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Students show more policy leadership than vice chancellors

Rachael Firth considers how the student movement has set policy agendas in recent years - and calls on vice chancellors to do likewise
This article is more than 4 years old

Rachael Firth was Chief Operating Officer of Wonkhe.

Ever since starting my journey in higher education I genuinely look forward to NUS conference in April each year. Not in a zoo-like “what are the silly kids up to now?” way; more of a “what are these people thinking? Because invariably it’s what the rest of the sector will be thinking in five years’ time”. Which, granted, is a very formal inner monologue but that’s just how I roll.

NUS and the wider student movement have been consistently ahead of the rest of the sector, and on many occasions wider society, in their thinking.

NUS was talking trans inclusion way before it became an acceptable topic for a three-part ITV drama series. The 2014 NUS report Education Beyond the Straight and Narrow included trans student experience, something that is only just creeping on to the policy agenda now.

NUS has produced truly important work such as That’s What She Said in 2012 – the first to lift the tightly fixed lid on lad culture, Out in Sport which was the first piece of research on LGBT+ student experience in sports, which was published a year before even LGBT charity Stonewall had launched their rainbow laces campaign.

The student movement were the first movers on a campaign on eliminating plastic straws in 2017 – well before it was fashionable to have a white and green paper one in your gin and slim. The UK government took the decision to ban them in 2019.

Hidden Marks, the NUS report on sexual harassment and violence on campus published in 2010 preceded Universities UK’s Changing the Culture report by six whole years.

You might argue that NUS is fertile ground for these forward-thinking ideas because of its members’ youthful energy and idealistic view of the world. There’s some merit to that, but it misses out the role of leadership. NUS’ membership is more varied than is often appreciated, and its leaders have had to steward ideas through rigorous and impassioned debate in democratic processes that put Conservative Youth, the Socialist Workers Party and everyone in between in the same room. During the time it takes for those ideas to work their way through the higher education sector, NUS’ leaders have advocated for them in front of audiences that are at best friendly but bemused, and at worst openly patronising and hostile.

Where are the big ideas?

As NUS has shown time and time again, in order to be taken seriously when you are against something, you also have to be for something. The Augar review is a good example – though clearly not everyone’s ideological cup of tea, it was thorough and considered. But vice chancellors and many others could not have been quicker to wish “Theresa May’s review of funding” a quick death in deep water. Are we really saying that the review had no decent policy ideas? Not a one? We are going to dismiss it entirely and keep a tight grip on the status quo?

So what is this high horse I want to climb on and why now? I have had the pleasure of working at both NUS and Universities UK and count myself as a critical friend of both. I find myself at a point in my career where I’m thinking a lot about leadership – both in terms of my own experience as part of a leadership team, and in the context of critiquing the higher education policy environment as part of Team Wonkhe.

These musings were brought into sharper focus when I considered that this week vice chancellors will meet in Birmingham for Universities UK’s annual conference, and it occurred to me that no one is excited to hear what they think about the policy environment – because we’re not expecting them to tell us. Shouldn’t we expect, when pretty much every vice chancellor in the country is in the room, that there could be some valuable outputs?

Like that time Jay Z, Beyonce, Pharrell, Nas, Timberland and Justin Timberlake found themselves in all in a recording studio at one time and they collectively came to the conclusion that if they had to make a record that night, because they owed it to the world.

What got us here will not get us there

People, like me, who work in small, fast-moving entrepreneurial businesses, love reading self-improvement books and listening to podcasts featuring leaders giving sermons on their successes. One of the many platitudes I have collected which I like to roll out about our business, and life in general, is “what got us here will not get us there”.

Higher education is no different. What we have done before is not what we need to do now. The world is fundamentally changing in every possible way you can imagine – technologically, demographically, ideologically. I hear of and see innovations and ideas being developed within the walls and in the public forums of our institutions almost every day, and yet it often seems like higher education is in stasis. Or worse, in reactive mode – responding to new developments with recommendations to take a whole-institution approach and gather more data – rather than setting out an agenda for how higher education will set the terms of the public debate. Please, we need more of your ideas, your passion and your leadership to keep up with the world.

We need leaders, we need leaders with ideas, with innovations, with views that they are keen to express. We need leaders to be brave and if we can’t do that at the very least we need to listen to the people who are.


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