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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Yes, but what about the academic research?

by Steven Jones

Review of Influencing Higher Education Policy: A Professional Guide to Making an Impact, edited by Ant Bagshaw and Debbie McVitty (London: Routledge, 2020)

“The existence of Wonkhe won’t save us,” suggests Debbie McVitty (p13), “but it could be a good place to start.”

And so the tone is set for a new Routledge collection about HE ‘wonkery’, a relatively recent phenomenon that has doubtless changed the way in which the sector operates. Wonks are policy analysts, planners and strategists, and HE is blessed with more than its fair share. New policy development? Expect multiple ‘hot takes’ straight to your inbox. HE story in the mainstream media? Expect a range of insider perspectives that allow every possible angle to be explored. No more waiting for trade publications to drop through the letterbox, let alone for academic critiques to satisfy a journal’s peer review process. Thanks mostly to Wonkhe, we now have real-time analysis of everything that ever happens in HE.

In such a context, a book that explores the sector’s influence on policy is timely. Important questions need to be confronted. How can universities maintain integrity in an increasingly hostile regulatory and media environment? What does meaningful policy ‘impact’ look like? Which individuals or groups are most legitimately entitled to advocate on behalf of the sector? And, crucially, how can academic research evidence be communicated to those who most need to engage with it?

This collection, edited by Ant Bagshaw (Nous) and Debbie McVitty (Wonkhe) takes on some of these questions. It’s at its best when mapping legislative processes and regulatory frameworks, as William Hammonds and Chris Hale (both Universities UK) do, or comparing policy contexts, as Cathy Mitchell (Scottish Funding Council) does in relation to performance measurement. Anna Bradshaw (British Academy) and Megan Dunn (Greater London Authority) theorise the relationship between evidence and policy in valuable new ways, while Adam Wright (British Academy) and Rille Raaper (Durham University) perceptively characterise students’ framing within HE policy. Clare Randerson (University of Lincoln) enlightens readers on the OECD’s under-acknowledged role in HE policy-making, while Diane Beech’s (University of Warwick) chapter offers a useful guide to think-tanks, until spiralling into an advert for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, many questions remain unanswered. Partly, this is because some of the book’s contributors spend more time celebrating their own influence than critically evaluating the assumptions that underpin their proposed solutions. Indeed, many university staff will feel perplexed by McVitty’s opening assertion. Who is the ‘us’ that the existence of Wonkhe won’t save? What then makes Wonkhe a good place to start? And why does the ‘us’ need saving anyway?

This is not the sort of detail on which the book’s contributors tend to dwell. Rather, the style is choppy and pacey. In many chapters, soundbites are favoured over deeper reflection. Blunt recommendations (often bullet pointed and emboldened) are ubiquitous, generally urging ‘us’ to do things differently.

As usual in HE wonk discourses, academics hold a strange and curious place. Often we’re problematised. Sometimes we’re patronised. But mostly we’re just ignored. Rarely is it acknowledged that academic research might actually have anything useful to contribute. Universities are assumed to be desperately in need of some wonk savviness to overcome their policy naivety. Why would any institution turn to its own academic expertise when it can commission all-knowing external consultants? Scholarship isn’t part of the solution. If anything, it’s part of the problem.

Take Iain Mansfield’s (Policy Exchange) list of the “additional constraints” (p87) that he argues make policy influence tougher in HE than in other sectors. Among the subheadings presented is ‘left-leaning’. Here, academics and students are homogenised as anti-consumer, anti-rankings and generally difficult. There’s even a censorious mention of “cultural attitudes to issues such as class, race and gender” (p88). Another of Mansfield’s subheadings is ‘non-independence of research’. Here, the focus is academics’ perceived partiality. With so few scholarly sources cited, it is difficult to know on what evidence suspicion rests. However, the implication is clear: academics can’t be trusted to research themselves or their professional environment with objectivity. “Although any sector is subject to vested interests and unconscious bias,” Mansfield snipes, “only in HE are those same people writing the research” (p90).

Elsewhere in the collection, Josie Cluer (EYNews) and Sean Byrne (Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College) make the case that “only by understanding, predicting, and being ready for the Politics – with a capital P – will [wonks] be able to influence the policies that will support the sector to thrive.” Among the few examples offered is that of vice-chancellors’ pay. Here the implication is that the sector should have better managed recent negative media coverage that resulted in “a series of uncomfortable moments” (p22). While brand management matters greatly, and while the authors are right to suggest that some universities are suboptimal when it comes to shielding their reputation, the issue of senior pay is surely more nuanced than the single-paragraph analysis suggests. Being ‘ready for the Politics’ (with or without a capital P) requires universities to develop carefully thought-out internal policies, consistent with their claimed civic role and open to public scrutiny. The message implied by this book, in places, is that HE can continue its merry march toward the market, just so long as it remembers to buy in the right kind of spin.

Granted, the editors pre-empt some of these criticisms, emphasising that engagement with academic literature is not their priority, and that the collection essentially functions as a “professional guide” (p xvii). However, the analysis presented is often alarmingly thin. The first of Colette Fletcher’s (University of Winchester) five ‘lessons’ on how to influence policy – “have the confidence to be yourself” (p134) – captures something of the book’s tendency to drift into feelgood self-help rhetoric where close-up, critical analysis might be more appropriate.

Nonetheless, contributors are clearly satisfied that they have what it takes to save the sector. Everyone should get behind the wonks’ solutions, not least us pesky, prejudiced academics. Indeed, what Influencing Higher Education Policy arguably does best is highlight the growing challenge to the ways in which scholarly work is undertaken and disseminated. Wonkhe’s central role in bringing multiple perspectives to HE debates, usually in super-fast time, should be welcomed. But in such an environment, the book reminds us how easily academics and their research can be marginalised.

Without question, the UK HE sector needs to become better at influencing policy. Bagshaw is right to say we’ve relied on “benign amateurism” (p169) for too long. And without question, this collection includes several chapters’ worth of considered reflections and constructive recommendations. But elsewhere the book lapses into glib strategising where it could be reconnecting with universities’ core purpose. The best way to improve the sector’s standing is to ensure that it operates according to the highest possible ethical standards, and makes policy recommendations firmly grounded in empirical evidence.

One of the book’s contributors quotes Richard Branson to illustrates a policy point: “it’s amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with a smile” (p139). But who knows, perhaps it’s even more amazing what doors can open if you reach out to people with rigorous academic research?

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and he teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The views expressed here are his own.


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