At the time we published the last two Power Lists, we commented on a big change between 2015 and 2016, but we never expected that 2017 would shake things up so much more. An unexpected and inconclusive snap general election has weakened the power of government to make policy – implementation (not least of the Higher Education and Research Act) continues, which means that a very different set of actors hold real power.
For the first time, we have a bonafide wonk at the top, and genuine policy expertise seems to have replaced political office as a path to the head of the power table. If people had enough of experts in 2016, a year on sees experts needed more than ever. A new set of actors in key sector roles has seen appointments made on the basis of capability rather than PR. As a group who like to see higher education taken seriously this is to be welcomed.
But the issues we thought HERA had put to bed for a generation still seem to be in play. It’s a myth that Corbyn-mania was driven by Labour promises on fees and student debt (voters consistently say that issues like the NHS and Brexit were more important to them when asked), but the perception means that all parties are now jockeying to show populist credentials to bring out the young on polling day. The Chancellor the Exchequer appears to be readying policy to address the clamour over fees since the election and the Robert Halfon-led House of Commons Education Committee inquiry into value for money in HE will be required viewing this winter
Commentators like Anthony Seldon and Andrew Adonis have kept universities in the headlines over the summer, helped along by Jo Johnson’s rhetoric on vice chancellor pay – which he knows will always generate headlines. The response from mainstream institutional leaders is only just starting to warm up. This, again, is populism and nothing more, though we may be reaching a tipping point as the background noise of media commentary appears to be spilling over in to hard policymaking. Confusing the signal and the noise is a common failure of politicians.
Meanwhile, in the rarefied circles of ‘pure’ wonkery the findings of the IFS and others have highlighted that the technocratic solutions of the post-Browne settlement are not bringing about the expected benefits. Suddenly, markets are looking unwieldy and the pendulum has swung back to the interventionists – a theme that the forthcoming Conservative Party conference and Budget will no doubt amplify.
As in previous years, there are some wildcards on the list – people who have power through influence rather than influence through power. You may not want to get close to some of them – but their contribution to ongoing debates is undeniable.
Looking ahead, it appears the sector is at war – not just among itself in an increasingly competitive marketplace – but with public opinion and those who are seeking to drive a wedge between universities and the nation they serve. It seems we’ve reached a fork in the road: the tension about which path we’ll be taken down will dominate the next year for every university. We hope the list will act as a useful guide to anyone trying to navigate this unusual – and dangerous territory for UK higher education.
As ever, the list reflects the purely subjective judgement of our outstanding judging panel, and as editor, I take sole responsibility for any errors, omissions (or bruised egos).
See the full 2017 HE Power List on Wonkhe