When the current wave of poor publicity started to hit in 2016, many in the sector argued that it would pass.
“Keep calm and carry on” was the message muttered in the Athenaeum. But headlines over grade inflation, VC pay, freedom of speech, unconditional offers and £9k fees have continued unabated. What felt like a blip has arguably settled into something much more worrying for the sector.
Amid this sea of negativity, power has shifted again this year from those playing the game to those writing its rules. What used to be seen as VC “big beasts” have been cowed by marketisation missteps, and embarrassment over their pay and a need to avoid direct responsibly for industrial strife. Stepping into that vacuum is an Office for Students that has started to find its feet – visibly and publicly replacing a cosy funding council of yesteryear with rules and risk-based regulation. It’s no accident that its leadership features prominently in the Power List 2018.
A year ago we might also have been surprised to see the boss of a statistics agency at the top of the tree. HE has largely escaped the austerity faced by other public services in recent times via an accounting treatment that made the removal of the numbers cap possible. But the growing realisation (spurred by some superb journalism from Andrew McGettigan) that this is deeply problematic has made their emerging position on the alternatives the defining issue in the post-18 review – likely even delaying the report from the independent panel beyond Christmas. Any shift of the public subsidy involved in student loans moving onto the balance sheet will make HE more exposed to public spending pressures. And with Brexit looming and another a spending review due, a sector awash with poor publicity may struggle to hold its own.
Other traditional power bases also came under pressure this year. The USS pensions dispute may only have hit part of the sector, but the impact of passionate and social media savvy academic activism on the leadership of universities, UUK, and UCU was significant and signals a difficult year to come for industrial relations. Meanwhile, the pressure on the sector to contribute to post-Brexit economic growth continues, with many on our list leading the public debate on apprenticeships, skills, industrial strategy, and R&D. Expect their influence to grow further as March 2019 gets closer.
Land of contrasts
We caught a little bit of flak last year for our failure to include the minister responsible for HE in the Scottish Government. And we’ve done it again this year, not least because we spent the nearly the entire summer without one. It’s not a shortage of things that need doing in Scotland – there’s a clear case to improve the student maintenance offer, for example – there’s just a lack of people with the willingness to do it.
In contrast it’s all going on in Wales – as Diamond is done, the attention turns to Hazelkorn and implementing the architecture of a new tertiary education system. But it’s happening in an orderly fashion under a capable and well-respected minister. There’s less drama, but from an English perspective that feels like a very good thing right now.
At the end of the day we might question whether “power” is the right term for our list – plenty of our top fifty would privately argue that they are not nearly as powerful as they might look, and in a sector characterised by distributed leadership it is usually the decisions of professional services staff, academics, and students that make the real difference to daily life in higher education. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the responsibilities held by this top fifty seriously. The stewardship on offer from our protagonists can have a profound effect on the future of the sector, and we trust that decisions will be taken both with care and with staff, students, and society firmly in mind.
As ever, the Power List is not a scientific exercise and no metrics or algorithms have been deployed to justify our decisions – this is a purely and unashamedly subjective exercise. And while I am hugely grateful for the contributions of our judging panel and team at Wonkhe, as editor I take full responsibility for the final outcome and any cross words spoken by those that have moved up, down or off the list this year.