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What is a wonk?

The question 'what is a wonk?' has come up many times since Wonkhe was launched three years ago. But in three years, understanding has come a long way. As the higher education sector in the UK has accepted if not embraced the term, there is still some clarification to be done. In this piece, Mark Leach looks at who the HE wonks are and draws lessons from other countries and other sectors.
This article is more than 7 years old

Mark is founder, Editor in Chief and CEO of Wonkhe.

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This is a question that has come up many times since I launched this site three years ago. But in three years, understanding of the term has come a long way. And although the higher education sector in the UK has accepted if not embraced the wonks, there is perhaps still some clarification to be done.

Language

The word ‘wonk’ is an import from the US where it is in more common usage than the UK. Definitions vary, but the best I have seen is ‘A hard-working, intellectually curious person; expert in a field.’ Principally used in politics and academia to describe policy experts, it can be used in a positively or negatively, depending on the user’s perspective.

In 2011 when Wonkhe was launched and for some time after, it became clear to me that many in UK higher education had not fully understood the term. Colleagues asked me what it meant and some mocked our name because they didn’t understand it.

But all that has now changed. edmAs Separated by a Common Language notes, 2012 was the ‘year of the wonk’ as an American word imported to the UK. Thanks to the British press repeatedly referring to Ed Miliband as a wonk and discussing his wonkish qualities, the word became far more commonplace in Britain.

Alongside this in higher education, Wonkhe was becoming more established in parallel to a great proliferation of (what could be described as) wonk roles in the sector and greater organisation amongst this emerging group of professions through formal and informal networks.

In January 2012, I wrote ‘Who let them in’ for Times Higher Education, which featured the word ‘wonk’ 36 times (although reflecting on that piece two years on, I may have defined the term too narrowly). WonkComms was established in 2013 – and after all this usage of the word in a UK context, people have finally stopped asking me what it means.

But this is not the end of the story.

An approach

Wonks are traditionally policy experts, an idea re-enforced by the commentary on Ed Miliband in the mainstream press. But I posit that the wonks are actually are far broader community which explains the continued and growing interest in and engagement with Wonkhe.

Policy runs through everything. The world we live in is built on policy and continually shaped by its development. This is true for higher education as it is all aspects of human society.

Wonks are not necessarily those that just know the most about that policy – in this case higher education policy. They are people that engage with the policy environment in a particular way served by this site and others.

The American University, Washington DC has a neat campaign called American Wonks, which claims the word as a quality to be proud of. It has an elegant formula to explain this approach:

americanwonks

Wonkhe’s community of readers and contributors are nothing if not smart, passionate, focused and engaged.

This formula goes some way to explaining our broad appeal as there are many people that might not be policy experts, but would certainly approach the world – and higher education in particular – in this way.

A quick note on the geeks

In 2012, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust Mark Henderson published The Geek Manifesto. The book was a call to arms for the geeks – who in this context we could also term the ‘science wonks’. There is much to learn from the geek community. A close cousin of the higher education wonks, many would indeed claim to be both geeks and HE wonks thanks to overlapping interests of science and higher education and the fact that many of the geeks work in universities.

There are three big lessons to take away from The Geek Manifesto for HE wonks:

1. The emphasis placed on evidence and its use. The more that policymaking can be informed by evidence, the better. The HE wonks, like the geeks, are well-placed to champion its use.

2. Science is for everyone, and anyone can be a geek. Universities are for everyone (in direct and indirect ways) and so anyone can be an HE wonk.

3. Organisation matters. The geek community has far more established and lively networks and organisation. This continually strengthens their community, improves their practice, and makes them far more influential in their field. They also actively look for opportunities to widen the geek tent through innovative events such as science comedy nights that also serve to underline points one and two.

There’s more to learn from The Geek Manifesto and it’s well worth a read. (Perhaps I’ll write The Wonk Manifesto – if anyone would like to publish it?)

Who are the HE wonks?

There are many people that work in higher education whose profession revolves around thinking about higher education policy. They often become policy experts and are likely to be on top of the policy debate and indeed contribute to it. They form the foundations of our readership and contributors, but there are many others with an interest and stake in higher education and so engage HE issues in a wonk-like way.

In this crude diagram below I show the three columns of HE wonkery. Sincere apologies to anyone that I have omitted here – I know this is not complete.

 

Column A

The most engaged in higher education policy issues – working inside and out of universities, sector agencies, the civil service, media and elsewhere – usually paid to think about HE, often contribute to the development of policy through their work and networks. They stay on top of the policy debate because doing so is an important part of their professional life.

Column B

Those that work inside higher education, close to it or have another major personal or professional stake in the sector. They might not be paid to think about higher education policy (at least not as the predominate part of their work), but they are not necessarily less engaged in the policy issues.

Wonkhe’s main body of readership and contributors come from A and B in different ways. Collectively that represents a huge number of people and we haven’t yet reached as many as we could by any means – and that’s just the UK.

Column C (ok it’s more of a box)

This column includes everyone else not covered by Columns A and B. Parents, teachers in other parts of education, prospective students, residents and many others. Maybe not HE wonks themselves (they are likely to be a wonk about something), higher education matters to them.

I believe that Wonkhe, which is almost entirely driven by the wonkery of those in Columns A and B has a role to play in engaging those in C, which is why I think it is important that they should have a place here. And there’s much to learn from the geeks and others about how to achieve that. I’ll return to this point in more detail soon.

Conclusion

The great interest that there is in universities and the huge stake that every citizen has in them means that whilst it may appear on the surface that we serve a niche, Wonkhe is actually for a wide audience and has potential to grow further.

Maybe you don’t identify as a wonk yourself, but if you are reading this then the odds are you are part of the community in some form. Don’t be afraid of wearing the wonk badge with pride. And thank you for your passion, focus and engagement. Wonkhe couldn’t exist without it.

2 responses to “What is a wonk?

  1. An interesting post as always Mark.

    Perhaps Ed Miliband’s stated confidence about his professional career to date and his adoption of the term ‘wonk’ is a nifty counter to the criticism that modern political leaders have never had a ‘proper job’. I imagine some unfortunate HE wonks face a similar stigma. I’m fortunate to have had a role in column B before moving over to column A, perhaps this provides a level of credibility.

    The best part of any role is seeing your ideas and thoughts translate into real change. That’s what excites me and hopefully others too.

  2. Thanks Adam.

    I think a healthy give and take between both columns is utterly desirable.

    And I second your point about making real change. I think that’s the sweet spot in all of this.

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