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Power List 2018: How has the nature of power and influence changed?

Powerlist judge Robin Middlehurst looks beyond HE to asks whether the very nature of power has changed.
This article is more than 5 years old

Robin Middlehurst is a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe and a former Professor of Higher Education at Kingston University.

Earlier this month Adam Boulton argued – just ahead of party conference season, that “negativity, uncertainty and division rule in Britain today. Political leaders, parties and people have no idea in which direction they are heading and whose hands will be on the helm tomorrow”. Could Boulton also have been describing the state of higher education in 2017-18?

Negativity, uncertainty and division were words that featured a lot in this year’s Wonkhe Power List panel conversation. We discussed the negativity of media coverage and political commentary about HE over the past year, the fragmentation and segmentation of the sector and sector bodies, and a vacuum in leadership at the top.

The issues that have made media headlines have been well-rehearsed in the pages of Wonkhe and elsewhere: student debt and students’ mental health; VC’s inflated pay and the gender pay gap; incidents of sexual harassment of students and staff; freedom of speech or lack of it; the declining value of degrees and value for money of higher education provision; the USS pension deficit, strike action and on-campus divisions; challenges to admissions’ policies and wider inequalities in higher education. In addition, there has been the rolling calendar of contentious strategic and operational issues from fees and funding to REF, TEF and nephew, KEF.

Another void?

The conversation surrounding the construction of the Power List was for me more interesting than a matter of deciding on the list itself. It reflected different views of what has been important over the past year, both in the foreground, and with longer-term potential significance. After a discussion of context, we got to everyone’s opinions about who should be up or down in the list. This year, we argued a lot about whether there were any key players worthy of a top-ten listing (and wondered if we could find as many as fifty names), and we really struggled with the number one slot.

Some of us thought there should be a void at the top, symbolising views of current leadership in the sector, others disagreed. But the struggle we had led to a more profound discussion about the nature of power and influence in higher education, and whether this was shifting. Our conversation prompted me to reflect further on these themes and to engage in a summer reading of Jeremy Heimans’ and Henry Timms’ analysis of power in their book, “New Power: How it’s changing the 21st century – and why you need to know”.

In thinking about who has power and influence on higher education policy and practice, the Power List conversation has historically focused on particular individuals and their perceived personal contributions, on organisations and their leaders where the organisation is influential – and on where an individual leader may represent or extend such influence – and on causes or issues where an individual has become a high profile champion. This is a rough-and-ready approach to identifying higher education movers and shakers which is neither scientific nor even adequate for identifying the many significant contributors to the success of higher education, and the multitude of unsung heroes and heroines that we should be celebrating. Yet, criticism accepted, this is what we have been doing since 2015 in annual conversations, but with increasing difficulty in identifying individuals with power and influence that sets them apart and makes them stand out from the crowd.

Why is power so difficult to identify?

There could be many plausible reasons for these difficulties. For example: the drivers of HE policy are not individuals but forces that give momentum to particular trends or ideas; policymakers, institutional and system leaders are no longer as influential in political circles as other groups such as vocal parents, students or large employers; particular organisations and their leaders are not as influential as in the past, since power is now distributed more widely; the names that grab the headlines may reflect self-glitter rather than real gold; we’re looking in the wrong place for powerful leaders of higher education; or the nature of our search for heroic individuals is altogether misguided since it is groups of people who have impact and make a difference.

But what else might be going on, and is there a shift in the nature of power? Heiman and Timms argue with evidence from a variety of fields (including scientific research, business start-ups, business failures and turnarounds, medical successes, charity fundraising, and recent electoral triumphs) that a “new power” is gaining ascendancy ,and is fundamentally different from “old power” in its values, dynamics, potential impact, and outcomes.

They describe new power as: “made by many; it is open, participatory and peer-driven. It operates like a current and like water or electricity, is most powerful when it surges. The goal of new power is to channel it”. In contrast, “old power is held by few. It is closed, inaccessible and leader-driven. It operates like a currency. Once gained it is hoarded and the powerful have a lot of it to spend”. The difference in old power and new power values is striking and worth highlighting because of the implications arising for higher education policy and practice as well as leadership and governance.

Old power valuesNew power values
Formal (representative) governance, managerialism, institutionalismInformal (networked) governance, opt-in decision-making, self-organization
Competition, exclusivity, resource consolidationCollaboration, crowd wisdom, sharing, open-sourcing
Confidentiality, discretion, separation between private and public spheresRadical transparency
Expertise, professionalism, specialisationMaker culture, "do-it-ourselves" ethic
Long-term affiliation and loyalty, less overall participationShort-term conditional affiliation, more overall participation

New power activities have been visible in higher education for some time in various aspects of citizen science, in crowdfunding experiments, in the push for open access publishing and in the creation of many new networks and online communities. Some of these have generated widespread media attention, even notoriety, such as the Natural Environment Research Council’s experiment in crowdsourcing the name of a new polar research vessel in 2016 (the public’s choice, ‘Boaty McBoatface’, in the end didn’t make it past the censors); others, such as the proposed first Blockchain university, have been much hyped. New power models underpin the gig-economy in businesses like Uber and Airbnb, and social media giants like Facebook; they have also been deployed in recent electoral campaigns in Spain, the US and the UK’s Brexit; and they are currently in use in the NHS in initiatives aiming to mobilise communities to achieve better health outcomes.

HE in the new power generation

What further implications might there be for HE and why does it matter? The keys lie in the combination of technological and psychological drivers of new power that are changing norms and behaviours, with potentially profound consequences for public trust in rules and institutions. The desire to participate and affiliate is made easy through ubiquitous connectivity, while abilities to share, collaborate and co-create give individuals and groups a heightened sense of agency. The ability to self-organise can very rapidly create movements – for good or ill – which are difficult to stem or turn in new directions (arguably, this year’s USS pension-linked strike was of this kind).

In a new power world, the ability to share soon leads to an expectation of a right to share and a right to know, challenging confidentiality arrangements and exclusive access to information (transparency about salaries and remuneration packages of senior leaders is an example). Participation and co-creation opportunities will lead to stronger expectations about rights to join, to develop and build, and to judge contributions and outcomes, challenging the role of experts and expertise as well as the responsibilities, words and deeds of managers and leaders. As new power norms and behaviours spread, every aspect of higher education will likely be affected – from design of curricula, modes of learning, feedback, and assessment to models of research, enterprise, and governance.

Understanding new and old power models and their underpinning values is the first step in developing the capabilities needed to deploy them and, indeed, to challenge the malign aspects of either type. Heiman and Timms suggest that for many of our institutions – government, businesses, healthcare and science – a blended approach is needed. The task is then to create new models of organisation that make people feel truly involved, engaged, connected and more powerful. Sustaining public trust in institutions – including universities – depends on getting the old power-new power balance just right.


Find the 2018 HE Power List in full here.


One response to “Power List 2018: How has the nature of power and influence changed?

  1. Robin – I would say ‘regaining’ rather than ‘sustaining’ public trust is the imperative and there’s little evidence from this year’s power list that this is seen as the priority. A correlation between this list and membership of the Athenaeum might suggest that old power has a long way to go before embracing your thinking.

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