Wonkhe 360: key messages for SUs

We’ve launched Wonkhe 360, a new report that explores the views of policy-engaged people working at the front line of higher education.

That’s academics, professional staff, people working in national sector agencies and even a few SU bods (if that’s you, then thank you!). It’s not a representative sample so it won’t predict the views of your vice chancellor or of the academics you work with. But it does give some insight into how thoughtful people are responding to policy.

There are clear messages in the report for national policymakers, for leaders and governors of higher education and for wonks – the people who actively like following the twists and turns of the policy environment and are passionate about influencing policy, recognising that it shapes all our lives.

But there are also some issues that students’ unions could be thinking about arising from the report.

Views of leaders versus everyone else

The potential outcome of the Augar review of post-18 education, which could result in funding cuts, Brexit, and the landscape for home and international recruitment are creating uncertainty across higher education. Some institutions are in better condition than others to cope with reductions in funding. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), NSS and graduate outcome data are featuring large on people’s list of potential concerns, because they are seen as affecting student recruitment. On the plus side, many universities are pursuing new partnerships and opportunities locally and internationally, and considering offering different types of courses.

When we compared the views of senior managers with everyone else we found that senior managers were much more likely to be optimistic about their organisation’s prospects for navigating a difficult policy environment. People working lower down universities were more anxious about the future, and were more likely to suggest that the quality of university leadership was a risk to the future success of their organisation. Some talked about staff redundancies and many said that staff were overworked and struggling with low morale.

Key messages:

  • SUs should be prepared for the consequences of reductions in funding – potential staff redundancies, cuts to the student experience, changes to courses.
  • Don’t assume the views of the senior team are reflected across the university – an idea or campaign that senior managers might embrace might be looked on with less favour among staff in general – make sure you’re explaining the value to everyone you need to get on board, not just the top team.

Views about students

A key issue coming out of the research was of the diversity of students – backgrounds, perspectives and support needs, something that is not always very well reflected in national policy narratives.

Many universities are grappling with the question of how to meet the needs of diverse students, what their responsibilities are, and what expectations students have of their university.

The only real way to answer that question is by engaging with the diversity of students both to uncover their expectations and beliefs about higher education, but also to make it clear what is expected of them, and identify and bridge where students beliefs about higher education are holding them back.

Key messages:

  • Students’ unions need to be able to create a vision for student success that is meaningful to all students, otherwise there is no student body to represent.
  • But it also needs to be OK for people’s patterns of engagement with the activities that flow from that vision to be very different.

The national policy debate

Respondents to the Wonkhe 360 survey felt the national policy debate had become aggressive, with attacks on universities, and a lack of mature debate. Initiatives are frequently imposed from government in a top-down way rather than in a way that engages with the people affected by the policy.

Key messages:

  • Students’ unions need to be bringing the student voice into the national policy debate. SUs conduct research, and have views about how to support students, but how frequently do those views get recognition beyond the individual university?
  • Better policy is made when the people affected have a say in how the policy is shaped. Although it can be difficult and time-consuming to keep up with national policy issues, there is the potential to make a difference and create a more accessible, inclusive policy debate.

Read or download the Wonkhe 360 report.

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