Last year, I wrote about sector storytellers. I assumed at the time that the stories in question would continue to find some kind of an audience – 2018 suggests I may have been too hasty.
Politics, and thus policy, is increasingly focused on Brexit and the implications of a disorderly “no deal” that looks more likely by the day. Everything else can wait – even the perennial Conservative leadership plotting now focuses on the point after March 2019. Delaying tactics and putting things “on hold” is the order of the day.
In English HE all discussion stopped with a prime ministerial promise of what became (after the loss of two capable ministers) the post-18 review. Then that was delayed awaiting a technical decision from the Office for National Statistics on the treatment of student loans in the national accounts. A niche issue you might argue, but for this pronouncement everything waits.
It’s not that there’s been no news about HE this year, it’s more that – as news sensationalises to cut through the general Brexit torpor – the sector has not been on the front foot. Unconditional offers, the student mental health “crisis”, grade inflation, free speech. All valid concerns, but all framed as criticisms of an out-of-touch sector already suffering in the popular imagination after backing the losing side in the referendum.
The Wonkhe Power List highlights – alongside the senior managers and grandees (although these are less numerous this year) – a few people who are effectively taking on the dark age in their own style.
Rosie Tressler at Student Minds has seen the agenda she has carefully grown over the years explode into the mainstream. With ministers and VCs now on board, there is the chance of genuine movement – the provision of services and environments that support and nurture young people at a difficult transitional time. Sure, there’s always the potential that higher profile converts are as least as interested in their own position as they are in the issue at hand. And there’s probably been more discussion about “resilience” than Student Minds would like. But the quality of what Student Minds do, and the passion that underpins it, shines through the noise.
Jess Wade, in her first post-doctoral post at Imperial, could well be forgiven for focusing on her research and leaving the campaigns for when she lands a permanent position. But her quiet anger at poor recognition offered female scientists, and a corresponding lack of role models for women considering science as a career, has led her to publishing an astonishing number of wikipedia biographies. She’s fiercely critical of the “hairdresser science”/”pretty smart” stereotypical feminisation of better funded efforts – an observation that has prompted serious rethinking in some major campaigns.
Kehinde Andrews will probably be the most nonplussed list entrant. But establishing the Black Studies undergraduate degree taps into a wider – and long overdue – admission that our universities and curricula are painfully white. The gently “progressive” mood on campus has been given a sharp reminder that we could and should do better – campaigns at other universities on representation and colonialism have taken inspiration from Andrews’ work. Fellow panellist Judy Friedberg considers this issue in more detail.
I also take heart from Andrew McGettigan’s inclusion. Who would seriously have considered that arcane government accounting regulation would be a major topic of national conversation as we enter the 2018-19 academic year? Old-fashioned journalistic tenacity and the ability to engagingly explain complex issues – to Wonkhe readers and Parliamentary Committees alike – has meant that we have an improved understanding of the impact of such decisions – and with it a new (and unexpected) Power List number one.
The rise of these great communicators and storytellers, at the expense of some of the traditional “big beasts” of HE policy is telling. They show us that as a sector, we still have so much to learn – about ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps this will be the year that we really start listening.