Wonkfest preview: revenge of the experts

There is a huge debate about the toxic nature of our national conversation.

We see this in the internecine arguments over Brexit, but it’s also apparent in the widening social fissures across Europe and of course, the real poison in US politics. Too often our political culture avoids real debate, discussion or discourse. Consensus is seen as weakness; compromise as betrayal; nuance as a cop out. There is little room for genuine deliberation.

Facts and evidence

Within higher education, the onus is on us to keep accumulating facts and evidence. That might lead to alternative ways to tackle an issue or open up the possibility there might be more one answer to the same question. Knowledge is never static. And if universities can agree on one mission, is should be that each generation of academics must advance all of our understanding of the world for the next.

That’s why we’ve asked the award-winning academic and writer Ben Goldacre to open Wonkfest18.

Academia, he argues, is riddled with confirmation bias where even trained professionals interpret information to fit their existing beliefs. What’s presented as objective fact in a peer-reviewed paper, may simply be a cover for personal opinion or be designed to chase funds.

These are crucial observations when the drivers for funding decisions, policymaking and delivery of HE are boiled down to neat metrics, measures and indicators – the unashamedly data-driven approach to public policy advocated for more than 20 years by OfS chair Michael Barber and the current universities minister Sam Gyimah, who both speak this week.

It is an advance, of course, on national HE policy being devised by a small group of men behind closed doors in wood-panelled rooms in private members clubs. Yet the top half of our annual Power List was dominated by Barber-seque bureaucrats, technocrats and regulators. The danger is that HE has seen the replacement of one kind of  top-down, centralised leadership with a new one.

There has been a tacit acceptance of a statistical arms-race, where all institutions build up teams of wonks, planners and analysts to game new statutory requirements. We are in danger, in a more intensively regulated sector, of the tail wagging the dog.

So over last twelve months, we’ve tried to unpick all this at Wonkhe – and advocate a more intelligent approach to policymaking to help move HE forward.

Improving policy making

First, we’ve tried to capture what has caused a clear disconnect between people in our university communities and the established sources of power in HE. In particular, why vice chancellors, like leaders in other sectors, find themselves under attack from both left and right. We see too many leaders reacting to criticism instead of responding proactively, listening to what’s being said, understanding why it’s being said, and then doing something about it.

We’ve started to stimulate a bolder vision for individuals in our universities, our collective communities, and wider society. We want HE’s decision makers to be on the front foot in the face of the big challenges ahead: financial stability and sustainability; Brexit; building equality of opportunity; maximising research impact; fair pay, pensions and reward; creating real value to the individual and a return to society.

And across our policy community, we’re trying to work out the building blocks of a national, progressive consensus on higher education – creating the right social contract between students, taxpayers, the state, business and society. A mass higher education system regarded by politicians, decision makers and the public as a national treasure.

Revenge of the experts

Wonkhe is not a political think tank or a paid lobbying firm. We are passionate about the power of education as a force for good – for social justice, for equality of opportunity, for civic renewal – opening up elite research and teaching to all, without being elitist. But we want to create the policy space to get there; to allow people to ask open-ended questions, to make balanced judgements, and respect people for choosing to agree or to disagree.

That’s why we’re so proud to have brought together tens of thousands of people across the sector – whether you are one of the scores of contributors who write for us; among the tens of thousands who receive our briefings; or the millions of visitors to our website, you play an equal part in what we do. And it’s what Wonkfest is all about.

We never gloss over HE’s weaknesses but we don’t incite revolution. We don’t unpick duff policy to make decision makers’ lives harder – we’re pragmatists. Wonkhe’s approach is to see HE as it is, not as we may want to be.

Our job is to equip political, academic and professional actors at all levels in HE to make decisions in the greater interest – to pass our precious universities onto the next generation of students, academics and wider society in a better state then they found them.

We want inspirational, creative and bold new thinking, not the status quo. Our community is part of the solution, not part of the problem. We build no barriers or dividing lines about who we work with. We don’t care about role or responsibility or title. And we believe the best ideas come from the bottom up not the top-down.

The revenge of the experts starts here. Welcome to Wonkfest 2018.

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