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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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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.