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HE Power List: an introduction

A short introduction to the 2015 HE Power List by its editor Mark Leach.
This article is more than 9 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Welcome to the 2015 Higher Education Power List, the first ever HE Power List and the first in what we hope will become an annual event for the sector.

Putting this together has been a fascinating process. There is of course no scientific way to measure power, so the best we could do was assemble an excellent collection of HE observers and thrash it out – both a framework for decision-making as well as the names and their placement. Policy influence has been the overriding theme through the process and given that is our main concern as a community concerned with higher education policy, it felt like the best place to start. As Mark Fuller says in his piece ‘under the influence’:

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.

You can find a full list of our judges on the right of our Power List page.

This year’s Power List refers only to power in English higher education, although of course many placed on the list are from outside the English higher education sector itself – a theme we will return to. We hope in subsequent editions to widen its scope to apply to HE systems in other parts of the UK.

Politicians vs the sector

It will not escape your notice that much of the Power List is dominated by politicians, particularly in the first half. For a sector that prides itself on its autonomy, it has been kicked around by politicians quite a bit recently. Sometimes resulting in positive measures where politicians have shown real leadership and ambition for universities. But sometimes the action has been for personal or ideological reasons that have ended up running counter to sector’s interests. The sector is still autonomous of course, but it feels like it’s becoming more susceptible to outside influence at home and abroad. This despite the declining state funding to universities and an increase of private contributions. Somebody should look in to that…

Rise of the wonks?

In a list that speaks very much to policy influence, there were always going to be a fair amount of wonks and it is pleasing to see the placement of some outstanding policy thinkers. Great wonks are valued by policy makers and politicians at all levels. But many of the wonks work behind the scenes in a way which people often don’t know about, which is why we’ve tried to unearth some of them for the list – to demonstrate their impact and relative influence on higher education. Sometimes profile can be mistaken for influence – although they are often related, we have to be careful to see the whole board.

The long arm of the Treasury

One of the striking things about the list is the amount of current or former employees of HM Treasury. It should not be underestimated how important the Treasury has been – and certainly still is under George Osborne. Treasury officials work across the range of government policy and often drive it themselves. They also have a variety of disciplines – it’s not just economists and bean counters. It is a political economy in its own right, and one which spreads its influence throughout our society in personnel as much as in thought.


I strongly recommend you read Andy Westwood’s analysis of why three figures from HE’s past feature so prominently on the Power List – they are of course Ron Dearing, Richard Haldane and Lionel Robbins.

Janet Beer who features at number 35 on the list writes on her political awakening, why women are under-represented on the list and why sector leaders need to keep their hand in the world of policy.

Mark Fuller sets out some of the machinations we had whilst putting the list together and explains why wonks and others need to know who has influence.

A new entry to the collection is this piece on the international influence on the list and why two foreign leaders beat our Prime Minister.

I hope you enjoy the Power List – let us know what you think: #HEpowerlist.

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