David Willetts’ special adviser has been named the next head of the UK’s leading independent thinktank dedicated to higher education.
Nick Hillman will become director of the Higher Education Policy Institute in January, replacing Bahram Bekhradnia, who has led the organisation for more than a decade.
Mr Hillman said he was delighted to take charge at Hepi, which is widely regarded as the UK’s most influential and respected body for higher education policy analysis.
However, his strong ties to the Conservative Party are likely to raise questions about his ability to scrutinise coalition policies he helped to draft and the effects of the £9,000 fee regime introduced last year.
The former history teacher, who stood as the Tory candidate for Cambridge in the 2010 general election, insisted that he will criticise the government if required and will enjoy not having to toe the party line.
“I am over the moon to have got this job precisely because it offers the freedom to go wherever the evidence leads,” he said.
“Hepi’s reputation has been built on speaking truth unto power, and its future success will depend on that, too.”
Mr Hillman said he was keen to “work with anyone who has something interesting to say” and would “seek to influence people of all persuasions and none”.
He has yet to draw up a firm set of areas for analysis, but predicted work on improving the regulatory landscape, learning more lessons from abroad and investigating the student experience.
“I passionately believe higher education changes lives for the better, so I expect to maintain Bahram’s focus on student places, too,” he said.
Mr Bekhradnia, who will become Hepi president, said speculation over Mr Hillman’s political neutrality was inevitable, but he fully supported the appointment.
“I’ve encountered Nick over the years, both in opposition and government, and found him very smart, able and open-minded,” he said. “When I came from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, I had to overcome suspicions that I was not politically neutral.”
Sir Graeme Davies, chairman of Hepi’s trustees, who led the interview process, said Mr Hillman had “an exceptional knowledge of the sector in all its aspects”.
Mr Hillman’s departure as Mr Willetts’ adviser is likely to intensify speculation about the future of the minister for universities and science, who was tipped to be replaced in a summer reshuffle that has been delayed until the autumn.