2 days / 60 speakers
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26 – 27 June 2019

The third Higher Education Festival, held at the University of Buckingham, was the largest and most successful of the annual event to date.

More than 50 speakers over the two days discussed the most important issues currently facing the higher education sector, with talks on mental health, artificial intelligence, social mobility and more.

Opening the second day was Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities Science, Research and Innovation, who spoke in conversation with Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, on a variety of topics such as free speech in universities and that tech companies should have a duty of care for their social media users.

James Murray, whose son tragically killed himself at Bristol University, spoke movingly at the event unveiling his pledge to help prevent suicide through a number of measures. He wants data protection to be relaxed to allow universities to alert parents if their child displays in any way that they may be suffering with a mental health problem. He spoke alongside author of That Was When People Started to Worry, student Nancy Tucker, talking searingly honestly about her own problems with eating disorders and mental health.

Speakers included:

  • Sir Anthony Seldon – Vice-Chancellor, University of Buckingham.
  • Mary Curnock Cook – Independent Educationalist and Former CEO of UCAS.
  • Stephen Tierney – CEO, Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust and Chair of the Heads Roundtable.
  • Bill Watkin – Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association.
  • Carl Cullinane – Research and Policy Manager, The Sutton Trust.
  • Joan Deslandes – Head teacher of Kingsford Community School and co-Founder and Governor, London Academy of Excellence.
  • Sir Kevan Collins – Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation.
  • Claudia Harris – Chief Executive Officer, Careers and Enterprise Company; Geoff Barton – General Secretary, ASCL.
  • Professor Damien Page – Dean of The Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.
  • Ellen Wilson – Vice President Higher Education Services, Pearson.
  • Rt Hon David Willetts – Executive Chairman, The Resolution Foundation.
  • Clare Marchant – Chief Executive, UCAS; HMC Rep HE.
  • Lord Andrew Adonis – Author and Campaigner.
  • David Goodhart; Head of Demography Policy Exchange and Author.
  • Ant Bagshaw – Deputy CEO, WonkHE.
  • Roxanne Stockwell – Principal, Pearson College.
  • Sir Michael Barber – Chair, Office for Students.
  • Duncan Piper – Director, Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology.
  • Ryan Craig – Managing Director, University Ventures.

Topics discussed:

  • Curriculum; The Substance of Education – Is it fit for Purpose?
  • Social Mobility; Can Schools do more to improve social mobility and access to HE?
  • Raising the Quality of Teaching in Schools and Higher Education; Research informed Practice and Professional Development.
  • The Transition from School to Training Work and Higher Education.
  • Mental Health and Well Being in Schools.
  • Artificial intelligence – can it truly create a better learning experience?
  • Fair Funding – is the current model sustainable and are students getting value for money?
  • Is the Admissions Process to Universities fit for purpose?
  • Pearson Education Debate; Future skills: equipping today’s students for success in tomorrow’s jobs.
  • Improving the Quality of Teaching in HE – The Role of TEF
  • Non-Traditional Routes in Higher Education.
  • Fair Regulation in Higher Education – Are we getting the balance right between producers and Consumers?
  • Blue Sky Thinking – New Models for Delivering Post 18 Education and Training.

Two mini HEPI debates discussed whether academic selection is wrong and 11 and still wrong at 18, as well as whether it would be of public benefit for far more people to go to university. Some of the most burning issues in higher education were put under the microscope in a question time with Claire Fox, Director of the Academy of Ideas.

Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said: “This was the best yet. There was a phenomenal range and calibre of speakers and we had some really important debates. The issues have been picked up by the media and followed up in a number of ways which will help with shaping the future of HE. We are looking forward to building on this year’s Festival to have even more stimulating discussions and an even wider breadth of speakers next year. Huge thanks to our sponsors Pearson and Sir John Cass’s Foundation.”

Keep up to date with stories and podcasts from this year event and next year’s announcements on our website: and twitter @HEFestival


Once again the third annual Festival of Higher Education attracted lots of headlines with its varied themes and wide range of speakers.

Last year, the agenda-setting Festival sparked the VC pay debate, which has run and run, when a question from a national news reporter asking whether VC pay was too high prompted Jo Johnson, former Minister for Universities, to respond “I do think vice-chancellors are paid too much, and it does not do much for the morale of their workforce.” The story is still running in the papers.

Some of this year’s themes that have caught the media’s attention are; Sam Gyimah, Minster for Universities, stating that companies should have a ‘duty of care’ to social media users; free speech within Universities and the steps that need to be taken to help with student mental health and prevent suicides.

You can find some of the articles listed below:

Times: Social media users have duty of care to users.

Web giants have been likened to modern-day polluters by the minister responsible for science and innovation who said they should be bound by a “duty of care” to their customers.

Sam Gyimah, the universities minister who is also responsible for science and innovation, said social media had a big part to play in the mental health of young people.

He cited The Times’s front-page story yesterday in which Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said that big technology companies were fuelling a child mental health crisis.

Mr Gyimah said he wanted Britain to be one of the “go-to” places for science and technology, but that tech companies had to accept they had greater responsibilities. “If you had an oil company, we expect you — if there is an oil spill — to deal with it and we expect you to have regard to the possible harm to communities. People call that a licence to practise. And I think social media companies have come of age,” he said.

For decades, companies have had a duty of care to their employees but also a “general duty of care” to customers, he said, adding: “There is no reason why, as we reflect on the responsibilities of social media, we can’t think about how we make sure that — whether its extremism, cyber-bullying, economic, for example, ripping off intellectual property scams — that we can’t evolve that system to deal with this.” This was also the case for young people’s mental health, he added.

Mr Gyimah was speaking at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education, where he was joined by James Murray, the father of a University of Bristol undergraduate who took his own life last month.  Mr Murray said he believed that students reaching university through clearing were particularly vulnerable and needed a “much better safety net”.  His son, Ben, was a first-year English student. He had planned to go to Edinburgh, where his brother and girlfriend were studying, but narrowly missed his grades. Ben struggled to settle in and told the university that he was suffering from anxiety. He is one of ten suicides at the university in the past two years.  The number of students using clearing has risen by 20 per cent since 2012 to more than 60,000. The system run by Ucas is highly efficient, but it means that new students can end up at a university they have never visited, in whatever accommodation is still available and where they have not got to know any other prospective students.  Mr Murray said that universities should tell parents if students are not engaging in lectures or tutorials.  Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said that clearing students were a special case. “I accept that they are more vulnerable,” she said.


Telegraph: University offers can thwart pupils’ learning.

Sixth form pupils are being told by universities that they do not need to bother finishing their A-levels, an education chief has warned.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth-Form Colleges Association, told how teachers found the increase in unconditional offers – where university places were promised to pupils regardless of their A-level results – “extremely unhelpful”.

Last year, The Telegraph revealed that unconditional offers at some of Britain’s leading institutions had more than doubled in the past five years.

There is fierce competition among universities to attract students, with top institutions drastically lowering their entry grades to entice schoolleavers during the “clearing” process to fill their remaining places.

Admissions figures, obtained by The Telegraph under a series of freedom of information requests, revealed that there has been a rise in the number of unconditional places offered by several Russell Group universities in recent years.

Speaking at the Festival of Higher Education at the University of Buckingham yesterday, Mr Watkin said: “I understand why universities are doing this, but I would ask them to consider the implication on the mind-set of 16- and 17-year-olds.”

He said the “significant” rise in unconditional offers had led to pupils being “less likely to feel a sense of urgency and determination to work flat out to get the very best grades in the final year of sixth-form study”.

Mr Watkin added that some universities had even written to pupils, encouraging them to leave school and take up foundation degrees, which are combined academic and vocational qualifications equivalent to two thirds of a bachelor’s degree.

Businessman James Murray, whose son Ben tragically died last month, has drawn up a ten-point plan to try to get universities to change the way they treat youngsters struggling on campus.
He has been working with Bristol University and also leading mental health campaigner Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham as well as Universities UK, to try to get something done.
The suicide prevention pledge will be unveiled on Thursday morning at the second day of the Festival of Higher Education in a session on mental health with Sir Anthony and author Nancy Tucker, just prior to Universities Minister Sam Gyimah speaking.