HE policy influence – an emerging profession

Our new book, Influencing higher education policy: a professional guide to making an impact published by Routledge brings together insight from many voices across the UK higher education sector on the changing policy landscape for higher education, and how universities might respond.

Featuring contributions from a host of names – many of which will be very familiar to readers of Wonkhe – working in governments, think tanks, sector organisations, universities and international agencies, we’ve sought to look at higher education policy influence from as many perspectives as possible.

Insiders and outsiders

In the last decade, there has been a shift in the way policy is made and the positioning of the potential policy actors in the higher education sector, including higher education leaders, students, staff and professional policy wonks.

Broadly, we believe we can characterise the difference as a shift from policy being made by and on behalf of universities, by informed insiders, with the aim of enabling universities to flourish in their collective mission, to a model in which disparate universities are imagined as always at risk of failing in their duty to students, and in contributing to national wellbeing. The value and success of universities is no longer a given.

The language of the new regulator for English universities, the Office for Students, reflects this shift: for example in its public characterisation of the “spiralling” issue of grade inflation, its announcement that it will not intervene to bail out a provider in financial difficulty, or its repeated assertions that it will be prepared to intervene if it believes universities are not sufficiently addressing problems, including those relating to student welfare, formerly well beyond the scope of the funding council.

There are many social forces in play, explored further in the book, including the populist turn in politics, which tends to foment mistrust in institutions, government policies (and demographic trends) that have allowed some universities to grow at the expense of others, and the encouragement of new higher education providers to compete on equal terms with established universities.

The rise of social media must also be acknowledged, which makes organisations more vulnerable in all sorts of ways, primarily by creating the conditions for a simple bad news story to become a public relations crisis much more rapidly than in the past.

Professionalising influence

A key thread in our book is the increasing professionalisation of university external engagement, public affairs and policy analysis. This relatively young profession of university external relations is, ironically, faced with the challenge of navigating a rapidly changing influencing environment, and developing competencies that might not have been needed ten years ago, in a relatively more benign policy environment.

The first of these is effective reputation management – while it may seem unfair given the enormous contribution universities make to society, the democratisation of media means that no individual or organisation is afforded an automatic right to be heard. Clarity of organisational values and the ability to evidence these in actions and behaviour are crucial.

An associated skill is the ability to communicate authentically and in ways that build public trust. In an era of rapid communication, this is very far from the carefully crafted corporate press release. In fact, anything that smacks too much of “crafting” is instantly suspicious.

Universities should want to be seen, as Ant puts it, “as an engaged party with knowledge, insight, and capabilities which can be of use to other actors in the system”. Having ideas, and knowing which of those ideas might be interesting to others is central to being seen this way.

In our respective time at Wonkhe, we have been struck by how anodyne some university corporate communications can be, compared with the less polished but much more dynamic and engaging voices of individuals working in those universities.

Internally to institutions, it’s necessary to have the ability to draw together disparate lines of evidence, expert views and researcher interests and connect these to the relevant policy issue and policymakers, to get the best value from influencing efforts. Some well-resourced universities have policy institutes that undertake this work; others have a single, hard-pressed member of professional staff.

No matter the size of the team involved, public affairs and policy professionals must decide, or advise leaders, which issues are a priority and have the flexibility to adapt these in light of a fast-moving policy environment. They must also maintain a balance between reacting to external threats to the institution’s mission or reputation, and pursuit of the institution’s own policy agenda and ideas.

All of this is in addition to having a grip of the policy issues, and the technical knowhow to work with policymakers, as well as the pragmatism to recognise the variety of other voices and influences those policymakers are subjected to. Though the environment has changed, wasting people’s time is still the besetting sin of influencing attempts, and the necessity of having a concrete, deliverable “ask” still the golden rule.

Is there a sector?

Though convention demands that we continue to refer to the UK higher education “sector”, it’s debatable whether universities and higher education providers should consider themselves to have shared interests, and continue to associate collectively for the purposes of policy influencing.

The mission groups and – to a lesser extent – the representative bodies are grappling with defining their roles in the changing environment. The hostility of the external environment demands that higher education makes itself as powerful as possible through forging a shared policy agenda, and putting aside the cosmetic differences between different providers.

On the other hand, each provider must be pragmatic about which policy issues are most important, and local and regional influencing may be more fruitful than attempting to engage with national policymakers.

We see the value of mission groups in particular as acting as a catalyst for the production and dissemination of policy ideas. Though there is no reason why universities should not create ad hoc networks around particular policy agendas – and to some extent this is facilitated by representative bodies.

Where collective representation fails is in the dilution of policy ideas to the lowest common denominator. Whether the policy actor is an individual, an institution or a collective representative of institutions, failing to cut through in a crowded market for ideas is the worst possible outcome.

We have edited this book to help inform and shape the debates about higher education policymaking. It provides a valuable resource for anyone with an interest in the health of universities, sector organisations and the landscape of policymaking.

Find out more about the book and buy your copy here.

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