Ten years ago a group of higher education policy people gathered at the University of Plymouth for the inaugural Lighthouse Policy Group meeting.
Rather tongue in cheek, the group is so named, in the spirit of the Russell Group and the 1994 Group origin stories, because the Plymouth Hoe lighthouse is a prominent feature of Plymouth city centre, and because we “shine a light” on higher education policy and the policy officers who work within it.
Meet the wonks
We have grown from eight members in 2010 to around 50 members today. When our group was born it was quite a new trend for vice chancellors to have policy advisers. Since then the numbers have grown and roles have diversified to include “executive officer”, “strategic advisor” or even “chief of staff”.
The role has many facets and there is not one single way to construct it. But our members have been at the forefront of horizon scanning external changes and trends across the sector and helping to translate that into action within HE institutions. Though often sole agents, our work with other parts of the university – planning, public affairs, admissions, strategy, or governance – is crucial to the impact we have.
We have become essential in light of the phenomenal change in the higher education sector especially in the English and Welsh context. We have seen higher education white papers and legislation, and changes to higher education funding and finance. Contentious policy debates over immigration, free speech and, of course, Brexit have shaped the public perception of our institutions.
One of the biggest challenges members have faced is helping their universities navigate the creation of the new regulator, the Office for Students. A brand new regulatory body is a challenge for any sector and trying to map that on to the governance of a university was always going to be difficult. Lighthouse Policy Group members played an instrumental role prior to the establishment of the OfS responding to consultations and proposing amendments to legislation, including for the inclusion of the diversity of students – part-time, mature, students with disabilities – to be included in definitions.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about responding to consultations and external requirements. There certainly is a fair amount of consultation across all the areas of policy, and a constant stream of requests from government and a variety of sector bodies. But a policy wonk also undertakes a great deal of work within their institution too, and most important of all is their privileged relationship with their VC. As their right hand and sounding board, with a cross-institutional remit, they get involved with all sorts of institutional initiatives.
What we do for fun
Over the years our meetings, which are held at different university campuses, have primarily been for networking and peer support. However, they have attracted a number of speakers from think-tanks, local authority figures, academics, and senior politicians wishing to discuss and debate ideas with the group – these include Lord Kerslake, Lord Willetts, Lord Bassam, Nick Hillman, Rachel Wolf, and Andy Westwood.
One of our strengths has been to include policy people from across the sector, regardless of institution type or geography. We have had members attending from private providers, and we are pleased to say colleagues from Northern Ireland have taken an increasing interest in the group.
In those ten years there is now a veritable army of policy wonks in the sector. The Lighthouse Policy Group too has evolved. It continues to provide that support network to its members, the mailing list buzzes whenever there is a new announcement, and it continues to provide opportunities to hear from external speakers on a range of relevant topics. For our tenth anniversary we’re hearing from Jason McCartney, a past member who is now MP for Colne Valley, and a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities.
In that time we have also forged links with North American institutions through the NAPAHE network. In the past few years Lighthouse Group members have attended their Annual Conference in Washington DC and Philadelphia.
These international and cross-sector links are important as in North America the role of policy adviser and trusted confidante is much more mature in their institutions and even smaller, private institutions will have a chief of staff or executive officer to the President, which cover this horizon scanning role and is much more distinct than a purely administrative role.
As has been seen over a number of years universities in the developed world have been facing similar challenges over funding, freedom of speech, regulatory burden and growing student consumer rights. One priority for the future would be to expand our networking with groups outside of North America to include Australia and New Zealand as they are comparable systems to ours in the UK in the way that continental European universities are not.
If you are a policy wonk in an institution, and not yet a member, get in touch to find out more about the group.
If you are thinking about a change of career and fancy a central role at the right hand of a vice chancellor then the life of a policy wonk might just be the right choice for you. Why not drop one of us a line?