and joy at the lunches we had at the British Library. I extend my deepest sympathy to Tony’s family.

  4. Tim Cobbett says:

    I was saddened to hear of the death of Tony Bruce. I had the privilege of working with Tony at Universities UK, and I can only reinforce all the things that have been said about him in this blog and comments. He was supportive, patient, and was a calming influence when you were under pressure. Most of all, as everyone has said, he was incredibly knowledgeable across all the HE policy areas, and generous with his guidance and advice.

  5. Catherine Marston says:

    Thank you for this lovely tribute. Tony was an exceptionally knowledgeable colleague who always provided good advice and support. He was also good fun to work with and a very kind and modest man – he had to be persuaded to sign a copy of one of his books for me. Condolences to his family and friends.

  6. I was sad to hear of Tony’s passing. I knew him when I worked for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council at the time of Maggie Woodrow’s widening participation work and then later on when I was seconded to UUK as a policy adviser. The tribute here captures his qualities well; hugely knowledgeable, calm, unassuming and sharply focused on the critical issues. He also had a gentle humour. In short, Tony was a real pleasure to work with. My condolences to his family and friends.

  7. Tony was indeed a force to be reckoned with but he was always the equable voice of reason. He attended many BUFDG Executive Committee meetings in the early days of my tenure and (I am sure without realising it) taught me a lot. But having said that he wouldn’t realise, I think his generous nature and modesty was underpinned by the hope that he could tutor those who would succeed him. A great tribute by Nick and others and my condolences to his family and friends.

Leave a Reply

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