Nick Hillman on free speech, trade-offs and policymakers

The director of the Higher Education Policy Institute talks to University Business about the biggest challenges in the HE sector

Nick Hillman’s career, it would appear, set him up perfectly to run the Higher Education Policy Institute, the think tank responsible for a prodigious stream of reports, polls, briefings and blogs covering every aspect of the UK higher education sector. Hillman once trained to be a teacher. He later became an advisor to David Willetts, the universities minister, from 2010 to 2014. An informed thinker and a wise teacher, Nick Hillman is perspicacious and elucidative, much like Hepi.

On the ‘unprecedented’ series of events this year:

Where maybe some of us got a bit wrong was in the early days of the crisis – people predicted all sorts of things about what this crisis would mean for higher education, and a lot of those haven’t come true. A lot were too pessimistic, for example, about student demand. We’ve seen student demand holding up because young people know the alternatives to higher education are much worse at the moment.

On the Freedom of Speech champion:

I worry we’ll see provocateurs try to use the new rules to their advantage. If you’re a far-right troublemaker, you have a right to have your views, but… what is this free speech tsar meant to do – are they meant to protect the rights of provocateurs that are stopping people going about their rightful day to day business?

I think it’d be a very difficult job. But though there are people out there who could do it, I worry whoever does the job, that it may prove to be an almost impossible job to do well.

On trade-offs:

One very important trade-off that we’re going to need to think about in the next few years is the trade-off between how many places are available at our universities versus the funding regime. For example, the current government has floated – not accepted but floated – the idea of lower tuition fees. The Augar reporter recommended lower tuition fees and called for higher public funding to make up the gap, but if the taxpayers are to pay a lot more money towards British universities, they might also want to control their costs in other ways, like reducing student numbers or rooting out certain courses, so that’s a really important trade-off.

On policymakers:

When the Home Office thinks about international student rules, they haven’t always understood that we have strength in breadth. Private conversations go on, for example, and they considered a separate set of rules just for Russell Group universities, and that demonstrates a misunderstanding of the fact that our higher education system is stronger for its breadth.

I don’t think people in the centre of government in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office in Downing Street always understand the breadth of our sector either. You have to stop and not think of policymakers as a big morass, all thinking the same thing.

You might also like: Chris Skidmore on the KEF, civic universities and levelling up

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