HE Power List 2016: The changing nature of power in a cynical world

The thirst for power, the corruption of those who hold it, and the tragedy of those who lose it are the basic plotlines of history. The balance of power plays a part in every relationship: personal, corporate or political. And since power is a relative concept – even those with absolute power fall eventually – lists of the powerful are a great source of debate and downright disagreement.

Power can be accumulated over a lifetime or lost in a moment, and its fleeting nature makes the HE Power List a compelling read. Our Power List reflects the many ways that power is expressed. Some of the entrants are there by virtue of their position. They’re the ones who set the rules, who apportion the resources and who can, if they choose, coerce other to follow them. Other entrants have a softer power built on willing support from different interest groups or an expert power that stems from exceptional ability in a chosen field. Most express their power in a variety of ways.

The individuals in our list don’t all see eye to eye, but collectively they embody the power of higher education in the UK. While universities have for a long time been subject to governmental oversight, they are powerful institutions in their own right, underpinning a strong economy and a thriving society, and increasingly seen by politicians as an effective soft power instrument of foreign policy.  Those who are powerful in the sector exert power beyond the sector too.

Of course a place among the powerful has its price. Power can command respect but it can also be held in contempt. Today, we are more suspicious than admiring of politicians and business leaders. A recent poll suggests just one in five of us (22%) trust government ministers to tell the truth. The media is more likely to associate power with greed and repression than responsibility and influence. And the media itself is hardly held in high regard.

But you don’t need a manic laugh and a budding team of henchmen to want power. Power is a license to get things done. Exactly what gets done – in a team, an institution, a country or the world – depends on where the power lies. And in a world where people are ever more cynical about the motives of the powerful, power needs to be won and expressed with more subtlety than was the case years ago.

Traditional command and control structures are increasingly fragile. New technologies bring transparency. Citizen journalism subjects the powerful to greater scrutiny so that one false move can bring them crashing down. And people don’t like to be strong armed down a particular path:  witness the result of the EU referendum, a slap in the face for the establishment.

In this environment, two types of power are more important than any other: the power of ideas to show people a vision of the future; and the power of persuasion to get the hard work done along the way. A talent for communication underpins both these notions; a gift increasingly important to the powerful around the world and something that connects the stars of the HE Power List today. Congratulations to them all.  May they put their power to good use before the wheel turns again.  And most importantly, may they keep their place in the HE Power List of 2017.

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