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HE Power List 2017: People power

Power List judge Judy Friedberg discusses - from the election to the NSS boycott - the rise and rise of student power.
This article is more than 6 years old

Judy Friedberg is a former universities editor of The Guardian.

Of course, not all power comes from the top down, and this year – the year of the Donald – “people power” makes a pressing case for recognition on the Wonkhe power list.

In the case of higher education, “the people” are students and they are finding imaginative ways to flex a newly discovered political muscle.

Their most impactful display of strength thus far has been through the ballot box. Debunking stereotypes, they rallied in huge numbers behind Jeremy Corbyn (10th) in the recent election and shook the Labour Party to its core in the process.

Tuition fees, which had looked set to plod steadily ever upwards, landed back on the political table with an almighty thunk. Corbyn was clear, fees must fall.

Next thing we knew, a spectre slipped out of the shadows to twist the knife by declaring tuition fees so ‘politically diseased’ that regardless of who was in power, they would have to be killed off.

Andrew Adonis (21st) was back in town. Acknowledging that he had pretty much invented the system of fees and loans, he blamed the ‘opportunism and greed of vice chancellors’ for its failure, unleashing a storm of debate on Twitter and an epidemic of knitted eyebrows across universities.

But before students rattled the ballot box, they’d already found a more subtle way of undermining Tory politicians who were intent on opening up the higher education market place and setting fees free to soar. And that was by targeting (7th placed) Jo Johnson’s pet project, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Students were quick to spot the framework’s Achilles heel: it could only work by using scores from the National Student Survey (NSS) to approximate how well higher education businesses were meeting the needs of consumers. Themselves.

Unhappy with being used as part of a strategy to raise fees, many students stayed away.

Stats boffins will be able to massage the effects of their boycott for a year or so, but if there’s another bout of back-turning, it will have serious implications for both the Tef and university league tables.

The Clearing process has demonstrated student power too. With falling numbers of applicants from outside the country, the UK school-leaver is calling all the shots. Grade tariffs at most universities have been lowered to put bums on seats. But ever-expanding marketing teams are having a hard time convincing young people, especially boys, to go to uni at all.

The carrot may be wilting, but the stick is still strong: vocational options are under-funded and failing, and the jobs market is unwelcoming.

Students against the system

But the power struggle really gets going when students raise their voices against the system. And students are getting right up the noses of the establishment by changing the discourse around cultural identity and the ongoing impacts of colonialism and slavery (oh and the patriarchy, obvs).

While the right fulminates about snowflakes and statues, young people are working out how to draw up curriculums and run universities in ways that enrich and respect the lives of those who study in them.

Of course, they’re driving the rightwing media beserk. Brendan O’Neill of Spike musters an avalanche of insults for his Spectator piece: “Stepford students”, the  “youthful jackboots of the National Union of Students”,  and “the Stasi of student politics”, among them.

Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Mail, adds “a pernicious culture of narcissism and self-obsession”, “youthful prigs”, “precious little flowers” and “feminist weeping and wailing” to the pile.

But here, at the more reasoned end of the media spectrum, we watch with interest to see how the sector responds to the challenge posed by the new student activism. While acknowledging that the impetus for change often comes from fluid, leaderless, social-media-backed initiatives, we have chosen to recognise student power by including three influential named students in the power list.

At 25, we have two NUS officers: mould-breaking president Shakira Martin and racism specialist Amatey Doku, vice president for higher education. And arriving at 47, because she is just beginning her university studies in the UK, probably the most important youth leader in the world, Malala Yousafzsi.

See the full 2017 HE Power List on Wonkhe

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