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Universities facing the future – creating a wonk manifesto for the general election

Wonkfest gave us a unique opportunity to crowdsource policy positions for inclusion in party election manifestos. But are wonk ideas vote winners or vote losers?
This article is more than 4 years old

News, analysis and explanation of higher education issues from our leading team of wonks

Remember: our higher education system has not been designed by experts.

Ministers with an axe to grind and career civil servants rotating through a department have historically set the parameters of policy. Staff in regulatory agencies, often terrifyingly young or inexperienced, have filled in the detail.

Where expert advice has been sought, we are lucky if the key or politically sustainable points have been taken on board. The past is littered with unimplemented reports, unconsidered recommendations, and carefully tabulated data that has been almost entirely ignored.

What if, one day, the experts took the wheel? At Wonkfest, the absence of a serving minister, who was busy acclaiming a new House of Commons speaker, gave us the chance to try.

The case against

The inimitable Jim Dickinson burlesqued the common (and not so common) critiques of the higher education sector:

If we care about working class communities, we have to be clear that what we do in the sector is to destroy them. We lift the most talented children out and they never return. Left behind is decay, but what we give people that we take out of these communities is debt.

We sell skills for life, and then deliver through four essays a term that test none of them. We sell outcomes, but these are always contextual and never down to us alone. We wreck cities, pushing up rent. We research pointless things, and discover things that nobody needs to know. We offer safe environments that mean a generation of young people lack the skills to challenge tyrants and fight back against populism.

We create factories of competitive mental health pressure – where students can only think left-wing thoughts. An expensive unsustainable Ponzi scheme, leaving those who are good with their hands to rot in forgotten towns.

Stirring and often painful words. Things to keep in our mind as we develop our ideas – a friendly-to-HE space like Wonkfest does not represent the electorate. We needed to think beyond our bubble.

Building a manifesto

What makes a good pledge? Graeme Wise urged us to go for ideas that are short, snappy, and easy to understand. Positive and optimistic ideas that connect with many people are the most popular – and in manifesto writing, that’s kind of the point. Everyone remembers the Labour pledge card from the Blair years for this reason

Poor pledges are often buried in policy detail and jargon, possibly very sensible but completely mystifying for non-experts. On the other hand, they may equally be shocking, uncomfortable, impractical, and deliverable. Or even just food for trolls, playing directly into opposing party attack lines. A classic example of a bad policy proposal is the Conservative manifesto pledges on social care in 2017, often described (in a Labour coining) as a “Dementia Tax”.

And there are a number of types of promise: a party may offer to give people new rights, abolish things, set big targets, change (or remove) prices, and change structures or ownership. All things to bear in mind as the conference moved in to policy generation mode

Panel pins

Siân Wareing, Jonny Rich, Mary Curnock Cook, Nick Hillman, Andy Westwood, and Mark Leach hardly need introduction to Wonkhe readers – they’ve written for us enough. As manifesto suggestions (some serious, some… not so serious) scrolled on the screen behind them and emerged from the audience, each member of the panel offered their favourites.

Siân was in favour of ideas around social inclusion, and suggestions that made contribution to civic society. Jonny liked the multiplicity of benefits from a simple pledge to wipe fee loans for teachers, nurses, and allied health professionals. Mary applauded the distinctive character of universities, and urged them to match this in the distinctive and inclusive characteristic of their intake.

Nick cautioned us to remember the idea of autonomy in developing pledges, and urged us to use incentives not requirements to avoid a centrally controlled system. Andy felt that ideas focusing on tertiary and vocational education and the idea of place would be an important theme, and Mark asked for ideas that worked with the market – suggesting credit transfer schemes and suggesting that calls to “abolish the TEF” should put something better in its place.

One notable feature of the process was the often sharp critiques of the panel (in terms of attributes and composition as well as the ideas emerging) as the suggestion wall rapidly turned into a more general chat forum. It is fair to suggest – in a room full of HE experts – that the hastily designed panel could have included less of the usual voices. But, for the right reasons or the wrong ones, the panel was full of individuals who have the ear of politicians and senior policy makers – essential allies in turning policy ideas into policy reality.

Making difficult choices

As the room attempted to predict what real party manifestos would say, our panel distilled the numerous crowd-sourced suggestions into six manifesto-ready policies. We then, in a quasi-democratic manner (just like the twitter meme, I fear many people in the sector voted twice) voted for favourites. And as the returning officers for Wonkhe Central, the results of the elections were as follows:

  • Wipe out fee debt for teachers, nurses, and allied health professionals after 3 years in post (76%)
  • A national access fund, were providers recruiting more than the average number of students from a “posh” background pay in, and those who recruit more from disadvantaged background share the proceeds. (49%)
  • A new fund and new institutions (charitable and not for profit) in participation cold spots (15%)
  • Assuming the continuation of recent increases in research income, link research funding to diversity targets such as the race equality charter mark. (49%)
  • More lifelong learning credits at levels 4,5, and 6 to regenerate the lost culture of part-time learning. (51%)
  • Remove rules preventing universities (as charities) from fully participating in election and manifesto campaigns (20%)

So, a clear preference for ideas that contribute to wider societal goals, rather than the “special pleading” that some may have expected. The election vote may well end up closer than polls currently suggestion – and though it is unlikely that the “wonk” vote will become a key target demographic we have a selection of ideas here that address far loftier goals than our own interests.

One response to “Universities facing the future – creating a wonk manifesto for the general election

  1. ‘We create factories of competitive mental health pressure – where students can only think left-wing thoughts.’

    If supposed experts are lending weight to a far-right culture war, Spectator columnist talking point, then absolutely none of you are fit to have any say in future HE policy.

    The fact that total fee abolition isn’t even discussed here also shows how narrow your vision of the future is. Be ashamed.

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