Nick Hillman, former special adviser to David Willetts, takes an unusual tack in his first interview as director of the Higher Education Policy Institute: owning up to a mistake in government.
Under former director Bahram Bekhradnia, Hepi savaged the coalition government from 2011 onwards for basing its £9,000 fees system on an underestimate of the portion of loan outlay that would never be repaid by graduates (known as the resource accounting and budgeting, or RAB, charge). In 2012, Mr Willetts hit back, labelling the Hepi analysis “eccentric”.
But speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Hillman said of Mr Bekhradnia: “We were on opposite sides of the RAB charge debate, and I’ve got to say he’s won it. The Hepi analysis has turned out to be correct, and even the government now pretty much accepts that.”
Mr Hillman published his first pamphlet as Hepi director on 20 February. It looks at eight “pinch points” in sector regulation left by the government’s failure to introduce a higher education bill – with the question of the “level playing field” for private providers looming large.
One issue he examines in the pamphlet is the fee cap, set at £6,000 for private providers and £9,000 for publicly funded universities.
Three options are floated by Mr Hillman in the pamphlet – including “extending the freedom to impose higher fees” to universities and allowing them to charge above the £9,000 cap (the pamphlet does not endorse any of the options).
Mr Hillman told THE: “If Oxford’s argument is that it really costs £16,000 to educate someone who comes to Oxford, prove it. I’ve been asking Oxford and Cambridge for that data for many years…If the people who want a higher fees cap are serious about it, they haven’t yet made the case sufficiently.”
He said his personal view was that “as a nation we benefit from having a higher education sector…I haven’t yet heard a strong enough argument for losing the sense of a single coherent sector, which you would lose the minute you moved to differential fees.”
The goal of the pamphlet, he said, was “to be a vehicle to press all the political parties: ‘What are your opinions on these eight pinch points?’…If they are not prepared to legislate, they need to explain the rationale for the status quo.”
Does his past as a Tory special adviser on higher education mean that he will find it impossible to be impartial in his new role?
“My first pamphlet shows I’m not going to be a patsy and constantly defend the status quo. I think there are problems with the status quo,” he said.
But the upside of his Whitehall experience was his knowledge of the relationships between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Treasury and No 10, and of “how evidence and research is digested within Whitehall”, he said.
Mr Hillman defined the job of Hepi as being to “help policymakers by giving them evidence and research”, but also “to stop them saying unwise things”.
Meanwhile, he admitted that his new post means a boost in salary, after rumours that he will be paid more than £100,000 a year. “I took a pay cut to be a special adviser, and I took a pay rise to be Hepi director,” he said. But he added that his take-home salary was “less than £100,000”.
Inside knowledge: Nick Hillman on coalition policymaking
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, reflects on some of the big policy questions during his time as special adviser to universities and science minister David Willetts
On the government not realising that £9,000 fees would become the norm
“We realised it very quickly, but it was after Willetts and [Vince] Cable had said ‘these things will be exceptional’. The reason we thought there wasn’t a straight comparison with 2006 [when virtually all universities charged the £3,000 maximum] was that there were going to be things like annual Offa [Office for Fair Access] reviews, whereas they were only once every five years under the old regime. Plus, we thought there was going to be a new legal framework, which if necessary could beef up Offa’s powers. But of course there hasn’t been any legislation.”
On government claims that the higher education bill was shelved for lack of parliamentary time
“It was always the weakest argument I felt people let you get away with as a special adviser: ‘The reason there’s been no HE legislation is because there’s no room in the legislative calendar.’ [And] it’s the government that sets the legislative calendar. I was surprised by how easily that argument could be used.”
On claims that the abolition of student number controls was a Treasury policy, with Mr Willetts opposed to caps being lifted so soon
“It is nonsense…he was clearly at one with the chancellor, he really was. One of the main catalysts of the decision was [Mr Willetts’] Robbins pamphlet [for the Social Market Foundation]. The arguments on whether it is funded from student loan sales will go back and forth…But that, ultimately, is a different question. Both Willetts and George Osborne liked the optimistic feel of meeting people’s aspirations on that. It was one of the things I’m proudest of having worked on. I was a small cog in the bigger machine, but I did work on that policy – it wasn’t foisted upon us by another department.”