Where do policy agendas come from in higher education? Does some mysterious alchemy occur to coalesce thinking in government, in sector bodies and in universities?
In bygone days the annual grant letter from the Secretary of State to the funding council set out a list of issues that universities were obliged to care about. It was widely understood at the time was that the funding council was instrumental in shaping that list. Informed by relationships with university leaders, by its strategic advisory committees and by its own board, which was mostly made up of vice chancellors, the funding council to some extent told government where it should be commanded to focus its attention each year. Ministers were liable to add their own agendas to the list but the overall outcome was a degree of consensus over what the policy priorities were for higher education.
The funding council would then line up staff resource in those areas, commission and publish research and make funds available for universities to bid to develop policy and practice. Sector bodies and mission groups would follow suit and produce their own publications. And lo, a policy agenda was born; higher education people referred to the “such-and-such agenda” and other people knew what they meant.
The Office for Students has on a surface level retained some of the characteristic practices of the funding council. OfS’ challenge competition is basically the old Catalyst Fund, but with a narrower focus. The regulator publishes data and research and threatens consequences for providers who fail to take their duties seriously in relation to topical issues, such as freedom of speech. What is missing is that sense that the whole sector is pulling together to move forward in understanding and taking action in relation to a specific issue. The ability of the funding council to lead in shaping policy agendas, with the consent and engagement of the sector, has been lost.
The OfS was not designed to take the sector along with it; as a regulator it sets its own agenda, informed – or steered, if you want to be cynical about it – by government. Since the creation of the OfS more than one conversation has taken place about what organisation or body can fill the policy agenda-setting vacuum. In the last year the sector has found itself bogged down in discussions about freedom of speech, senior remuneration or grade inflation without having a significant body of its own thinking and evidence to draw on to shape the conversation, or demonstrate that it takes the problem seriously and can be trusted to take it forward.
Perhaps more importantly, it is not obvious when a new policy, like the development of degree apprenticeships, comes along, whose job it is to convene thinking and discussion and shape that agenda from the sector’s perspective.
So the emergence on the scene of the UPP Foundation as a body that convenes the sector around a policy agenda, rather than as simply an organisation that merely facilitates the discussion of policy issues, is arguably a radical departure from the status quo.
The recommendations of the Civic University Commission also signal a change in the way the sector imagines that policy could be implemented. The Commission report calls on government and regulators to create the environment in which meaningful civic engagement can flourish, with a network of civic universities supported by a central hub, and financial and reputational incentives in place to strengthen the role of “place” in higher education policymaking. But while Brexit consumes so much of government’s bandwidth and credibility these proposals appear rather optimistic. We should not rule out the possibility that a future government could be open to investing in the role of universities as civic placemakers in the medium term, but in the short term it’s almost certainly up to the sector to take the lead.
Over the years universities have been trained like Pavlov’s dog to respond to a call for proposals backed by funding. Yet there are significant limitations to this model. Central funding pots cannot be sustained indefinitely, and while there is always the intention to create sustainable projects, when the money runs out often the activity does too.
The civic agenda is, in fact, too important to be imagined as a basket of short-term projects and local activity. As the report’s authors point out, many if not all universities are civically engaged, and can point to a whole range of very worthy activity in their locality. The challenge is in convening that activity into a shared agenda delivered in partnership with the local community, that meets defined local needs.
The civic university agreement proposal creates a framework for doing that work, but it is up to universities to enact it meaningfully and hold themselves to that standard beyond the timespan of a short-term policy agenda. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the ability to take action and move forward without the prompt (or the straitjacket) of regulation or financial incentive.
Looking for longevity
It has become a cliche among policymakers to advocate a whole-institution approach backed by leadership. If every policy initiative was implemented in this way the university, and probably the vice chancellor too, would quickly fall over, exhausted from hopping from issue to issue. That is why the most interesting proposal from the Civic University Commission is the creation of University Community Foundations: quasi-independent bodies hosted by the university but co-governed with the local community and with powers to raise money in their own right. The report proposes that these bodies be focused on culture; there is no reason why they could not work across a whole range of civic activity.
Creating a distinct entity, with the expectation that it should become self-sustaining, with its own communication channels, its own ability to build and sustain partnerships, and its own agenda co-created with local citizens, would be a genuinely entrepreneurial way of ensuring that the civic policy agenda sticks around for longer than the lifespan of the Commission’s report. And whatever you think about the idea, it would never have emerged from a project funding approach to policy development.
The Civic University Commission shows us is that there is a vacancy for the convening of policy ideas and the setting of agendas. Universities and their representative bodies can do a fair bit in this space, but so can other actors, when they do it credibly and get the right people involved. There are limits to what the UPP Foundation is able or willing to explore in its policy agenda (for example, there is little mention of the role of student accommodation in shaping localities), but the same was true for the funding council. Bringing new actors into policy leadership opens up the door for new ideas and fresh thinking.