HE Power List 2016: If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity

For a period in June this year, it seemed every day was the most momentous day in the history of politics since the previous day. The outcome of the referendum on membership of the European Union, the initial shocks to the market, the resignation of the Prime Minister, the relatively quick (eventually uncontested) election of a new leader of the Conservative Party, and the appointment of a new Cabinet happened during a whirlwind of intrigue and drama.

The Labour Party has managed to conduct yet another summer of internal naval gazing and squabbling, with the imminent election of a leader. The vote looks set to deliver not just the same victor, but one with a very similar mandate to this time last year. You could ask what was the point, both of a contest or of Jeremy Corbyn, depending on your take on Labour’s travails.

For higher education the politics are significant. Not least because the Higher Education and Research Bill is making its way through Parliament, but also because it provides the crucial context and backdrop for the sector. It also has an important bearing on the movers and the shakers, the influencers whose decisions, preferences and prejudices can have a profound impact as to what goes on in our universities.

The political changes to the Power List mirror what has happened to the prospective fortunes of their respective political parties. The Conservatives have a greater stranglehold on the most influential positions, but out go the Cameroons and Osbornites (George Osborne himself and Sajid Javid slip out of the list altogether), and in come the new wave of May appointments, with the Prime Minister herself taking the top spot, David Davis leading the Brexit department in 3rd and our new Chancellor, ‘Spreadsheet’ Philip Hammond in at 5th.

In contrast, the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats have all but disappeared, a little like their credibility in the wider political world. The Scottish National Party feature higher than any representative of Labour (with John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in 28th position), whilst it is by some quirk of the Welsh electoral system that Kirsty Williams is now the only Lib Dem on the list (17th), with significant decisions to make on HE coming soon.. The highest Labour entry is at 41st, beleaguered leader Jeremy Corbyn. But he is only 6 places ahead of the backbench MP Wes Streeting (47th), who has a long standing relationship with the higher education sector as a former President of the National Union of Students. Streeting is proving to be the person that many in the sector are turning to as a pragmatic, thoughtful contributor from the opposition. It says more about the state of the Labour Party that Streeting is on the list and only a handful of places behind his party leader. It says even more than not a single other Labour front bencher features.

But perhaps more interesting than the rise of the Conservatives and the SNP, and the decent of Labour and the Lib Dems, is the relative prominence given to senior civil servants. A year where detail is important (the nature of Brexit negotiations, and the detail that will come from the HE and Research Bill) means that those charged with implementation have had a good year on our list. Oliver Robbins the lead Civil Servant for the new Brexit Unit (3rd), John Kingman the new head of UKRI (9th), Mark Carney (11th), Philippa Lloyd, the Director-General for HE &FE (14th), and Polly Payne and Ruth Hannant, the joint Directors for Higher Education (16th), are the key civil servants. They perhaps don’t have the public profiles many others on the list have, but these people hold the key to unlocking much of what is important in higher education.

Just over a year ago, Ed Miliband was sitting in the heady heights of 3rd, the Labour Party neck and neck with the Conservatives in the polls, and possibly on course to become Prime Minister. Wind the clock forward 18 months, and the picture couldn’t be more different. The world is a very different place, and so is the political composition of the 2016 list.

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