How greater capacity, coherence, and capability would improve HE’s public affairs

Everyone knows the times they are a-changing.

Pick your topic: Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populism; culture wars and expert-induced nausea; minority governments and major reviews; VC pay and free speech. Something must be done: action is required, often urgently.

But, what’s far less obvious is what it is universities should actually do about such things? Moves towards greater transparency and evidence, accompanied by increasingly tribal politics, means battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm to blow over is a riskier strategy than ever.

Understanding underpinning action

More and more institutions are developing their public affairs capabilities in response. That requires thoroughly understanding the ever-changing context, having a clear organisational strategy, and then engaging with external stakeholders to shape that environment.

This doesn’t just involve passively digesting and summarising what’s happening, though that’s an important starting point, this is about proactively getting stuck in to try and change things.

Good evidence is essential, but alone it’s insufficient. You also need powerful narratives, tailored to different audiences. And perhaps most importantly you need a strong team because policy stubbornly remains a contact-sport of human-to-human interaction.

Some institutions outsource such activities externally, through public affairs agencies, mission groups, and others. Here at Wonkhe we do our best to keep everyone across the sector (and beyond) informed and occasionally entertained. But, more and more institutions are also building their own in-house capacity – enter the wonks.

Public affairs is a key tool in a wonks’ arsenal, as they get out there to meet the people, learn the issues, and make the case. Timely then, that this Thursday will see University UK’s political affairs in higher education forum, with speakers from Number 10, the education select committee, the press, and others.

Responding to consultations, reacting to events, and avoiding some of the stupider ideas coming out of government is all part of the job. But it’s also a chance to set a strategy and pro-actively pursue it.

As our first Wonk Panel Survey revealed last week, wonks are a highly diverse bunch, bearing a range of job titles, seniority levels, and responsibilities. But, the increasing volume, variety, and velocity of the issues universities have to deal with, means that their power is growing – and with good reason.

Capacity, coherence, and capability

Three things would help advance this agenda further.

First, the higher education sector needs to up its public affairs game. Too often it’s only effective at lobbying within its own sphere of influence. It argues with itself over the minutiae of some esoteric three letter acronym or gets frustrated by focussing too much on political theory. This isn’t good enough. There’s a big bad world out there with issues that people care more about (the NHS, schools) and can make sense of more easily (conflict with Russia, leave or remain). Whether it’s competing for public funding or public trust, the sector needs to extend its capacity and be more effective. If it can’t decide what it wants and what it’s going to focus on – how can it engage and convince the average person on the street of its value? America provides a stark example of what can happen if the sector starts to lose the battle for large swathes of the public’s heart.

Which leads to the second issue, coherence. Yes, there may be situations when it might make sense to compete over a student, a contract, or a policy. But there are many others where it doesn’t. The sector is incredibly collegiate and collaborative when it comes to professional networks, academic disciplines or niche topics of interest. But, when it comes to big policies, it remains woefully divided. Again, this is about understanding who the competition really is, and what the grand strategy should be. I would argue this requires prioritisation. Which issues will be focused on? And which dropped? Finding agreement around a couple of key things would help bring the sector together and marshall its considerable energies.

Finally, the higher education sector should continue to develop its public affairs capabilities. That requires money, strategy, and talent – including experienced people from other sectors. It can also deploy those abilities locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. You may need more engagement in Cardiff, Westminster, Stormont or Edinburgh, but there’s likely to be a world of other policymaking happening closer to home, and far further afield too.

The sector isn’t good enough at telling its own stories, despite all of the amazing things it achieves. This doesn’t mean each academic now needs to be fantastic at research, teaching, knowledge exchange, public engagement, and policy impact. But it does mean every institution does.

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