Profile: Hepi’s chief executive, Nick Hillman

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former advisor to universities minister David Willetts, talks to James Higgins about fees, part-time students and the value of a degree

“I’m still on the Tory candidate list and I’d happily stand again,” Nick Hillman tells me, flicking his ringing phone off for the third time. “There are some who get the political bug, and it’s very hard to shake once you have it. The selfish bit of me thinks being an MP is just a really interesting thing to do. And there is a selfless bit which thinks MPs can still help and do good.” 

The political coals might not be burning at present, but they’re still warm.

After a whirlwind four years in government from 2010 to 2014, as special advisor to universities minister David Willetts, Nick is now director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). Despite his party affiliation, the thinktank is strictly non-partisan. By means of proof, Nick tells me he has just, in fact, been exchanging emails with Labour’s new shadow universities minister, Emma Hardy.

“I was a bit demoralised at this recent general election though,” he reflects, “because I live halfway between Oxford and Cambridge. The two biggest issues where I live were HS2, which I support, and even more importantly, the east–west road and rail link [the ‘Oxford–Cambridge Arc’] and related housing developments. Frankly, I’m proud of those projects. People talk about the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London, but really it is V-shaped. 

“If we’re going to be a successful economy after Brexit, I think the golden triangle is a crucial part of the jigsaw. At the election, I was personally very frustrated because many candidates, including some Conservatives, ran campaigns opposed to this development.”

Nick quickly adds, as a governor of the University of Manchester (where he studied for his undergraduate degree), that it is not an “either or” debate – support for the Oxford–Cambridge Arc cannot come at the expense of the Northern Powerhouse.

If he ever ‘caught’ the political bug, Nick says, it was during his politics A-level. He recalls beginning university in the twilight of Margaret Thatcher’s reign when politics was “exciting”, but he had no idea then of how to turn that interest into a career. Twenty years later he would take his seat beside boss Willetts for what was to become a momentous four-year stint in government for higher education. By my reckoning, Willetts is the longest-serving universities minister since at least 1990.

We’re drinking coffee in the café at the Institute of Directors. The night before, Nick delivered a speech at his alma mater, the annual Drapers’ Lecture at Queen Mary, University of London, where he took a view on the big issues of the day. 

With a printed transcript of his speech in hand, I dive straight in to ask him about his experience behind the scenes at the Department for Education.

Nick Hillman spends most of his working week on the road, visiting universities up and down the country (source: Nick Hillman)

Triple whammy

“It became obvious fees had to go up earlier than it was clear that tripling was the answer,” Nick begins, as I ask him about that government decision. “The question had been contracted out to the Browne review, but I think it also became clear to me fees had to rise during the 2010 general election, when I was campaigning to become MP for Cambridge.

“I was sat on a platform with the Lib Dem candidate whose answer to how you pay for abolishing tuition fees was sending fewer people to university. By 2010, we were already sending 50% of young women to university. I said to him in these public meetings, look, if we’re going to send fewer than half of young men and young women to university, which people who are already at university do you think should not be there?” 

The Browne review recommended, as many will remember, no cap on tuition fees. Peter Mandelson’s autobiography confirmed Labour’s likely intention to lift the tuition fee cap to £6,000, were it to have remained in government after 2010. 

“So why did we triple fees? Well, that’s a good question. David Willetts called me into his office and said, I’ve decided to go for nine. I think the reason he went for £9,000 was down to a few reasons. When he was dealing with the Treasury and other ministers, he always bid high; he would always bid for what he thought the sector he was representing really would benefit from. 

“The second thing was, there was an economist called John Craven, who was vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth at the time, who lived in David’s constituency. Rather than writing to the department to ask for a formal meeting with the universities minister, he would ring up David’s constituency office and say, ‘you’re my MP, can I come and see you?’ 

“I remember David Willetts kept a scrappy piece of paper in his drawer for ages after their meeting, on which he noted down his conversation with John that day. John explained how much it currently cost him to teach an undergraduate, and his rough calculations for the future. He knew we were going to get rid of capital grants for improving buildings, so he added some money to cover that too. By the time he’d finished his sums, and added in some for inflation, it added up to more or less £9,000. 

“I think the third important factor for why we ended up tripling fees – and people haven’t talked about this enough – is that I think we, the Tories, probably expected the Lib Dems to beat the number down, but they never did.”

Profile Nick Hillman Hepi Queen Mary University London
Nick Hillman completed postgraduate qualification at Queen Mary University London and delivered his alma mater’s annual Draper’s Lecture.

Nick suggests that the very public attempt by Nick Clegg to shed the Lib Dem’s pledge to ditch tuition fees before the general election is a strong indication the party’s leadership never thought it a workable promise. Given his time again, says Nick, he might have recommended setting the cap lower than £9,000 but tying increases more closely to inflation. 

There are more full-time undergraduates now from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before, but “where the policy hasn’t worked”, Nick admits, is on the number of part-time students. He says the “prospects of huge debt is genuinely off-putting” to these students, who may already be working and have financial commitments to cover. “I think we probably just need to bite the bullet and recognise that part-time students are different. And they need grant funds.”

Does this not create a two-tier system, I ask, where perhaps the worse-off delay taking an undergraduate degree until such time as they qualify for financial support, while well-heeled young adults can afford the financial burden of a loan and enter higher education at the age of 18? Nick accepts it would, but adds: “I’d argue that is evidence-based policy.”

The debate on tuition fees does not appear to have been settled; all the Labour leadership contenders have signalled support, in one way or another, to scrap tuition fees. Have they, perhaps, learned nothing from the Lib Dem 2012 experiences?

“People who want a properly taxpayer funded higher education system should actually support fees for now, until so many people go to university that it is nearly a universal system,” Nick says.

Despite the debate that surrounds tuition fees, Nick points out that both Blair and Cameron won general elections after tripling them. He adds that the debate around fees misses the more important fact: at any one time, more people are in the repayment phase than are applying for loans.

“You know, one of the things Margaret Thatcher did so successfully in the 1980s was to reduce people’s income tax. I could envisage a politician of the future promising to increase the amount of money in people’s pockets by reducing the repayment rate to catch middle-class votes. I think the politics are in the repayment phase,” Nick concludes.

To cap it all off

In Nick’s QMUL Draper’s lecture, he warned that student number caps could return under Boris Johnson’s new government. Nick says he’d consider “almost anything before reimposing number caps”. The reason? No other part of our education system has limits to its capacity, Nick says, and restricting access to something that has the power “to transform people’s lives for the better” would be a perverse ‘reform’.

That said, if there is a political will to reimpose them, is there a way to do it fairly? Australia encountered unanticipated demand for university places after removing its student number caps, and has had to reimpose limits.

“There are backdoor ways of re-imposing number caps that are much less toxic than a cap on the system. Many will disagree with me on this, but I think the government is onto something when it talks about value. When I travel around, I don’t find good universities and bad universities.

“Every university in the country is doing really good things, but the truth is, every university in this country is doing some things that probably aren’t yet good enough as well. It is reasonable for the government to say the taxpayers are still investing a lot of money in your sector and there is public interest in what you do.”

Profile Nick Hillman Hepi Labour tuition fees
Nick Hillman’s advice for politicians who want to abolish tuition fees: Wait. (source: Jeremy Corbyn, Flickr)

One vice-chancellor has emailed Nick that very morning to suggest government impose a growth-rate cap, restricting universities to no more than a 10% annual increase in student intake.

In that vice-chancellor’s opinion, some universities that can expand were doing so at the expense of student experience. With a demographic boom sweeping its way through schools and colleges, soon universities will be faced with a much larger pool of 18-year-olds from which to recruit. Nick worries a cap on students will be “unsophisticated” and knee-jerk as the Treasury sizes up the bill of these extra potential university students.

HEPI’s own independent research predicts that, if the next decade’s growth maintains current levels, the higher education sector may need 300,000 more places. These figures, the thinktank stresses, are conservative and assume a drop in EU students post-Brexit.

The Augar review was criticised for what Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, described as creating “a false dichotomy between further and higher education”. Nick supports the creation of “good apprenticeships” but adds some apprenticeships “are very focused on a specific role in a specific industry. And some industries are going to change out of all recognition in the coming decades”.

Nick tells me the changing nature of work and greater automation demands higher education be expanded, not dampened. “We must look at how well apprentices do both now and in a decade. I think we need to look at people’s working patterns over their whole life, because a good degree should be delivering transferable skills to make an employee pretty flexible in the future labour market.”

Read more: The Augar report: what happens next?

What is a good degree?

The debate over the value of a degree rages on.

New universities minister Michelle Donelan made her public debut in an op-ed for the Telegraph recently, in which she told readers that, “what concerns me most are those courses that deliver neither the high-quality teaching students deserve, nor the value for money that they and the taxpayer rightly expect”. The Conservative manifesto pledged to “continue to explore ways to tackle the problem” of “low-value courses”.

Every year since 2007, an HEPI survey, in association with AdvanceHE, has asked students if they feel they are getting value for money. The question originally raised eyebrows and opposition but, Nick says, “it’s still useful to know if a student thinks they’re getting value for money, because if they’re not, and the institution thinks they are, it can trigger a sensible conversation”.

That said, he strongly believes the assessment and value of a university cannot be calculated using their alumni’s survey feedback and earnings alone.

He says universities are playing “catch up” and should have offered a definition of value immediately after the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017, which introduced a new higher education regulator.

Michelle Donelan is new to the HE brief, and little is known about what tack she will take on contentious issues.

Prof Julia Buckingham’s speech on this issue is the first indication the sector acknowledges that the Office for Students, its regulation and its frameworks are here to stay, Nick points out.

The HEPI director believes a course’s value can be gauged using the enormous sums of data the sector already publishes, but metrics alone cannot answer this tricky question to his satisfaction.

“The thing I plead for is a mix of quantitative and qualitative research. Anecdotes matter. If anecdotes are telling you an underlying truth, they matter. We must develop a very expansive definition.”

He voices his frustration at what he says was the assumption that he and David Willetts were only interested in the earnings premium.

“Actually, we commissioned a report which is still on the National Archives website called The Quadrants. One of the axes was a measure of higher education’s benefit to you as an individual and to society. The other axis measured the financial boost a degree offers graduates and the wider society. So, we need something similar that captures all that information fairly,” Nick continues.

Read more: Graduate incomes no measure of success, argues UUK president

2030 predictions 

With the burden of regulation, could the prospect of a university ditching state support for the freedom of the market be a genuine possibility?

“Funnily enough, when I first started working in HE in 2007, one of the very first meetings I had was with a very senior person at the University of Cambridge who told me they were seriously looking at this.

“When the Browne review landed on our desk, Cambridge were on the phone to us saying we’ll go private if you do this,” Nick recalls, chuckling. The university said the Browne review’s proposed levy on fees set above £6,000 would penalise its students and its prestige.

“I don’t think it will happen because to get public research funding, you have to be on the Office for Students fee-capped register. Replacing that funding would require an upheaval in the somewhat medieval structures of Cambridge and Oxford. It would need the left-of-centre academics, who regard what they do as a public service, to agree to become something akin to an independent school.

“The institution that could do it most easily, by the way, is the London School of Economics. One, they get very little public research funding, and social science research is very cheap to do. Two, their graduates have higher salaries than any other graduates including Oxford and Cambridge, so their loan write-off charges are next to nothing and they could get a private bank to do loans for their students, so they wouldn’t need to be part of the Student Loan Company. The third reason is they have a very high proportion of international students who aren’t in the student loan system anyway.”

Asked for predictions for the future, Nick laughs nervously. He hates giving predictions. He suggests edtech will supplement, but not replace the existing residential model. He expects there to be more university students in 10 years’ time and he expects them to spend longer in higher education. A growth in master’s students is an indication of what he anticipates is a broader trend.

“Since loans were extended to master’s courses, there are more middle-class students staying on and what the middle classes are doing is often what other people end up doing,” he says, “I know the political pressure is for shorter and shorter courses, but the demand is for more not less. It might be hopelessly naive, but I think the traditional model will only keep on growing.”

With that, our time’s up, and Nick must leave to visit the latest university on his hectic itinerary.

As he dashes out into the rain, his phone rings again. We’d love to know who wants him this time.

Header image credit: Tom Pilston.

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