Fiona Hill: higher education’s future ‘is on the line’

After elite universities took her from County Durham to White House, next Durham chancellor aims to work on spreading benefits of higher education beyond elites 

December 13, 2022
Source: Alamy

After a path through elite universities that took a miner’s daughter to the White House, incoming Durham University chancellor Fiona Hill aims to work on helping higher education spread its benefits beyond elites at a time when its “future is on the line”.

Dr Hill’s book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, covered her journey from growing up in Bishop Auckland to a degree in Russian at the University of St Andrews (after an “awful” experience at a University of Oxford interview), a PhD at Harvard University, and a career advising three US presidents on Russian and European affairs.

Her final US government appointment came when Donald Trump made her deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council – a role that eventually led to her testifying during his 2019 impeachment.

Her book covers “the political effects of deindustrialisation” in the US, UK and Russia as well as her own story of social mobility through education, Dr Hill told Times Higher Education after being announced as Durham’s next chancellor, starting in June.

“The problem, of course: it’s through elite education,” she added.

Dr Hill, a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a US thinktank, has recently been looking at access to higher education in the US for disadvantaged and rural students, including via interviews with University of Pittsburgh students.

One element that interests her is how universities can do more for their communities, “so that you’re not just basically having a big sucking noise of everything coming into these elite educational institutions and they’re not having knock-on effects on the broader community”.

In taking the role at Durham – a prestigious institution known for the low proportion of students it takes from the surrounding region and for tensions between town and gown – is she heading for a university that sometimes embodies that kind of disconnect?

“That was actually one of the reasons I think they [Durham] reached out to me and I was put on the [candidate] list,” Dr Hill said.

“I’ve got a lot of ties with St Andrews…but I really felt that trying to draw attention to all these issues is pretty critical.”

She added: “I don’t know how much people inside higher education are fully cognisant…about how much the future of higher education is on the line here, in the United Kingdom and United States.

“People look at the UK and US as the superpowers of education, but we’ve such huge…inequalities of access to education.”

By way of arguing that the UK has “lost the plot” on adult and continuing education, Dr Hill pointed to the scale of the 1918 Education Act, which raised the school leaving age to 14, abolished all fees in state elementary schools and sought to help soldiers returning home after the First World War “adapt to what was already a changing economy”.

The UK has been through “so many phases” of economic change since “and education hasn’t kept up with it”, she said. “We’ve had all kinds of education acts, expansion of education, but it’s all been more emphasis on the individual; whereas if you look back to [the 1918 act], it was more of a national effort to make the country competitive again after World War One, and we tried it again after World War Two.

“Well, we’re in a perpetual situation now where both the United Kingdom and United States are not keeping up with the rapidity of [economic] changes and a lot of it is because of this lack of access to education in all forms.”

Dr Hill said she was keen to learn more about universities’ roles in their regions, “which places are doing things well, which are not, what are the issues that universities can’t solve – I don’t think universities can solve all the transportation issues, for example, but they can highlight them”.

“What’s interesting about the north-east of England…is there’s a cluster of really excellent educational institutions with all kinds of different profiles,” continued Dr Hill, who recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sunderland.

The five universities in the north-east – Teesside, Sunderland, Northumbria, Newcastle and Durham – plus the region’s further education colleges amount to “a real cluster here that you ought to be able to bring together”, said Dr Hill, highlighting Scotland’s greater success than England in “pooling and sharing” between its universities.

Part of her hope for the Durham role was to take a national look at “how higher education can really live up to its promise of having benefits not just for an elite few, but…for communities, for regions and the country at large”.

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Reader's comments (5)

How sad that a PhD in Russian studies has absolutely no historical pespective on higher education. Ms Hill, it's not 1970!
The idea of expanding access to Higher Education is of course a laudable one and most liberally-minded people around the globe would find it difficult to argue with this. As another person has already commented though, for Goodness' Sake, it's not 1970 and I think it is grossly misleading to portray university entry as something that remains the preserve of the societal elite. If anything, certainly from my own perspective of working for the past 3 decades in UK Higher Education, I would say that the opposite is largely true. Even when I myself first went to university in the 1980s (first in family; working class parents; could only afford it thanks to a local HEA grant, and even then, by doing lots of part-time evening jobs and summer holiday work) the percentage of people entering university nationally in the UK was often cited as 5%. Let's face it though, it still wasn't exactly elitist. Most of my peers still came from the secondary comprehensive sector, as did I, not private schools like Gordonstoun or Eton . One problem I have with Ms Hill's stance is that she appears to think that UK universities in the UK are somehow frozen in time. Rather than worrying about increasing wider access, when it comes down to priorities, I think she would be much better off talking to her senior academics at Durham and looking into getting the educational standards within HE back on a par with how they used to be. What HE so badly needs is a concerted push-back against the tide of neo-liberalism which has all but engulfed us. Getting people into university isn't really the problem here; making sure that they have an intellectually stimulating experience while they're there, are held properly accountable to achieving certain academic standards, and manage to leave having actually learned something useful for our society more often than not is.
Although I agree with much of the above, the author should be accorded her title as "Dr Hill" or else it looks like an example of micro-aggression. It is a constant struggle to get recognition of such things in the media and society so let's not repeat the mistake here. PS. I fall into the same category as "Professor Ed", so not a woke kid but someone near retirement.
My sincere apologies for the oversight of not addressing Dr Hill's title; certainly no intention of micro-aggression.
I too grew up in a nearby pit village then teens in a council house in Bishop Auckland but didn't have Fiona Hill's way 'up' thanks to then 11+ (fail!), and started work in a factory in B/A just after my fifteenth birthday. My only way out was through H.M. Forces ending up belatedly with a PhD in neurochem and an academic career. Universities are great places for scholarship, silly for workplace training, i.e. grading people for the uni's true role in reproducing the class system. I wish 'Billy's bairn' the best of luck - we need her. Perhaps what is needed is a system of continual mutual nourishment between the abstract scholarshsip and the workplaces, at all levels, without access/grading being an issue. See, and maybe