HE Power List: under the influence?

One way or another, what happens over the next few weeks is bound to be another turning point for higher education. The era of ring-fenced science funding, £9k fees, crackdowns on migration and all the rest of it is going to give way to…well, we’re not quite sure yet. Some things will stay the same, others will change, but the future shape of the overall HE policy package is anyone’s guess at this stage.

All of which make it a good time to question who holds influence. There is no concrete, scientific way of quantifying influence over policy – policymaking is an inherently messy affair of compromise and accommodation. Anyone looking to track a rational process needs to check their academic rigor at the door. But, drawing on the insights of some well-informed players from across the sector, the HE Power List takes a decent stab at it.

So what are the criteria for measuring policy influence? I think that ‘power’ and ‘interest’ are as good as any. Who has the power to allocate resources and set the rules, or to force the hands of those that do? And who has interest enough in the sector to get involved? Taking these two criteria as a starting point allows us to think about the credentials of some potential Power List candidates.

Take the political classes. While David Cameron has officially had the final hand on the policy lever, you could argue that David Willetts’ obvious appreciation of the sector’s quirks and complexities has put him in the driving seat over the past few years. But how dependent was Willetts on George Osborne’s ability to write cheques? Or Vince Cable’s running of BIS? Or Theresa May’s stubbornness over student visas? Or, counter-intuitively, Nick Clegg’s ability to convince enough of his party to vote against a campaign trail pledge?

Looking forward, how much of what happens next will be down to Ed Miliband’s power (and motivation) to make student fees a doorstep issue? Or Ed Balls’ ability to ensure the sums add up? And are the likes of Liam Byrne and Greg Clark interested enough to get into the nitty gritty of the likes of PGT and R, or the next REF, not to mention the ever expanding RAB charge?

What about the sector itself? UUK did well to put the sector’s long term funding needs at the top of the news agenda a couple of months ago, and arguably shifted a few lines of Labour’s £6k fees announcement as a result. But how much was this down to the current President, Chief Executive or a few key board members? The likes of Exeter’s Steve Smith and Birmingham’s David Eastwood enjoy high profiles in the sector, but does this translate into the ability to have their calls taken in the corridors of power? And while students may be at the heart of the system, has the NUS’ ‘free education’ position betrayed a disinclination to take part in formal processes?

And of course, there are the wonks. Week after week the pages of this very website have been filled with the thoughts and analysis of think tankers, mission groupers and university officers. But have any of them done enough to force issues up the policy agenda? Have any wanted to?

Interesting questions. As the HE Power List judging panel found, the answers are not as obvious as they sometimes appear. You may not agree with the final list – indeed, we sincerely hope it starts some vigorous debate – but it is as decent an account as yet exists on where power and interest over HE policy sits.

The challenge going forward won’t be to simply identify who the HE policy influencers are but to steer their decisions in positive directions. As I mentioned at the start, there’s going to be a lot up for grabs over the next year and there are no doubt more than a few Wonkhe readers who would like to like to play a part in proceedings. In this age of impact I’m often called on to help academics step into the policy making arena. My advice more often than not starts with the same tip: be useful.

Just about every name on the list you’ll see on the list has their own agenda. It could be nothing more than the pursuit of good policy, or include a healthy dollop of self-interest. Those able to spot who’s motivations connect with their own, and convincingly map out a shared route to success, could have a considerable influence over the future of HE and see their own names appear on future Power Lists.

Read the 2015 HE Power List in full

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