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Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI
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Speaking to attendees of @Amazon Web Services’ ‘Higher Education Transformation Week’, this morning (14 Dec), Nick Hillman @Hepi_News looks at what the Government, the higher education sector, regulators and others have got right and wrong in this tumultuous year, before looking ahead to the lessons for 2021:

For those of you who don’t know, the Higher Education Policy Institute or HEPI is the UK’s only think tank that specialises in higher education. We are supported by higher education institutions up and down the UK as well as a small number of corporates. Last week, we published our first ever report on how universities and colleges might respond to climate change and later this week we are hosting an online balloon debate about the right age to start academic selection – do come along.

It is a particularly big week for us, as we are currently shortlisted in two categories for this year’s Prospect Think Tank of the Year Awards and we will find out how we have done within the next 48 hours.

It is great pleasure to follow my neighbour Liam Maxwell, whom I’ve missed bumping into around our village during the lockdowns. It is also great to see the involvement of Advance HE with this AWS event, for we at HEPI work very closely with Alison and her colleagues, especially on the influential annual Student Academic Experience Survey. And I am equally pleased to see the involvement of Paul and Jisc, with whom we have had a good relationship for many years.

Last year, HEPI and Jisc jointly published an important report on cybersecurity in higher education. For me, it provided an important lesson on how our sector can most effectively respond to evidence. The data we presented on how vulnerable university systems are to hackers secured a lot of publicity but annoyed some heads of IT. They thought we were questioning the quality of their work, and responded defensively. Other heads of IT, however, took a more strategic approach, realising the evidence gave them a very effective lever to persuade their senior managers to invest more in cyber security.

There is perhaps a wider lesson there on how all of us can best respond most effectively when the UK’s world-class higher education sector is criticised.


We meet at the end of the most tumultuous year in living memory, perhaps the most tumultuous year for British universities at any point in the last 85 years. The end of the year is always a good moment to take stock, but that is especially true in 2020, even though the pandemic is far from over. So I will give it a go.

I will also try to peer ahead by outlining the possible lessons from 2020 for the future. I know this is a fool’s game: if the unpredictable events of the last 12 months teach us anything, it is that forecasts have a habit of not coming true. A few years ago, there was a vogue for think-tanks to publish reports looking ahead to 2020, with titles that punned on ‘20/20 vision’. Few of their predictions were realised.

Let me start, though, by paying tribute to students and staff, that is professional services staff, academics and managers, alike. Not only have they coped the best they can in very trying circumstances but they have also displayed huge resourcefulness since the pandemic let rip in March.

At the start of the crisis, there was tendency to think the pandemic showed healthcare trumped education in importance. But we have seen yet again that crises also expose the true value of education. When everything is up in the air and society is going through ructions, it is more important than ever to have the knowledge, skills and flexibility to respond to events that can only come from being well educated. That is true whether we are thinking about the university researchers looking for new vaccines or the social scientists considering how to limit the negative fallout of the pandemic or the staff in university hospitals caring for their patients.

What the main players in higher education got right / wrong

In the first half of my remarks, I want to focus on what the main players in higher education appear to have got right and what they appear to have got wrong in policy terms since the pandemic began.

I will start with the Westminster Government, though much of what I will say applies equally well to the devolved administrations. There may well be lots the policymakers have got wrong, sometimes through error but just as often through an understandable lack of perfect foresight. The single biggest error in education in all four parts of the UK (which are run, of course, by different political parties) was the unnecessary and painful row over school-leaving results.

As we have discussed on our blog, when you forget learners are individuals and instead treat them as a mass whose work can be judged by an algorithm that says more about past cohorts than the current cohort, things are bound to go wrong.

But while it may not be fashionable to say it, the policymakers have got some big things right too. They were right to keep educational institutions open, they were right to resist the more populist demands for mass student refunds (given the costs of good online delivery of education and support services) and they were right to roll out lateral flow testing on university campuses to enable a safer – though not of course entirely safe – return home for Christmas.

While it might pain some people for me to say it, they were also right not simply to hand over the £2 billion or so that the higher education sector demanded early in the crisis and to offer a more nuanced and sophisticated support package instead. After all, a recent press release from the Office for Students was headlined, ‘English higher education “in reasonable financial shape”’. While it would have been convenient to have had more public support, while we are not out of the woods yet and while some institutions may still need bespoke support, if the higher education sector had been handed a blanket £2 billion, it would have lost public goodwill and would now be facing the calls other sectors are facing to repay money to Government. Combined with the unhelpful culture war rhetoric that we hear all too often, that would have been an uncomfortable place to be.

As with policymakers, the higher education sector itself has got some things right and some things wrong during the crisis. It was a mistake to lobby for the return of student number controls in my view. As David Cameron’s recent memoirs suggest, the primary advantage of introducing high tuition fees was the removal of restrictions on places and the implementation of a demand-driven system.

Removing number controls was so hard fought and has proved so successful that it was unwise to propose policymakers should reimpose them. I know the lobbying was for temporary controls and I know that, in the end, the controls – although initially accepted by Government – were not put in place, thanks to a u-turn. But we have nonetheless still planted a dangerous idea with policymakers: that one way to respond to financial pressure is to limit people’s access to the higher education courses they most want to do.

Despite this, universities have got much more right than wrong. They were right in my view, for example, to encourage people back to campus for the start of the 2020/21 academic year. Yes, more could have been done to limit the spread of COVID in the initial weeks of term – although, to be fair, at that time SAGE seemed to think, incorrectly as it turned out, that the end of term would be more dangerous. We were told:

if there is substantial amplification of infection in HE settings there is a more substantial risk at the end of term. Epidemic modelling within HE institutions suggests that large outbreaks are possible over a time period of weeks, so could peak towards the end of the term.

But as term progressed, more and more evidence accrued – for example, in a poll published by Unite Students and a report by my colleague Rachel Hewitt for HEPI – to show that those who had been calling for all learning to be online were not speaking for their members. I think the error that such people made was to forget that, while the social aspects of student life may not be as good as normal this year, the alternatives to student life are also not as good. Jobs are harder to come by and strapping on a backpack for a year’s travelling in some distant part of the world is out of the question. The minute you remember that students tend to act rationally, all the pieces fall into place.

However, the unions did get something important right, which is to warn about the impact on the mental wellbeing of staff and students of this disrupted year. The evidence that student wellbeing, which was already worryingly low, has deteriorated further is overwhelming, with new evidence from HEPI, the ONS and the NUS. Similarly, we showed early in the crisis how staff wellbeing has taken a knock in recent years and it has clearly deteriorated further since.

Even a cursory glance at social media shows how overworked some staff are. Work allocation models probably already underestimated the time needed for effective teaching preparation; they clearly do so when the teaching is being delivered in new and more complex ways.

Like everyone else, regulators were knocked for six by the crisis. I do not envy colleagues at the Office for Students, particularly given that the organisation was still relatively new when the crisis began. Their initial response, as outlined in a letter to registered providers in late March, was to state:

we are unlikely to draw negative conclusions about the actions a provider has taken – or not taken – where it is clear to us that it has properly considered the needs of its students and has made a reasonable decision.

That seemed spot on. After some previous conflicting signals, it was interpreted as evidence of a sensible risk-based approach by the new regulator. But things went awry in May, with the Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English higher education sector, which sought to require providers:

not to engage in any form of conduct which could reasonably have a material negative effect on the stability and/or integrity of the English higher education sector.

This proposed retrospective action, threatened institutional autonomy and risked a war of attrition with the sector. Fortunately, the error was quickly rectified and, in recent months, a more mature relationship has started to flourish once more.

I will be very sorry to see Michael Barber end his stint as Chair of the Office for Students because he has been a source of wise counsel, is willing to acknowledge the failures as well as the successes and is always keen to respond to changing circumstances. No one should underestimate the importance of the appointment process to replace him. In the mid-1990s, Roy Jenkins famously likened Tony Blair’s task of returning Labour to power to carrying a Ming vase across a highly polished floor. Given the competing pressures on universities right now, the new Chair of the Office for Students might be said to face a similar task.

There isn’t time to go into the approaches of all the other bodies that regulate our sector, but – given the current focus on value for money for students – I would point to the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE). Like all smoothly run organisations, it is easy to take them for granted. But their work flagging when refunds might or might not be appropriate for students provides an important and useful guide for parents, students and institutions.

In terms of providing these end-of-term report cards, with their mixed records, I do not wish to exempt myself. I was always an optimist on domestic demand for higher education in 2020/21, and pooh-poohed the dismal forecasts of august organisations on this, but I shared the widespread pessimism about both international demand and non-continuation rates. For example, I argued in the Observer in August:

a bigger concern than entry rates is likely to be drop-out rates. New students will be less well prepared than their predecessors, having generally done no school work since March. They could also find it harder to integrate, as freshers’ fairs and social events are postponed or cancelled.

I should probably have been more optimistic than this because, as far as we can tell, international demand has proved stronger than anyone predicted and non-continuation rates have not, at least not yet, shown any sort of increase. Again, people are acting rationally by responding to the fact that the alternatives to higher education are worse this year.

Looking ahead

Where does this leave us? In the final section of these remarks, I want to look at what lessons there might be for the future from the last few months.

First, we should never underestimate the level of demand for higher education. Given that we have long known that 97 per cent of the mothers of children born between 2000 and 2002 hoped for them to go to higher education, the strong demand for higher education this summer should not have seemed so surprising. And the demographics mean there will be more 18-year olds in most years over the next decade.

We showed in a recent report that additional demand for full-time undergraduate places in England alone is likely to amount to 358,000 by 2035. In the summer, we also showed that demand for postgraduate study tends to go up when there is a loose labour market. International student demand is less certain, sensitive as it is to changing geopolitics. But hopefully the impending refresh of the  International Education Strategy will ensure the UK has a more competitive offer than in recent years.

Secondly, we shouldn’t underestimate how nimble the higher education sector can be when it needs to be. This is most obviously true in relation to the shift towards the greater use of edtech but it is not limited to it. For example, the way higher education institutions sorted out this year’s admissions round, after the results row that was not of their making, was very impressive.

Nonetheless, the fact that the sector has been nimble in the crisis does not mean that it will remain so. The underlying tensions on things like reforming the sector’s pension arrangements, which led to industrial action before the crisis, have not disappeared.

Thirdly, we should not underestimate the importance of, or the threats to, institutional autonomy. Despite the withdrawal of that controversial Office for Students consultation, there continue to be threats to the autonomy of institutions. One comes, for example, from the Government’s manifesto commitment ‘to tackle’ what it regards as ‘low value courses’ and another comes from the more recent commitment to introduce a new higher education admissions process.

At the moment, the most visible evidence of institutional autonomy is Section 2 of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), which includes ‘the freedom … to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases’. Such laws are coming into question and, in 2021, we need to articulate even more clearly what the benefits of this level of autonomy are.

Fourthly, we should never forget how much people want to be treated fairly and how loudly they will shout if they feel this is not happening. That was the true lesson of the 2020 results row – and, given that one-in-four exam results is wrong, we need to remember that, even in a normal year, exams need to be fairer in the future than they have been in the past. Fairness also needs to be our guide as, for example, we consider how student finance might be reformed in the shadow of last year’s Augar report. One of HEPI’s first reports of 2021 will be a paper by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, which will include a discussion of what the weight the electorate put on fairness might mean for higher education policy.

Fifthly, we need constantly to consider how to balance the growing demands of students against the fact that resources for teaching are likely to continue being squeezed. Many people say the answer is better use of new technology. That may be so, but post-pandemic blended learning may not be any cheaper than pre-pandemic face-to-face teaching – in fact, it will conceivably be more expensive. Moreover, while new innovations have very often changed education for the better, they have rarely changed education in precisely the ways predicted by those behind them. Just as a successful vaccine rollout needs more than scientists to be successful, so successful edtech needs more than computer scientists to have a maximum impact. We mustn’t forget the pedagogy because proper tools are only half the job.

Finally, I want to end where I started, with the volume of turmoil and by noting that the pace of change is unlikely to slow down much. Yes, the last five years have seen huge planned changes in our sector that had been settling down. And, yes, we all hope and expect the pandemic, which has caused so many unplanned changes, to lessen in 2021. But higher education institutions will continue to be buffeted.

Many important and long-promised policy documents

Just think of how many important and long-promised policy documents are waiting in the current Whitehall logjam – not only the Augar response, but also the Further Education White Paper, the expected strengthening of free speech regulations and the International Education Strategy Review.

Our polling suggests a majority of students expect their written work to be marked and returned within two weeks or less, but Shirley Pearce’s review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has been sitting on Ministers’ desks for over 52 weeks.

I’ve consciously avoided talking about Brexit today and I will stop now so that I do not have to, except to note that it really really matters to higher education institutions as well as society more widely what arrangements replace the current UK involvement in Erasmus+, European research funding and EU Structural Funds. Perhaps, after over four years since the referendum, we won’t have to wait much longer to find out what the new arrangements will be.

Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI

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