Brexit is no longer front-page news, at least for the next week. No-deal plans are back on ice, for now. Theresa May is on her walking holiday and Parliament is in its Easter recess. MPs are keeping their heads down, aside from the odd Tory leadership contender. And the Civil Service is breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Yet no one has the foggiest what the next month or so will bring with local council elections and, in all likelihood, European Parliament elections, meaning there’s not (in principle) much prospect of any movement on post-18 education and funding during May.
The ongoing uncertainty is actually opening up new opportunities for campaigning, advocacy and lobbying. Politics today is more like a constant, rolling campaign. It is as much about connecting emotionally with the public, not merely about winning rational policy argument – finding the right sales pitch to mobilise people to be your activists and advocates. So the best political operators today aim to generate their own momentum. They insert themselves into debates, co-opting and owning others’ arguments and opening up new conversations and issues.
The age of policy entrepreneurship
This new environment requires constantly challenging what you believe to be cast-iron political laws and being more agile in defining your objectives, strategies, audiences and plans. Since the dawn of mass media, politics has been packaged as a product and like any product newness is vital. After all, there are no prizes for arguing furiously for the status quo. But social media has changed the rules forever. Anyone, anywhere can broadcast on anything, meaning issues and campaigns spring up from seemingly nowhere. That’s why we’re seeing new political entrepreneurs breaking through to set the agenda, whether it’s the Brexit Party, People’s Vote, Change UK or Momentum.
So higher education leaders and public affairs professionals need to stop thinking cups of teas with ministers will cut it. To all intents and purposes universities are now no different from any other vested interest. Institutions are increasingly judged like any other organisation or business, and higher education is benchmarked against other publicly-funded sectors. Vice chancellors cannot assume their institutions are seen as a force for good. They need to win that right and keep winning it.
The narrow way in which universities have addressed legitimate questions over senior remuneration is a case in point. The issue is not just about what Professor Bloggs earns or doesn’t earn. It goes to the heart of a university’s corporate governance and behaviours, its ethos, values and ethics, and its commitment to fair pay and due reward. Yet it’s very rare to find any vice chancellor on the record accepting the need to be accountable to their staff, students, and the taxpayer.
Putting the public in public affairs
Universities could learn a lot from their students. It is notable that the student movement has frequently been ahead of university management on big issues, whether consent, mental health or the cost of living. Too often management is left playing catch up. In a highly volatile, chaotic public space, all organisations, not just universities, need to adopt the tactics of political campaigns to win the wider public trust. The “public” must be put back into “public affairs”, looking beyond Westminster and Whitehall at the constituencies who actually make or break universities’ reputations.
There is no limit on the tactics which work in day-to-day public affairs. But here are four possible approaches we believe are worth looking at.
First, use the current parliamentary arithmetic to your advantage. We live in an age of low or no majority governments, so never waste or ignore a single MP. They are all crucial, particularly backbenchers whom the front benches need to win over.
This includes pushing broader agendas which resonate with the wider public and that will attract the attention of MPs interested in issues. This is not telling the world how great universities are with glossy campaigns or “getting up the backside” of MPs as Buckingham’s vice chancellor Anthony Seldon has put it. It demands acting decisively to set out a positive agenda on issues like tackling the gender pay gap, racial discrimination or student rents. The key is building alliances with a shared purpose, mission and passion. Stella Creasy or Tracey Crouch are probably better friends to make than a junior minister who’s barely a household name in their own household – but you need to forge the right campaign, one which appeals to their values, interests and networks.
Second, the rapidly changing dynamic in Parliament creates the potential to build consensus outside the traditional party system.
We have seen backbenchers take centre stage and ministers often left as commentators as MPs collaborate across the Commons gangway to thwart the government. This approach could work to address current policy impasses, such as tackling the decades-long failure to build a coherent model for higher, further, and technical education. Former education ministers Justine Greening, Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah could continue to play a role. The Lords (full of ex-ministers) has always been pretty independent on education policy, as are the thriving select committee and all-party parliamentary group systems. Putting all that together can create real political energy on specific policy areas.
Third, make maximum use of the opportunity created by devolution to cities, towns and communities. Universities need to do more than be another voice around a Metro Mayor’s table or a LEP board. Don’t waste the chance to be more innovative with the power transferred from central government – or frankly, the opportunity to demand more. Universities should be indispensable to their regional partners’ ambitions – economic, civic or political.
Fourth, power abhors a vacuum. For all the apparent political and governmental log-jam, there are still ministers and officials pushing particular agendas and getting on with good bread-and-butter delivery that they believe in and which they hope will improve people’s lives. Find them, find out how you can help them and where your organisations and networks can help fill the gap left by a civil service and political section looking almost wholly across the Channel.
Politics has always married high ideals and low cunning. It demands universities losing the mindset of being passive recipients of policy, where they merely attempt to mitigate its impact. They need to get smarter, more aggressive and bolder in shaping their own reputations. To coin a phrase, universities need to take back control.