Historical enlightenment

Study of the past gives Nick Hillman insight into policymaking dilemmas as well as personal and practical rewards

July 25, 2013

Source: Patrick Welham

My first employment after leaving university was as a history teacher. It was rewarding, but I tended to flannel when pupils asked me why they should study the subject. Even though I loved it, I was never able to hone a perfect response to the question: “What jobs will history help me to do?”

Perhaps teacher training courses should cover the issue in more detail. But after leaving the classroom behind, I discovered one answer at first hand. Historical skills are useful in any job that involves formulating public policy. It is right that every government department now has a chief scientific adviser to ensure that politicians and civil servants are aware of the latest empirical evidence, but smart public policy should also reflect older evidence that is at risk of being forgotten.

Some years ago, I worked for insurance companies on the pensions crisis, which was characterised by massive pressures on workplace pension schemes. These problems were fully comprehensible only through the lens of the past. In 2008 I wrote a pamphlet, Quelling the Pensions Storm, that looked to history for solutions. My proposals included replacing both the basic state pension and the state second pension with a simpler single-tier pension. Now Steve Webb, the excellent pensions minister and a former University of Bath academic, is implementing just such a policy.

In their early days, work-based pensions were parsimonious. Over time this changed, but there was a trade-off between their generosity and their affordability: as life expectancy rose and scheme members and politicians demanded higher benefits, costs increased. The first university pension scheme, established in 1913, had employer and employee contributions totalling just 10 per cent. Today, the Universities Superannuation Scheme has contributions of 23.5 per cent – and they would be much higher still if the pension age had not increased as well.

History is just as relevant to higher education policymaking as it is to pensions. Regarding undergraduates, the main trade-off is between the generosity of the student support system and the number of places taxpayers can afford.

Harold Wilson’s immediate reaction to the 1963 Robbins report was to argue, against received wisdom, that its proposals for more students within the existing model would be prohibitively expensive. He was proved right. From the 1970s onwards, successive governments cut the amount of funding available for each student. By the 1990s, the system seemed so close to breaking point that, in the dying days of the Major government, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals – the forerunner of Universities UK – refused to meet the secretary of state for education in protest. Thankfully, the 1997 Dearing report broke the impasse by raising the prospect of graduate contributions towards the cost of tuition.

The coalition government has sought to learn the lessons of Dearing. As I show in an article for Contemporary British History, “From grants for all to loans for all”, recent changes go in the same direction as many earlier reforms and attempts at reform. In some respects, the tale is counter-intuitive. It was a Labour Cabinet that, in 1967, first agreed to consider student loans, and the first education minister to consult the sector on them, a couple of years later, was Labour’s Shirley Williams (now a Liberal Democrat). In contrast, Margaret Thatcher announced that public spending on higher education would rise by 5 per cent a year during her time as education secretary in the early 1970s. And as prime minister, she repeatedly rejected student loans until quite late in her premiership.

I am often asked why, as a special adviser, I bother to publish in peer-reviewed journals (this is the fifth time I have done so). In the words of former Labour minister Clare Short, “spads” are meant to be “people who live in the dark”.

There are three reasons. First, there has always been a porous boundary between Whitehall and academia. One of the best histories of British higher education, Government and the Universities in Britain, was written by John Carswell, a one-time senior official in the Department of Education.

Second, the temptation in modern government is always to focus on the here and now. Unless you take time to think through the past in sufficient detail, the wrong lessons – or no lessons – will be learned.

Third, the process of researching, writing and submitting academic articles has taught me more than the historical facts. Knowledge is often pitted against skills, as if you can have only one or the other. Yet in reality, skills emerge through the pursuit of knowledge. That is how you learn to identify killer facts, to structure an argument and even to disseminate the outcome.

For me, the writing process has also offered a taste of the sheer hard work, frustrations and the sense of achievement experienced by academic researchers, which otherwise would be known to me through second-hand sources, such as Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) cartoons in Times Higher Education. It has given me first-hand experience of the perils of the peer-review process, the pros and cons of open access and the joys of tiptoeing on the frontiers of knowledge.

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