HE Power List 2016: Influence of alternative sector grows

Where does power lie? Sometimes this is question relatively straightforward (e.g. The Prime Minister…) but once you move away from decision makers to influencers (around the early twenties of this year’s list) it becomes more difficult to answer.

How could the judging panel really tell who made the all-important contribution in a meeting or private briefing that helped shape or change policy? We couldn’t, which is why we made an educated guess. We based our judgements on factors such as who had access, who used their high profile to influence government effectively, and who focussed on a particular policy was ultimately adopted. It is not a science. It is subjective. And it’s a lot of fun.

The challenge for the panel was all the more apparent when we discussed the government’s agenda to open up higher education to new alternative providers. Had anyone really pushed the government towards a policy it was already predisposed to implement?

After careful consideration, we concluded that there were influencers in this area, but each are new voices for a new wave of alternative provision. The 2015 Power List featured individuals who had influenced the Coalition’s policies to support private providers. Carl Lygo, Vice Chancellor of BPP University, made the list as the leading voice of private providers whose institution benefited significantly under the David Willetts era.

But in the eighteen months since the last Power List, much has changed. Whilst the likes of BPP and the University of Law were the beneficiaries of the last government, Jo Johnson’s reforms are aimed at helping smaller and more specialised institutions compete with existing players. That’s not to say that the government has a different view of the likes of BPP, but institutions such as the new engineering university in Hereford, University Campus Suffolk and the New College of the Humanities (the ‘Byron Burgers’ of the alternative provider world) are whom this new phase of opening up the sector is aimed at helping. Consequently Lygo has been replaced by the leading advocates for reforming the regularity landscape to support small alternative providers.

Top of the list is HEPI Director Nick Hillman (32nd) who has consistently argued for a “level playing field” for new institutions. As David Willetts’s special adviser, Hillman argued in government that reforms implemented by the Coalition required changes to the regulatory framework to support innovation and safeguard standards, but was frustrated when attempts to introduce a higher education bill were blocked.

When he left government and took over at HEPI, he wrote Unfinished Business?: Higher Education Legislation. Hillman highlighted “eight pinch points” where different rules had emerged for different higher education providers. Hillman has been one of the leading commentators arguing for a higher education bill.

As someone who (unlike a representative of an alternative provider) has an element of autonomy to his advocacy, his voice was all that stronger. Indeed many of Jo Johnson’s proposed reforms focus on areas such as degree awarding powers and access to the state loan system that Hillman tackled in Unfinished Business.

Also on the list is Alex Proudfoot (34th), chief executive of Independent Higher Education. Renamed and reformed from predecessor body Study UK, Independent HE is now a membership organisation and lobby group entirely focused on supporting alternative higher education providers. Proudfoot and the Independent HE executive had a powerful role in shaping the Higher Education and Research Bill. Their growing power was evident in early September, when Proudfoot and Paul Kirkham, the managing director of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, were given equal footing with representatives of UUK when giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee.

Whilst the growing prominence of the alternative sector can be seen in the 2016 Power List, the only leader of a private provider that made it on the list is Sir Anthony Seldon (35th). Seldon was included for the leading role he has played in supporting the government’s teaching reforms, as well as the profile he has acquired across the media as a commentator on education (rather than for any particular advocacy of the alternative sector). He may be a one-off, but 2016 is unlikely to be a one-off for the growing influence of the alternative sector.

Questions remain over whether one person or organisation can effectively represent such a diverse group of providers. But if they carefully navigate the tricky (and often conflicting) tasks of raising their external profile whilst strengthening their access within the corridors of power, Independent HE and the leading figures of the alternative sector will increase their power in the coming years.

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