Q&A with Nick Hillman

We speak to the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

January 30, 2014

Source: Russell Sach

From 2010 to 2013, Nick Hillman was special adviser to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and from 2007 to 2010 was his chief of staff while in opposition. He left politics to this month take up the role of director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Where and when were you born?
Banbury in Oxfordshire on 21 April 1972. Radio 4 always plays the national anthem on the morning of my birthday as it is the Queen’s birthday too, which is nice.

How has this shaped you?
Banbury is a very friendly and unpretentious place, so I hope a little of that has rubbed off on me.

Describe your new job in 140 characters.
Helping shape the higher education debate via evidence, and dissuading politicians from saying unwise things.

What do you miss most about working in politics?
The pace and the people, but not the lack of time to think.

Of what are you most proud during your time working for the government?
Preparing for the removal of undergraduate number controls, which was announced on my last day in the office. It will improve people’s chances of getting into higher education and give broader access to the benefits available there.

What advice would you give to any incoming special adviser?
Try to get on with other civil servants, don’t ignore the evidence and engage fully with No 10.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes. Realising that all policy debates are really about trade-offs, but that there are still some win:win solutions if you search hard enough.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I met Emmanuel Mugenzira in Rwanda. He lost his family when tens of thousands of Tutsis were murdered at Murambi Technical School in 1994. He survived, even though he was shot, and shows people around the site to remind them how murderous prejudice can be.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Spend more time on your Ucca [university admission] form.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The level of understanding for the idea that you can protect the unit of resource [money spent per student] while also delivering more student places. When I was at the University of Manchester (admittedly more than 10 years ago), the unit of resource and the quality of education were falling while the number of students was rising. On a recent visit there, I was surprised to see the thing that has changed the least are the bands playing the students’ union since Liam Byrne [shadow universities minister], Andy Westwood [GuildHE chief executive] and I were students there.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it may lead and the worst is the lack of decent coffee in the Hepi office, which I plan to fix rapidly.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I assumed I would follow my parents and other relations into teaching, which for a few years I did. I was also one of those sad teenagers with photos of politicians on their walls, so working on public policy is (sort of) a dream come true.

What do you do for fun?
Attend gigs. One of my Christmas presents was tickets to see McBusted, the portmanteau equivalent of Oxbridge in the pop-punk world.

If you were to move overseas for work, where would you go?
Romania. I taught English at the University of Bucharest in 1992 and fell in love with the place. The Home Office could net me off against one of the Romanians coming here.

What keeps you awake at night?
My one-year-old daughter, Amity. (I plan to ask Amity University to sponsor her with a free place when she is 18.)

What’s your biggest regret?
Not working out immediately that £9,000 fees would become the norm – although we did work it out earlier than people think.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
Exactly £168,000 for a man and £252,000 for a woman, but for me as for so many others much more than this – not least because I met my wife, a fellow undergraduate, while at university.

To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
My children.

Two brains or two jags?
Two brains. But the best perk I had as a special adviser was driving the new Jaguar F-type round a test track.

Tell us a secret about David Willetts.
He has a pair of silver party shoes.


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