What’s the point of a higher education think tank?

An independent think tank like the Higher Education Policy Institute is a melting pot of ideas that’s free to examine any topic, however difficult or divisive

Universities are all about thinking – surely we don’t need a higher education think tank as well?

And, if I am a university supplier of anything from catering to technology to professional services, I just need to identify the decision-makers in a higher education institution and make sure that they understand why my product or service is right for them. Right? No need for a think tank.

I paint a stark picture here, purposely exaggerating a critical view of educational think tanks, but nevertheless feel that from time to time, it is important to articulate what we think tankers do, how we aim to help and what our raison d’être is. It’s a useful exercise as part of a continuous improvement plan to survive, thrive and serve as best we can.

When I asked a group of bright 11 and 12-year-old school-children recently if they knew what a think-tank was, not one did. When I went on to explain some of the policy themes that my think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), explores – such as what, if any, fees university students should pay, who should be encouraged or even allowed to study beyond school, and to uncover if the way that students study, whether in lectures, labs or online, is working well – their interest was piqued. When I wrote up on the whiteboard some of the financial figures bandied around in my think tank’s recent report on repaying student loans, they were on the edge of their chairs, earnestly raising their hands to comment on ideas like making lower-earning graduates pay back their student loans.

A good policy-focused think-tank provides evidence-informed suggestions for policy makers on the structure and workings of their chosen field. Painstaking research involving things like polling, literature reviews, statistical analysis and focus-groups often takes months, even years, to put together, but can illuminate an area of an industry that merits attention.

Painstaking research involving things like polling, literature reviews, statistical analysis and focus-groups often takes months, even years, to put together, but can illuminate an area of an industry that merits attention.

My think-tank, for example, recently produced new material in collaboration with Kaplan on what international students expect to receive in terms of employability and careers guidance, and how that matches up to their ambitions for the future. The report also explained how the UK can further strengthen its offer to international students who, after all, bring in £28.8 billion to the UK economy. Another recent report used case studies to explore how the UK might reduce regional inequalities through the development of higher education and especially its research and development capability.

Established think-tanks can also offer longitudinal data on key areas, such as the annual  Student Academic Experience Survey produced by Hepi and AdvanceHE over the last 15 years. This surfaces trends which are of interest to higher education institutions, their suppliers and students alike.

The benefit of having an external think tank, and especially an independent one, is that it is free to examine any topic, even a controversial or divisive one, in a way that a university or company supplying universities might not be able to do on its own in case it backfired, however unjustifiably, on bottom lines. There is also just the simple fact that an external producer of specialist reports can develop the expertise needed to undertake that work, and leverage its networks to enhance the research.

For a company supplying higher education, supporting a think tank valued by the sector because of its bold and high-quality output, the competitive advantage can be great. Similarly, for higher education institutions, a think tank provides an interesting melting pot of ideas and people in both commercial companies and other higher education institutions which can help refine and ultimately improve teaching, learning and research.

The higher education institutions that have recently joined the Hepi Partnership Programme told me that they want their staff to be aware of what is going on in the whole sector and also to have the opportunity to feed into suggestions for national policy makers in Westminster and Whitehall. Our think tank provides a forum for both these aims. The commercial companies that support us say they value the reports and events that we provide, but, perhaps most of all, they rate the insights they gain into the direction of travel of the sector at a policy level.

Lucy Haire is partnerships manager at the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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