“Eccentric” was how David Willetts described last autumn’s report by the Higher Education Policy Institute on the hidden costs of the new student loan system, as he took questions in the House of Commons. A couple of months later, the universities and science minister conceded to MPs that the government was raising its estimate of the loan costs, exactly as Hepi had predicted.
As Bahram Bekhradnia prepares to step aside from the director’s role he has held since Hepi was founded in 2002 and to launch the search for his successor, he can recall a number of other defensive ministerial reactions to the institute’s reports.
There was Bill Rammell, the Labour higher education minister from 2005 to 2008 (and now vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire), who once described Hepi as “wrong about everything”, according to its director. Or a different Labour minister who, Bekhradnia says, tried to have a Hepi report “suppressed”.
Hepi “very rapidly established a reputation for independence”, says Bekhradnia, who founded the institute after 11 years at the Higher Education Funding Council for England as director of policy.
Before that he had been in the Civil Service, rising within what was then the Department of Education and Science to become head of the teacher supply division. Working at Hefce and Hepi was “a great liberation”, he says. “I suspect I would have been fired had I stayed a civil servant.”
When Hepi was created, Bekhradnia recalls, he was seen by some in the sector as “potentially suspect” for having worked at Hefce.
Along with the fact that Hefce provided some initial funding for Hepi, there was “understandable scepticism” and a perception that Hepi would produce reports that were too kind to the government and the funding council.
Freedom is priceless
That the institute has asserted its independence has been “absolutely precious”, Bekhradnia says. Hepi has shown it will “follow the evidence even though it sometimes leads to uncomfortable conclusions - sometimes surprising conclusions”.
He believes that this approach was proven in successive months last year. “We produced a very critical report [in October] about the costs of the government’s policies…and the following month we produced a report that - against a lot of expectations but we think absolutely correctly - followed the evidence and showed that the impact [of higher fees] on demand has been, so far, apparently negligible.”
He sees Hepi’s role as being to “inform those with an interest and to inform those that influence the decision-makers”.
Specifically, Bekhradnia looks back at Hepi’s reports on the Labour government’s plans for the research excellence framework, which it wanted to rely heavily on metrics. He describes that approach as “completely batty” and thinks that Hepi produced “some of the definitive critiques of that policy”.
He adds: “I wouldn’t say we directly influenced the government…but there was a big groundswell, and that undoubtedly made the government think again.”
Hepi’s annual surveys of student engagement and student experience across the sector, including contact hours, have also been influential.
In the wake of these surveys, “the question of comparability of standards came firmly on the agenda”, Bekhradnia says.
Contact hours are now part of the Key Information Sets launched last year by Willetts. “I would say we could take part of the credit for having raised the questions, for providing evidence…and not letting it go away and making sure everybody was informed about it,” Bekhradnia says.
And what about relations with Willetts in the wake of some of Hepi’s criticism?
“It’s quite damning if you’ve showed that the government has done its sums wrong. I imagine he does feel quite cross about it and defensive,” Bekhradnia says.
But he adds that relations are still cordial and that Nick Hillman, Willetts’ special adviser, is a “very good egg”.
Ruffled ministerial feathers
Under the Labour government, Rammell, an advocate of post-qualifications applications to university, did not hold back in his criticism of Hepi over its report showing that pupils from poorer backgrounds actually benefited from inaccuracies in predicted A-level grades.
“You mustn’t be surprised if those in power would rather people weren’t critiquing and second-guessing their policies…It means my successor will have to be as thick-skinned and confident in their analysis and their critiques as we’ve managed to be,” Bekhradnia says.
On that front, he recalls: “At a very early stage under the previous government, a previous minister of state actually tried to get one of our reports stopped.”
Hepi had produced a report arguing that although there were many grounds for expanding access to higher education, Labour was making a mistake in basing its argument on economic ones - because the evidence was mixed on that score.
Bridling at the government’s wish to see the report quashed, Lord Dearing, then Hepi chairman, telephoned the permanent secretary of the education department. The peer “told him in no uncertain terms” that a minister should not be “suppressing an independent thinktank”, Bekhradnia says.
“The response from the permanent secretary was rather chilling. He said to Ron Dearing…’remind me, where does Hepi’s funding come from?’ Because that was in the first year when we were getting our money substantially from Hefce.” But that opposition “didn’t change what we did”, Bekhradnia adds.
UK mantra put to the test
Looking to the future, he says: “There is no doubt that higher education is going through a most extraordinarily difficult time. Our position in the world is uncertain. I don’t buy…the mantra that we [the UK] are the best university system in the world. I think that’s based on a number of false premises.
“One is that research is the most important aspect of higher education. The second is that you judge a system by its elite universities…The third is that because overseas students choose to come here, that proves we are the best - that’s not the case.”
On the second of those, Bekhradnia says that “certainly the government seems to care very much more about the elite universities than it does the rest”.
He adds: “If you take the view that we need to educate all of our population as well as possible and as deeply as possible then that would mean needing good-quality universities catering for the less able, as well as the more able.”
Sweden “doesn’t have elite universities but has got good universities right the way through it”, he says, and its population is “very well educated”.
Although he is stepping down as Hepi director at the end of the year, Bekhradnia will become the thinktank’s president, which means that he will continue to fulfil “some capacity as required” at the organisation.
He is delighted at the recent “very successful recruitment drive”, which means that 78 institutions across the UK are now paying partners in Hepi. That means that its financial future is now “pretty secure” and it can confidently appoint a successor director.
Equally pleasing to him is that Hepi has not had to become a subscription- based organisation and restrict access to its reports and data - everything remains freely available.
Ministers and civil servants may rage against the thinktank from time to time, but in their calmer moments, even they must be glad that Hepi looks like it’s here to stay.