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HE experts' views on the decade's most influential HE reports


HEi-know asked 12 higher education experts to name what they see as the most influential HE reports of the past decade. Here are their views.


Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education and Director of Research, Faculty of Education, at the University of Cambridge. 


Probably in the last decade, the 2010 Browne Review or Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance still stands out as a key report influencing higher education financing in a significant way by lifting the cap on tuition fees with repercussions even now, given its approach to loans for tuition fees.

Although ostensibly about FE, Alison Wolf’s Review of Vocational Education was pivotal in 2011 as it opened up the debate about whether education and particularly higher education is just a race to signal that you are smarter than the next person and hence leading to rampant credentialism. In other words, it asked have we got too many graduates?

A couple of reports on social mobility were important I think, stressing the role of HE in trying to improve social mobility and generally reporting on its failure to do so. These reports were important as they shifted the discourse about HE to its role in perpetuating inequalities.

The key ones were:

2011 Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers – published by the Coalition Government.

The report Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, 2009 was also another important report in that it highlighted the strong link between higher education access and access to professions.

At the risk of blowing our own trumpet our Institute for Fiscal Studies report on HE earnings got a lot of attention, showing as it did vast differences in the earnings of graduates who took different courses. It also arguably influenced the TEF. Also our recent update: The relative labour market returns to different degrees.

More recently reports that will have big impact are:

The Diamond Review which really established just how different the Welsh system is and committed to further differences between the Welsh and English systems to underpin a push for greater access in Wales. 

The recent NAO report on the higher education market will undoubtedly have impact and offers a real challenge to universities’ discourse of providing good value for money, as well as a challenge to the way that we fund HE.


Mike Ratcliffe, Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University

An Avalanche is Coming (Barber, Donnelly & Rizvi, 2013, IPPR)

Influential, because it caught a moment which tended to show a coming crisis and was spread around the sector, placed into the hands of many governors.  It also demonstrates a key tactic of think tank writing, taking a common theme – here borrowed from Clay Christensen’s The Innovative University – and infusing it with doom and gloom from other think tanks and journalism.  In doing so it managed to overlook the optimism in Christensen.  Whatever happened to Michael Barber (or to MOOCs)?

Success as a Knowledge Economy (DfE 2016)

For the English sector, this White Paper sets out a regulatory framework to replace the 1992 post-binary settlement.   Unusually, for a government policy document, it was not all about the funding of students and their teaching but structures.  It saw the separation of teaching and research into the domains of OfS and UKRI.  On the OfS side, choice and competition were the watchwords. When the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was hurried onto the statute book by the general election, it looked like a settled structure was assured, but that election hastened a ‘major review’ of funding.    


Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

Browne review (obviously): led to the current fees regime we have

Robbins Revisited by Willetts as it led to the removal of student number controls

The annual OECD Education at a Glance reports, which are such a good source of comparative data.

2011 white paper, 2015 green paper and 2016 white paper.

Nurse report (even though I thought it was woeful).

In terms of HEPI’s work, I think these have been the most influential:

The document (before my time) on the 2011 white paper, which flagged the high RAB charge, Poppy Brown’s 2016 paper on students’ mental health, the 2016 report by me and Nicholas Robinson on the gender gap (Boys to Men) and our annual academic experience survey, which helped lead to the TEF.


Professor Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education, Lancaster University

The Browne Review – in setting in place the current system of undergraduate fees in England.

The Metric Tide and the Stern Review – in making it clear that peer review needed to be at the centre of the Research Excellence Framework

Two forthcoming reviews are likely to also have a big impact. The current review of post-18 education and the expected independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework.


Dr Karen Smith, Principal Lecturer in Collaborative Research and Development, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire

The QAA’s Quality Code’s statement because it ‘covers all four nations of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and all providers of UK higher education operating internationally. It protects the interests of all students, regardless of where they are studying or whether they are full-time, part-time, undergraduate or postgraduate student’.

It is also important because it does not differentiate transnational education students and UK-based students. In Chapter B3 Learning and Teaching, for example, the guidance relates to all students wherever they are located, and also the staff who support them (again, wherever they are located). This is a reminder to universities that TNE students, are also their students, because so often ‘out of sight’ means ‘out of mind’.

The Wider Benefits of Transnational Education, published by the DfE is important because it shows that TNE is more than just a money making venture.

UUKi publications on the scale of UK TNE are also useful to understand where and how we are engaged in TNE – many countries do not have such robust data on TNE.


Rhiannon Birch, Director of Planning and Insight, Sheffield University

Two contextual points: firstly, I think there's a difference between reports as big bang events and the impact they have on policy and practice which is more incremental and tends to follow a longer term trajectory. Reports tend to be generated where there is a problem or to look at something specific so their influence depends on the question and how the report is then implemented (for example, both Dearing and Browne made recommendations which were adapted by Government before they were implemented so the policy impact was different from that proposed in the report).

Secondly, it's interesting who is writing these pieces as it's changed in the last decade. In the run up to the Dearing Inquiry a stream of piecemeal reports were commissioned by Government which led to an inquiry. In the last decade more reports have come unsolicited from thinktanks and independent bodies (such as the HE Commission and HEPI). They report more frequently and on smaller issues so the style of report has changed from the grand, longer term exercises to quicker investigations into specific issues (for example, the UPP Foundation's Civic Universities Commission). There was commentary about whether we were heading for another commission but what emerged was the Augar Review which is high profile but has specific question and is very much the Government's review.

The reports I would mention based on the fact that I've held on to copies are:

The 2017 HEPI Report How much is too much? by Vicky Olive which explored cross subsidy in University finances. The report highlighted the financial merry-go-round of University funding and will hopefully influence the thinking of the Augur Review.

The 2016 HE Commission Report From Bricks to Clicks looked at how the HE sector used data and how data and analytics could evolve HE institutions towards to a data-driven future. It highlighted that Universities have lots of data but limited information and insight and compared with organisations in different sectors could be doing more to use data to drive institutions.

The 2013 HE Commission Report Regulating Higher Education made a series of recommendations many of which were later realised in the creation of the OfS and later changes in the wider regulatory framework.

The 2009 UNESCO occasional paper Impact of Global Rankings on Higher Education Research and the Production of Knowledge by Ellen Hazelkorn was one of the first to look in depth at the rise of league tables and the effect of measuring institutions on their activities. Many of the issues raised in the paper are echoed in the narrative around league tables and the emergence of the TEF.


Professor Alison Wolf, the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London and a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords

It's quite hard, actually... I don't feel as if government policy in HE has taken that much notice of anything outside government, and we haven't had much by way of commissioned reports either, more green paper and a very large Act.

My report for Education Policy Institute (EPI) - Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose? - might turn out to be influential I suppose - it was one of the reasons that the Conservative manifesto people thought a tertiary review might be a good idea though I expect there were plenty of other reasons.

Claire Callendar's report on diving part-time numbers, most recently with Thompson, The Lost Part-timers.

The Browne Review was key. The work of Professor Nick Barr at the London School of Economics was hugely influential but that presumably falls outside the period.

I would definitely include the IFS/Nuffield-funded work  on returns  - Jack Britton, Lorraine Dearden, Neil,Shepherd, Anna Vignoles, How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background.

Martin Lewis has had a huge impact by making interest rates a big issue but no report there to cite.

There has been more of an active debate-with-writings in Australia, interestingly. We've basically been following through on the 'expand, expand'  policy shared by Blair, Brown, Willetts and Jo Johnson.


Professor Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at University College London Institute of Education.

You would have to include the Browne report on fees and funding near the start of the 10-year period and the Augar review at the end, which is expected to report early next year. Both are on the same topic, how to find a (politically and financially) sustainable basis for funding HE. The conclusion I draw is that we still haven’t found one. I suppose you would also need to include the two HE White Papers (2011 and 2016). Again they show there is no settled Government view. Then I would include two manifestos - the Lib Dem one for the 2010 Election (in which they promised to abolish fees and then agreed to treble them!), and Labour one for 2017 (which again promised to abolish fees - and highlighted the instability of the current HE funding regime in England).


Rajani Naidoo, Professor of Higher Education Management and Director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM) at Bath University

Professor Naidoo cites the various “government white and green papers over the last decade that include the Teaching Excellence Framework”.

June 2011  Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System - white paper

Nov 2015  Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice green paper

May 2016  Higher education: success as a knowledge economy - white paper.


Professor David Palfreyman OBE, Bursar of New College, Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and co-author of Reshaping The University: The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education

Nov 2015  Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice green paper

May 2016  Higher education: success as a knowledge economy - white paper.

Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017

2010 Browne Review – Securing a sustainable future for higher education.

The Green/White/HERA17 are the biggies, since they led to the demise of HEFCE and the creation of the UKRI plus the OfS, which recognises the duty of Government to regulate the market and protect the student-customer following the shift to £9k tuition fees. The other biggie would be the Browne Review which preceded the £3k to £9k hike.


Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, and Director of its Centre for Global Higher Education.

Reports mostly don’t matter much – the politics are now more direct. But just sometimes they can be a turning point.

Browne 2010 – both sides of politics had a role in this exercise because of the timing in relation to the electoral cycle, and that turned out to be really important. And while Browne’s detail was mostly not taken up as such its view of the world was hegemonic for a time. And yet the pragmatism of New Labour and the David Willetts loan-fed funding bonanza now seem a world away.

My top ten, in the last ten, then -  












Claire Callender OBE, Professor of Higher Education at Birkbeck and UCL Institute of Education

For all the ‘wrong’ reasons – the 2010 Browne Report.


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