The Society for Research into Higher Education

Image of Rob Cuthbert

Leave a comment

Wonkfest – where people know policy backwards

by Rob Cuthbert

Wonk A person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy

The etymology of ‘wonk’ is uncertain: I like to think (with no corroborating dictionary evidence whatsoever) that a wonk is someone who will ‘know’ something backwards. Unlikely to be etymologically true, but nevertheless a good description of the 600 or so participants at the third Wonkfest on 4-5 November 2019, the annual event organised by WonkHE (“the home of HE policy, bringing the sector together through expert analysis”). The assembled wonks came from HE institutions and hundreds of other organisations with an interest in HE policy. SRHE is one such organisation, with an SRHE-supported session considering ‘How do we build a research agenda for HE policy?’.

Wonks may know policy backwards, but how well do they know the research? The answer lies on a spectrum stretching from zero to hero in research terms. As the designated explorer from the SRHE enterprise I boldly went looking for research awareness, seeking stars as I trekked the Wonkfest venue. Policy conferences are always prey to political emergencies, and the just-announced general election, along with Parliament’s election of a new Speaker, robbed the conference of not only Wes Streeting, NUS leader turned Labour MP, billed for the opening panel session, but also HE Minister Chris Skidmore, unable to attend as the mid-conference star turn. But Wonkfest is a cavalcade of networking opportunities with a galaxy of talent, and the Minister’s absence caused hardly a hiccup, with John Kingman talking about UKRI, Shirley Pearce saying as much as she could about TEF, given continuing delay in laying her long-finished report before Parliament, and US statistics legend Nate Silver causing a flurry of excitement among the worshipping wonks in the closing session.

The Wonkfest programme featured, as you might expect, a decent diet of data-driven sessions, some primers on pay and pensions, finance, marketing and governance, and a healthy set of sessions posing diversity challenges – Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City) leading ‘I’m not racist, but …’, sessions on ‘Tackling on-line harassment’, ‘Building a trans-inclusive education’ and more. Globalisation, the value of a university and university education, digital learning, the student experience and student wellbeing were all present and to be expected as features of the policy landscape. Artificial intelligence at work in universities sat uneasily alongside the perhaps toxic environment for the research workforce, with the almost surprising ‘I, vice-chancellor: exploring humanity in HE leadership’ even more surprisingly fronted by a headhunter.

Where was the research in all this? Pushing through everywhere, but often in unexpected places. Best of all the sessions I attended, for its high-level theorised and research-informed approach, was ‘Is “fake news” fake news? And what should universities be doing about it?’, led by Helen Beetham, Jennifer Jones and Penny CS Andrews, three academics all billed as independent researchers, without institutional affiliations, and enjoying the different freedoms that independence confers. This seemed significant, coming for example after Bristol University earlier this year distanced itself from the now-challenged claims of ‘honorary research associate’ Gerard Cheshire about decoding the Voynich manuscript – fake news? – after first proudly claiming the discoverer as its own. Perhaps I was unduly sensitised after the Wonkfest session on the ethics of marketing …

As for ‘How do we build a research agenda for HE policy?’, those attending thought they could see gaps in research: on the hostile environment created by those three stooges REF, TEF and KEF; on the student voice and how to give it due weight; on student expectations of university, and employer expectations of graduates, and more. Whether there are indeed gaps in research, or rather gaps in how the research is communicated, is a moot question. The usual lament of researchers into HE is that policy makers are not taking enough account of the research evidence, but it may be that HE as a policy sphere is comparatively blessed in this respect, thanks in no small way to the work of WonkHE and think tanks like HEPI, whose director Nick Hillman was much in evidence at the Fest. However it may also be that wonks bringing research and policy together are, like politicians, unduly focused on the short term, with blogs and briefing notes as the wonks’ weapons of choice. For a more balanced perspective you can always rely on the SRHE Research Conference – at Celtic Manor, December 11-13 2019.

What do you call someone who knows the research backwards? Oh yes, an academic.

Academic (n) A person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of a subject (adj) of no practical importance.

Rob Cuthbert is emeritus professor of higher education management and editor of SRHE News and the SRHE Blog. He has worked in colleges, universities, national agencies and government as an academic, manager, consultant and policy adviser.

Image of Rob Cuthbert

Leave a comment

#AbolishOxbridge (or, the Survival of the Elitists)

by Rob Cuthbert

It started as just a crazy idea proposed by a few naive idealists, mostly privately-schooled Oxbridge graduates, a motion never likely to get onto the main conference agenda. But with the HE party dominated by guilt-ridden privately-schooled Oxbridge graduates, not only did it ‘gain traction’, as they say in the mainstream media, it was stiffened up as it moved closer and closer to adoption.

On the surface it had a lot of appeal. Most prime ministers went to Balliol College, Oxford, most spies went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Oxbridge seemed to be wealthier than the rest of HE put together. Let’s share it all out more fairly. What’s not to like?

There was a problem with some of the proposed amendments. First of all was the one proposing to #AbolishTheRussellGroup instead. After all, the Russell Group had a lot more money than the rest of HE, even if they didn’t have the endowments to show for it. Clearly the amendment was more egalitarian than the original motion, so it was a bit hard to argue against, but a lot of people did, mostly the ones who hadn’t got jobs at Oxbridge but worked in the Russell Group. They developed lots of superficially persuasive arguments about how much more accessible the Russell Group was, especially nowadays. Or at least, how much more polished their Access and Participation Plans were nowadays. The opponents of the amendments were however hamstrung by the support of their trade union, the, er, Russell Group, which had always existed solely to promote and defend the elitist excellence of their members and put out documents about their members with titles like The Jewel in the Crown.

The #AbolishTheRussellGroup proposers were a mixed bunch, but obviously in a more declassé way. Most were from the rest of HE: fuelled by a mix of egalitarianism, guilt and resentment, quite a few had Oxbridge degrees, but most of them were graduates of Russell Group universities. (So, not very declassé then.) It looked at first as if they might carry their amendment on the HE conference floor, even despite the block votes from UUK and the Russell Group, because they already had a well-oiled, if small and frugal, machine, long dedicated to complaining about the unfairness of resource distribution in HE. They even had their own hashtag, #MillionPlus. And they gained support in the end from the Alliance group, who as usual spent a lot of time, Frost Report style, wondering whether to look up or look down, before choosing sides.

But then they had a shock from an unexpected quarter. The NUS, which had already shown its unreliability by electing leaders who weren’t even in HE, put forward its own amendment, #AbolishHE. They wanted to replace HE with #TertiaryEducation. After all, HE had a lot more money than FE and what was sometimes called vocational training. (As a term of implicit denigration, that obviously did not apply to things like medicine and the law, but only to those far below the salt.) Clearly the NUS amendment was even more egalitarian than #AbolishTheRussellGroup, so it was a bit hard to argue against, but a lot of people did. They developed lots of superficially persuasive arguments about how important it was to maintain standards in HE and how much more money HE needed than FE as a consequence. Or at least, how much more expensive HE buildings were than FE colleges, and how much harder it was to work in HE than FE, even though FE teachers had bigger teaching loads.

The proposers of #AbolishHE were however hamstrung by the infighting on their own side. The International Secondaryists wanted to amend the amendment so as to support #PostSecondaryEducation, with a moderate faction, Supporters Of the Further Tendency (SOFT) left arguing for #FurtherEducation. It all meant that the support for #AbolishHE was hopelessly split; #AbolishTheRussellGroup carried the day, and the party executive were charged with working up detailed policy proposals. It turned out there were some quite well-argued proposals already out there:

“… it is regarded as normal and preferable that a young person who does achieve top grades at school should avoid the universities that are less selective. Yet there is no reason for doing this based on any systematic differences in teaching quality or the likelihood of completing or obtaining a good degree classification once student background is taken into account. We instead appear to be in a world based on snobbery and discrimination rather than evidence, which is socially damaging and could be producing worse educational outcomes overall.” So the idea of comprehensive universities only needed to overcome the same problem as #AbolishEton, which was how to prevent the creation of middle class enclaves around some universities, sustained by house prices beyond the reach of all but the privileged and comparatively few. A bit like the status quo, only less transparent. But the HE party hadn’t yet worked out how to abolish the HE market, and abolishing the housing market looked a lot harder; even #AbolishEton hadn’t got past that one, so the party executive decided that they needed something different. They wondered if Meritocracy (rebranded, obviously: they didn’t want anyone looking too closely at the original) might suffice? At least to deal with the 50% who weren’t in HE.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics