Wonkfest18 – LIVE


  • Digest and digress, my successful debut Wonkfest

    Michael Taylor, who works at Manchester Metropolitan University in external relations, reflects on his first Wonkfest

    Here’s the thing. There are far, far more talks and panels (and therefore insights and wisdom) at an event like Wonkfest18 that you DON’T see, than you do. It’s inevitable. You literally can’t be in two, three or even four places at once.

    So picking your way carefully through the schedule is part of the skill before you even go. But in there lurks hidden dangers; you miss those serendipitous moments of revelation.

    Or as the modern parlance has it, fear of missing out, or #fomo.

    My job is external relations. I look for opportunities for our university to connect to industry, other civic institutions, the public sector, our democracy. To make us relevant.

    I will also confess to being profoundly irritated by the culture war narrative around “free speech on campus” and the (imagined) prevalence of the censorious “no platform” in our universities. I think it is overstated, and has become a useful “straw man” to bash the sector.  

    Food for wonks

    So, I digress, but on day two of Wonkfest, I digested quite a lot. There was a sparkling “in conversation” with Two VCs (Linda Drew of our hosts, Ravensbourne University London, and Mary Stuart of the University of Lincoln). I enjoyed the morning motivational lift from Michael Barber. I was even appreciative of a sparky lesson in how badly prepared we all are for Brexit from Dirk van Damme of the OECD.

    All good. In fact, really good. But I sat on the edge of my seat in a session, What Should HE Do For Local Communities? Plenty of concrete examples from Clive Winters from Coventry University and Selena Bolingbroke from Goldsmiths, University of London about the importance of trust building and aligning priorities with external partners (that woefully doesn’t do them justice, by the way). But it was everything you come to a conference for: ideas, and confirmation that what you’re doing is right; or a challenge to yourself if it’s spectacularly wrong.

    But I didn’t leave early; partly because I’ve been on panels where those on stage outnumber the audience, and it’s a horrible feeling seeing people peel away to be somewhere else when you’re baring your soul. But the main reason was the debate was really getting going by 2.25pm, when I should, by rights, have been shuffling in to the main stage to see Mark Leach grill Sam Gyimah. But I was also really gripped. In a very strong two-day programme it was the most useful and practical discussion I attended.

    So, I didn’t get in to hear the minister speak. I could have pressed my nose against the crack in the door and heard him, but I didn’t. Instead, I retreated to the soft furnishings of the Guardian Stage and deleted some email, followed the sparring downstairs via the wonders of social media, and after a few minutes or so was interrupted by a panel of students appearing in front of me to discuss “the snowflake generation”. Remember what I said before? Irritated and grumpy about the culture war rumblings? Yep.

    Cut & thrust

    It was an illuminating and challenging debate, especially with the questions and answers that followed. I came away with some far deeper reflections on the language we use, the expectations of the students we serve and its coupling to a growing mental health crisis. But also the sometimes woeful institutional response to issues when they arise. It’s all important, of course, because of the wider political context being tiptoed around downstairs as they spoke.

    My vice chancellor didn’t know that initially, because I gave him my hot-take on the minister’s comments first thing the next morning, which he seemed happy with. I got that from listening to it on the Wonkhe podcast and scrolling through the social media responses.

    But there you go, my first Wonkfest. I really enjoyed it.  I got a lot from it. I felt emboldened and determined. We’ve got some tough times ahead, but there are brilliant people working at all levels of HE prepared to share ideas and work very hard to fulfil a very important cultural and economic mission. To do it well we have to be alive to everything shaping that. And that includes listening to testimonies in places we wouldn’t normally go, however it was that we got there.

    6 years ago
    Digest and digress, my successful debut Wonkfest
  • That’s all from #Wonkfest18

    Sign up to the Wonkhe Daily for more updates and analysis from a packed two days.

    We’d like to give another big hand to our sponsors and partners, who were key to making Wonkfest18 happen.

    Wonkhe was brought to you in association with HSBC and The Guardian.

    We were sponsored by Online Education Services, KPMG, LinkedIn, Interfolio, Unite Students, Shakespeare Martineau, Nous Group, SMRS and The Hotcourses Group.

    And we were supported by Global Academy Jobs and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    6 years ago
    That’s all from #Wonkfest18
  • Guardian Stage: HE’s problem with race

    We had a big online comment from the great session on HE’s problems with race, on The Guardian Stage – the legendary writer, campaigner and researcher Gus John; Ilyas Nagdee, NUS Black Students’ Officer; and chair Judi Friedberg, Guardian Universities Editor.


    6 years ago
    Nov 6 2018
  • Debate Stage: crisis, what crisis? Is student mental health really a “no brainer”?

    Student mental health is making headlines almost daily – so this session was (unsurprisingly) packed. But kicked off by focusing whether or not this amounts to a ‘crisis’.

    Chris Shelley, Director of Student Academic Services, University of Greenwich reports


    Rosie Tressler, CEO Student Minds

    Tressler said it is hard to judge if there is a crisis given the lack of data. But she said universities can’t wait need to create the ideal infrastructure which students need in their daily lives.

    Tressler set out five solutions:

    • to build the research base
    • to listen more to students and co-produce services with them
    • to adopt a whole university approach and institutional leadership
    • to support transition at every stage of the education system
    • to invest in services, including the wider NHS


    Neil Mackenzie, Head of Advice & Representation, Sheffield Students’ Union.

    Mackenzie said he was expecting to major on academic policy initially – but his focus shifted to mental health. His team identified issues with the univeristy “fetishising waiting times”, departmental autonomy and under-investment – but above all, genuine surprise at the scale of the problem.

    Mackenzie said unions aren’t clinicians so need to work closely with university services. And their role is to connect outcomes with social policy to prevent issues from resurfacing. Mackenzie stressed the need to accept unions can’t fix everything and cited the huge number of external pressures on students beyond universities’ reach.


    Mandi Barron, Head of Student Services Bournemouth University and AMOSSHE

    Barron spoke as a service leader and a mother of a graduate. Barron doesn’t believe there is a crisis – but that we are more aware of it as a society. The perception stems in part from sensationalised media coverage, which in turn creates pressure on staff. Financial advice can be a key to reducing stress related to debt – and many students come to university without support networks. She believes we shouldn’t be duplicating NHS services – but providing appropriate support and guidance to help students navigate higher education.


    Eva Crossen Jody, Vice-President NUS (Welfare).

    Crossen Jody argued too often universities separate themselves from the NHS in campaigning. She said this was an error – higher education needs a fully functioning NHS.

    She said there was no such thing as a typical student so services shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. She argues that access to services should be looked at – such as being delivered in students’ first language, having dedicated support for survivors of sexual assault, and being accessed across the year not in six session blocks. Peer-led programmes can be successful but students need services they can trust.

    Crossen Jody also argued that this crisis shouldn’t be seen isolation, there is a link to tuition fees, debt and accommodation costs.


    Jenny Shaw, Director of Student Experience, Unite Students

    Shaw cited Unite Students has tracked a rise in declaration of disability or mental health condition, they have also seen a rise in complex cases within residences, and reports of sexual assault. She stated the desire for a multi-agency approach, which is happening. Transition between different stages in education is crucial – discussion with parents reveal they speak to students “about pots and pans” but not emotional preparation.

    6 years ago
    Nov 6 2018
  • Questions for Sam Gyimah

    A speaker clarified that the Open University was not at financial risk, but was calling for a level playing feed to halt the decline of part-time and mature study. Gyimah agreed with the need to address the issue with part-time provision, for reasons linked to the impact of wider economy.

    An SU speaker asked Gyimah to define a “good degree” that would be a “good investment”: There a lot of degrees that do not provide a large financial return but do provided a social or cultural benefit. Courses should be as good as each other, not “bargain basement” versions of each other. When pressed on measures he cited academic intensity, academic expectations and infrastructure issues alongside teaching quality. He admits that these are not easily measurable but hoped that the OfS would address the need to ensure students get the experience they hope for.

    On the pricing of STEM degrees, he reflected back to the review. Noting that “fees being high haven’t deterred applications”, he suggests that higher priced courses may be more attractive to applicants. One interesting point was his reminder that STEM subjects are already treated differentially, with additional costs made up direct from government.

    He was asked about university preparations for “no deal” – planning is advanced at DfE but no-one is hoping for no deal.


    6 years ago
  • Sam Gyimah – In Conversation with Mark Leach

    “It’s been an interesting few days”, suggests Wonkhe founder Mark Leach. The extraordinary level of press coverage around the sector leaves it in an alarmed and febrile state. But what about the students – as the self-appointed “minister of students” does Sam Gyimah not have a responsibility to tell students which universities are on the brink?

    Well, of course not. Gyimah doesn’t recognise the description of parts of the sector as “on the bring”, and notes that a university would not be registered if it was not in sound financial health. And there is a process (he notes student protection plans that are “very thoroughly” investigated by the OfS) to safeguard students so they can complete their students.

    Leach pressed back that Barber had told us that student protection plans could be better – and Sam Gyimah responded has confidence that the regulator could take the necessary steps, but hinted that DfE would also have a strong and active interest. But – again like Barber – Gyimah was clear that he didn’t want to see an institution fail, and even when pressed on the political realities of such closures he stuck to this line. He also stands by his hugely supportive comments on the Open University at the select committee, and highlighted that every situation would be handled on its merits – there are (it is possible) good failures and bad failures.

    At times Gyimah sounded very similar to Barber, particularly when highlighting the need for universities to make a positive case and sharing what they are doing. He’d not yet seen any proposals from Augar, so was hesitant to draw red lines. But many did get the impression that he was not keen to see a return no number controls.

    Sam Gyimah voted against Brexit because he felt that it would be complex, difficult to do, and may not benefit young people. But he was equally clear it was what the British people have voted for, and the policy of his government. He sees some opportunities for HE, not least the historically high increase in government investment in research and development. Investment in knowledge and innovation, he felt, was key for the future of Britain.

    Is the “monoculture” just code for the fact that students don’t vote Conservative? Gyimah made the point that he’d never used language around “snowflakes” and “left wing madrassas” [this is true, but he’s been happy to be associated with one of these positions in the past – he spoke out against Toby Young], and outlined his vision that people should have a right to express their opinions – using Barber’s language (again) of the “pursuit of truth”. Debate, he argues, is always better than demands for retraction.

    In 1997 Sam Gyimah invited Tariq Aziz to speak at the Oxford Union (he was denied a Visa by the Home Office). He felt it would be good to debate him, so he could be challenged by “very intelligent students”. He doesn’t regret this, and feels that such people should be challenged on the views they hold rather than prevented from speaking.

    Post-qualification admissions represent an “interesting idea” but Gyimah has yet to be convinced by it. Likewise the idea of strong national standards to combat grade inflation and maintain standards.

    On the vexed issue of lost contact time due to strike action, and the potential for legal challenge, he passed the issue back to the regulator (and the need for a contractual student arrangement) in a softening of his earlier position. On living costs, he stopped short of backing rent controls, but noted that this was the primary issue that students raise with him.


    6 years ago
    Nov 6 2018
  • Post-Brexit session

    An interesting mix of pessimism, optimism and demands from government characterised this packed out session.

    Dirk van Damme, OECD, said that he feels the UK system is still world class and will be for some time, but is on shaky ground. Focus on Russell Group reputation ignores the rest of the sector which is dangerous. He is pessimistic about the impact of Brexit and feels the potential damage is being underestimated. Cutting the ties with European research networks is very risky, the UK has benefitted from more EU research funding than it has contributed, so no deal could be catastrophic. Competition from other countries is increasing at the same time. He expressed astonishment that we are in this position.

    Julie Allen from UKCISA feels less pessimistic from the student point of view. Support for international students is well established which puts us in a good position and she hopes students will continue to choose the UK as a result. However she is aware of the unsettling nature of the negotiations and the fact not much can be said at the moment does not help this. She cited research from the University of Stirling that showed international students are very aware of how areas voted in the referendum and feel less welcome in England as a result.

    Gilly Salmon from the OES said she sees no problems, only opportunities. Many people in the sector are tired of change but we should be seeking to develop education tailored to career progression and flexible to people’s lives. We should deploy fully digital learning, explore student centric data sets to develop the sector and disrupt current practices. A huge rate of growth is possible which will enable the sector to hold on to its reputation while opening up new markets, if we embrace the technologies that can deliver it. We should also “fuse universities with the partners” that will enable this growth. Of course there are uncertainties but good partnerships share risks.

    Alastair Jarvis, UUK, says nothing occupies his time more than this issue right now. He said we need government support to use it as an opportunity. We need an immigration system that recognises the value of international staff and students, which needs serious reform. We need an ambitious international education strategy, to grow as our competitors have. This includes allowing international students to stay after graduating and a campaign to promote the UK as a high quality destination, rather than creating fear as it currently does. We need support to grow research collaboration, removing barriers, and we need a model that supports student mobility.

    Louis Coiffait in the chair encouraged the panel and audience to identify the positives and opportunities that may come from Brexit. Examples of innovation around the world that we can learn from included a flexible study visa in New Zealand, digital learning that attracts different cohorts in Australia, and the positive image change in Australia via an international education strategy which had cross party support. There was also some debate about how keen our international partners are to work with us, and whether they are becoming less keen by the day.

    While there was much discussion about the potential to use Brexit as an opportunity for the country and sector, the government’s current approach doesn’t create much expectation that this will be realised.

    Chris Shelley, University of Greenwich

    6 years ago
  • Michael Barber – In Conversation with Debbie McVitty

    Wonkhe’s incoming editor Debbie McVitty took the first round of questions, pressing Barber on the need for sense and tolerance in a time of particularly rapid change and uncertainty.

    He was clear that OfS are assessing university finances on the basis of the current system, and not drawing on “newspaper rumours” about the Augar review. 182 institutions have been assessed for registration so far – with hundreds more to follow – and none have caused the OfS to report financial concerns. But how reasonable is it to expect universities to plan in a time of such uncertainty?

    Barber’s optimism and regard for universities coloured his response – yes, one could give up in the face of such uncertainty, but he was clear about the bright future he saw of universities. As I think we expected, hypothetical questions on last weeks’ £6.5k fees – with the attendant possibility of putting T funding incentives into the system – were not something he wanted to be drawn on beyond noting existing OfS priorities on WP and the value of the humanities.

    But is it fair to say that talking about the potential of financial failure makes it more likely? Will banks and other lenders factor in this regulatory stance when considering their exposure to sector borrowing? Barber took great pains to make it clear that he decided to talk about not bailing out universities before the this morning’s statement (the decision to make it was “months old” and based on what he’d been hearing on campus). He took a somewhat philosophical position that the state should not mitigate the effects of institutional autonomy.

    There are many potential points of intervention before a decision to let an institution fail – the OfS is committed to transparency and even-handedness in applying conditions and making judgements. He was clear that if there was to be an institution facing financial difficulties, and OfS was to find out at the last minute, they have less options available to advise and support. Though there will be no bail outs there are lots of other points between A and B.

    McVitty asked whether protection plans offer significant mitigation for institutional financial failure? Barber was clear that nobody wants students to face difficulties because of such an issue arrising, and there is a regional impact too. The current crop of student protection plans are good but still need some work – Barber felt that people see them as a bureaucratic exercise – but they are real. OfS have gone back to institutions to improve student protection plans. Though there are difficulties in setting up something like a “teach out” agreement ahead of time

    We also learned that Barber spends his leisure hours reading – history, politics and fiction – and is passionate about protecting the humanities.

    6 years ago
  • Michael Barber at Wonkfest18

    With this mornings’s appearances on Today and in the Telegraph already, the OfS chair faced a packed to capacity room at Ravensbourne. His decision to start with an account of Fisher’s role in setting up the first wave of Civic universities was typical of his historically informed and widely read (he is a former history teacher) approach to presentation.

    His comments on the lack of OfS support was perhaps of more interest to a room primed by his earlier media round, but he touched on wider issues around the “state of the modern world” arguing that pressure from right and left populism and “techno-exuberance” endangered enlightenment values such as the pursuit of truth. The sleep of reason, he suggested, brings forth monsters.

    On free speech he widened the issue to include the wider way in which unpopular ideas are debated, noting the tendency of universities in america cautiously move away from discomforting ideas. The way to confront speech you don’t agree with is by taking it on, not running away from it – making sure reason doesn’t sleep.

    He closed with a challenge to university press offices – to tell the wider world what universities do and why. Getting across the infectious incitement of academic life is key to avoiding a popular backlash.

    Wonkhe’s Louis Coiffait has a great summary twitter thread, with images.

    Here are Barber’s slides.

    6 years ago
    Nov 6 2018
  • Welcome to day two

    Another packed day of #Wonkfest18 but arguably the two biggest sessions will be Sir Michael Barber of the Office for Students at 11am and Sam Gyimah MP, Minister for Universities, at 2:30pm.

    We’ll be pushing both on their comments around whether universities will be allowed to fail from the brink of bankruptcy, possible bailouts, and how students might be protected.

    We’ll be live-blogging and tweeting both sessions so follow here and on #Wonkfest18 – tell us what you’d ask Sir Michael and the Minister.

    6 years ago
  • It’s goodnight from me… and it’s goodnight from him

    We’re signing off our live blog today – but will be back bright and early for Day 2 of #Wonkfest18.

    We’ve had a blast today – covering everything from from freedom of speech to mental health to fees/funding to misuse of stats to metrics to governance to Westminster/Whitehall to campus culture wars.

    We’ve trended on twitter thanks to the energetic online debate from our brilliant policy community – who came out in force today. And we’ll bring you more Day 1 highlights before we get fully underway.

    Enjoy the fireworks and see you all for more in around 14 hours!

    The Wonkhe Team

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Wonkhe Awards 2018: The Winners

    It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for – the winners of The Wonkhe Awards 2018!

    We had a brilliant shortlist from hundreds of nominations – and are delighted to finish Day One of #Wonkfest18 celebrating the very best of the policy community in higher education.


    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Debate Stage: can teaching really be measured?

    The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is one of the hottest issues in higher education in the moment – but is it capable of actually improving the quality of teaching?

    The statutory independent review on TEF is due to be set up before the end of 2018 so we put together an expert panel to read the runes.

    Wonkhe’s own David Kernohan was chairing the session – here’s his take:

    The panel was clear we need to ask students about their learning and listen to their answers. Metrics will always be a part of the picture, but a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the needs and aspirations of undergraduates is an essential first step in improving teaching and the student experience.

    The dual role of TEF (enhancement and information) is becoming more confused with many institutions hiring data scientists and not educational developers. It was noted that we sit at an important part of the life of the TEF, with the statutory review just round the corner – which again needs to involve the student voice as a fundamental point.

    But, following the Augar review, the role of the OfS may change again – perhaps returning to a funding role?

    It provoked quite a debate online too.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Debate Stage: are LGBTQ+ students safe on campus?

    The Debate Stage had a focused debate on LGBTQ+

    It follows Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain: Universities report out in April which found:

    • two in five LGBT students (42 per cent) have hidden their identity at university for fear of discrimination
    • seven per cent of trans students have been physically attacked by another student or member of university staff in the last year
    • two-thirds of LGBT students (69 per cent) say university has equalities policies that protect LGB people on campus.

    And it also picked up on Student Minds’ report LGBTQ+ Student Mental Health which was out in July.

    Wonkhe’s own Rachael Firth with Eden Ladley from NUS, Pete Mercer from Stonewall and Dom Smithies from Student Minds unpacked the issues.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Guardian Stage: rankings, tables, metrics – your thoughts

    Higher education is now awash with rankings, league tables, frameworks and metrics.

    But can we measure our way to higher education success?

    We picked an outstanding panel to look at this key issue from every single angle.

    Ellen Hazelkorn (Director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology)
    Matt Hiely-Rayner (Kingston University, Head of Planning)
    Bernard Kingston (Chairman, Complete University Guide)

    Here are the highlights of the online debate

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Debate Stage: the state of campus morale – and what we do about it

    One of the most passionate sessions today has been on the state of morale on university campuses, opened up by the USS pension strike in the spring but also ongoing disputes over casual contracts, pay and workloads – all representative of a wider disconnect between staff on the frontline and leadership.

    Chris Shelley, Director of Student and Academic Services at University of Greenwich sums it up for us.

    Jo Grady, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relation at University of Sheffield

    Grady explained how she took to twitter over the weekend to gauge morale on university campuses – and described the responses from colleagues across England as “heartbreaking” that so many felt “institutions disregard them”.

    Grady discussed the USS dispute – the biggest strike for more than a decade in universities, with staff walking out for 14 days over four weeks across 60-plus universities. She said many management teams simply underestimated the strength of feeling on campuses – and then resorted to accusing staff of not caring about students. For her, it indicated universities feel “under-humanised and driven for profit”.

    She said USS was a lightning bolt moment that lifted the lid off how low morale is. She said higher education is becoming a “metric driven, marketised and hostile environment”. Universities need to “stop treating staff as a cost to be minimised”. Trust needs to be repaired, not by talking about how staff feel but through making concrete changes across the board: employment rights; pay and reward; and working conditions.

    Joe Cooper, Deputy HR Director at Imperial College London

    Cooper accepted the pension dispute had been a catalyst for dissatisfaction across a range of wider issues – pay and benefits; communications and trust; and lower graded staff.

    Cooper said headlines on free speech are not reflective of how it feels to work in higher education. Pacy change is now an inevitable part of all workplaces – so it needs to be delivered right, with staff being empowered to shape their jobs and air their reviews.

    He accepted there needed to be a much stronger connection between academics and leadership. He said it was inevitable that many early career researchers may not become full time staff, which affects their relationship with the institution – and accepted a big focus is on career planning with them.

    Philip Plowden, Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham City University

    Plowden stepped into the session at the 11th hour – and spoke freely in response.

    He said the USS was not the only pension scheme in town – speaking passionately about the future of affordability of the Teachers Pension Scheme.

    And in answer to an online question, he listed out the top issues on Vice-Chancellors’ minds:

    • financial stability and sustainability
    • real engagement from leaderships to win staff’s trust back
    • TEF (and REF) – balancing their importance to universities with students wider concerns
    • widening access and participation – arguing the majority of undergraduates at BCU are first generation students
    • student wellbeing, particularly mental health but also the wider experience
    • equity, including closing the BAME attainment gap and creating a balanced, representative workforce

    The big question, of course, is how to build bridges with the wider academic and professional staff community to tackle all these issues.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Know Your Wonkfest, from Your Wonkfest

    This may be difficult to believe but there is another Wonkfest… and it’s safe to say, there’s probably limited crossover between the two.

    For we share our name with an annual underground punk rock festival in Tufnell Park, London – the brainchild of Alex Wonk, the founder and lead singer of Wonk Unit and for the last 26 years on a mission for the last reinvent the genre for a new generation. He is, according to a profile, a “musician, fashion designer and first and foremost a skater… the very first punk rock gentlemen”.

    Wonks, Wonk Unit, Wonkfest: we salute you.

    Oh – and Wonk Unit’s next gig is on 24th November at The 100 Club, London – for more see here

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • HSBC Stage: Fiscal Illusions & Political Delusions

    Our session on the policy and politics of higher education has had a big response on the #Wonkfest18 hashtag.

    And the session poses tough questions about whether Westminster and Whitehall fully understand the Pandora’s Box being opened on the one hand, in the ongoing Post-18 Education & Funding Review and on the other, by the Labour opposition’s commitment to abolishing tuition fees.

    Here’s where our expert panel’s years of analysis and very real concerns about the direction of travel need to be heard in the corridors of power.

    For the underlying message is the urgent requirement to close the disconnect between the political debate on tuition fees; the policy machinations of creating a fair, progressive, sustainable financail system; and the commercial reality of running a university – or the headlines of the last week about institutions on the brink of bankruptcy risk becoming a reality.

    For more read our panellist Andrew McGettigan’s definitive guide on Wonkhe to understanding the fiscal illusion of how student loans are treated in the national accounts – and the options ahead. Get that, and you’re half way to getting right to the heat of the meat in this debate.

    And for other voices in the debate, read the live blog from our Proceed With Caution conference in July 2018 – which focused on fees, funding and the future of higher education.

    A final thanks to all our other panellists: Anna Vignoles Professor of Education at University of Cambridge; Lucy Hunter-Blackburn, commentator and blogger; and Maike Halterbeck and Gavan Conlon from London Economics.


    6 years ago
  • HSBC Stage: Goldacre – how do we help academics to not be pointless?

    Writer, academic and scourge of bad science, Ben Goldacre was on effervescent form on the HSBC Stage.

    He kicked off by pointing out the common distractions and flat-out lying that bedevils the presentation of data. The audience were treated to a walk through common biases and dodges that felt – at times- alarmingly close to the sector data we know and tenderly caress, and some of the wilder shores of the way we promote universities.

    And he then posed the fundamental question of the day: “how can can universities help academics to not be pointless?”

    Goldacre bemoans the idea that traditional academic publication is the answer to bad policy. He took the packed HSBC Stage audience through the advice doctors are given around treating diabetes. He demonstrated the way randomisation at patient level can lead to larger, and cheaper, trials.

    His message was clear. The onus is on scientists to focus on impact from the start of everything they do, rather than just at REF time – which means opening up to working with campaigners, lawyers, lobbyists and wider professionals with extensive experience of how to deliver policy and culture change (and the dark arts required to do it).



    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Debate Stage: What are the win-wins in social mobility?

    A lively and topical debate on the win-wins in the social mobility debate addressed some existential issues about whether social mobility is possible, whether it is the right term to use, and why it has so often been framed in opposition to excellence.

    Panellists gave their take on the latest rumours of differential fees set within the range of £6,500 to £13,000 per year.

    Professor Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education and Director of Research at the Faculty of Education, said that it would not widen participation – the previous fee rise didn’t decrease participation because of the way the system is set up and so this measure will not improve it.

    Education can be used to improve social mobility if we invest in disadvantaged students disproportionately – funding systems to reflect this fact.

    All panellists agreed that we need to “start early” on social mobility.

    Helen Thorne, Director of Policy and External Relations, UCAS:

    A lot of companies offering degree apprenticeships are still chasing those three-A students with lots of experience and, in my opinion, excluding students they could be helping.
    Thorne highlighted that school pupils need “the full range” of subjects and qualifications available to them, while Vignoles pointed out that this doesn’t necessarily limit the role of universities.
    Universities can still achieve a lot by committing to contextualised admissions and investing “disproportionately” in the outcomes of poorer students after university.
    Terry Manyeh, researcher for RECLAIM Project Ltd, called for decision making on social mobility in HE to be led by people from underrepresented backgrounds.

    When we talk about social mobility, maybe we talk about improving the lives of individuals but not about the deep-rooted inequalities that persist and won’t stop unless we have measures to tackle that.

    Jenny Baskerville, Head of Social Mobility and External Affairs Senior Manager, KPMG, was positive about the opportunities for employers to work with HE institutions on improving social mobility.

    From an employers perspective explaining what we do more broadly is important because social mobility is a term that many outside of academic circles don’t tend to be familiar with.


    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • A Word For Our Sponsors…

    We’re well into our first sessions across all our five stages .

    And we’ve got live coverage, comment and reaction – here on our rolling blog and across twitter for the next six hours.

    Join in the debate on #Wonkfest18.

    And it’s probably the right time to give a big hand to our sponsors and partners – who really are key to making Wonkfest18 happen.

    Wonkhe is bringing you the next two days in association with HSBC and The Guardian.

    We’re being sponsored by Online Education Services, KPMG, LinkedIn, Interfolio, Unite Students, Shakespeare Martineau, Nous Group, SMRS and The Hotcourses Group.

    And we’re being supported by Global Academy Jobs and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Thank you one and all.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Wonkhe Awards 2018 – The Shortlist

    If that wasn’t enough, we’re hosting the second annual Wonkhe Awards tonight – which our esteemed founder and Chief Executive Mark Leach insists on calling the WAs… and everyone else calls… The Wonkhe Awards 2018.

    It’s easy to get bogged down by challenges and change. These Awards both celebrate our community’s commitment to improving policymaking in higher education, as well as showcasing new or previously unheard voices and perspectives.

    Based on nominations from across the sector, we announced the shortlist last week in the following categories:

    • Social Media Wonk of the Year
    • Outstanding Commentary on HE Policy
    • Outstanding HE Policy Analysis
    • Wonk to Watch 2018
    • Best Use of Data
    • Wonk of the Year
    • Lifetime Contribution to Better Higher Education Policy

    All the shortlisted candidates and individual Wonkhe Award 2018 sponsors are here.

    6 years ago
  • Preview – Freedom of Speech & Campus Morale

    We’ll be bringing much more across our rolling blog and Twitter feed over the next two days – just follow #Wonkfest18

    The full programme is here but there two other big highlights for us today.

    We can’t wait for the must-see panel debate at 1115 on freedom of speech with:

    • NUS President Shakira Martin
    • education legal guru Smita Jamdar, partner at Shakespeare Martineau
    • Steve Kolowich, senior writer from The Chronicle of Higher Education


    We are trapped in a never-ending cycle of claim and counterclaim on freedom of speech that eats up both political will and strategic bandwidth – we want to move the debate on.

    And another big highlight this time on Debate Stage at midday is discussing the state of staff morale on campus after a tumultuous 12 months for the sector: industrial unrest, wider disconnect from senior management; casualisation of labour; managerialism, metrics and measures; and the wider narrative on the marketisation and commercialisation.

    To work out what’s going on and what are going to do next, we’ve got:

    • Jo Grady, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relation at University of Sheffield
    • Philip Plowden Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham City University
    • Joe Cooper Deputy HR Director at Imperial College
    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Preview – Campus Wars & Broken Politics

    At 2pm, we welcome Steve Kolowich, senior reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education to discuss the so-called culture wars on US university campuses – and what lessons the UK can learn.

    Kolowich is the author of long read The State of Conflict, My Effing First Amendment and more recently There Is No Campus Speech Crisis.

    We’re really pleased to welcome him to Wonkfest.

    And at 2.45pm to round off our speakers on the HSBC Stage is Economist Senior Editor Anne McElvoy.

    McElvoy will set out the volatile policy, political and public landscape higher education needs to be navigating in 2019 – and how universities can get on the front foot in Westminster and Whitehall.

    Anne is an one of the most acute, intelligent and informed commentators on the madness that is UK politics today – in short the ideal person to help us cut through it all.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018 Preview – Campus Wars & Broken Politics
  • Preview – Bad Science & Fiscal Illusions

    We’ve got a packed day – the full programme is here.

    But look out for the big events on the three main stages, which we will be covering for you across on
    our rolling blog and Twitter – just follow #Wonkfest18

    First up on the HSBC Stage at 11am will be the brilliant scientist, writer and commentary Ben
    Goldacre – on Bad Science: How Science and Statistics Get Used and Misused.

    Goldacre has made his name of exposing pseudoscience – quack doctors and nutritionists, bogus credentialing programmes and biased scientific studies. He has also taken the media to task for its willingness to throw facts and proof out the window in chasing headlines. The academic community has never been under such scrutiny, with the next Research Excellence Framework closing first – so this session will be a fascinating opener to Wonkfest18.

    And at midday we’re bringing together a panel of higher education funding royalty to discuss Fiscal Illusions and Political Delusions: Getting Ready for Reality on HE Funding.

    The Post-18 Education & Funding Review expert panel’s recommendations are due in early in the new year – then it’s over to ministers to decide the next steps.

    This in the midst of what’s predicted to be a brutal spending review; uncertain economic outlook; and major questions on the financial sustainability of not just individual institutions but whether a sector of hundreds of universities and colleges is actually viable under the current funding model.

    To debate all this is:

    • Andrew McGettigan, commentator, analyst and blogger
    • Anna Vignoles from University of Cambridge
    • Lucy Hunter-Blackburn, commentator and blogger (and reigning Wonk of the Year)
    • Maike Halterbeck and Gavan Conlon from London Economics.




    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Views On Today’s News

    Our Monday Morning Briefing went out to our 35,000 subscribers at 8am this morning – offering unbeatable coverage, commentary and analysis of higher education.

    We’re analysing in detail on a slew of big higher education stories over the last five days – leaks about proposals to cut headline tuition fee to £6500 from the current £9250; claims a series of institutions are close to bankruptcy; and details of NUS’ £3m deficit and emergency cost-cutting exercise.

    And it sets a challenging backdrop for Wonkfest18 next two days – and in particular our sessions tomorrow with the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah and Office for Students’ Chair Michael Barber.

    In new articles on Wonkhe today:


    To join in the debate follow #Wonkfest18.

    And if, god forbid, you don’t yet subscribe we’ve be chuffed if you sign up to our Monday Morning Briefing.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Editorial: We Must Build A Bold Vision and Progressive Consensus

    Wonkfest18 is the biggest event we host. It has taken months to plan and hundreds of people to make happen.

    But what’s the underlying rationale and ethos behind it?

    Our founder and editor Mark Leach has written this morning on Wonkhe about the need to bridge the divisions in higher education; to set out a bold vision for the future; and to build a national, progressive consensus for change.

    Traditionally, national higher education policy was made by a small number of men behind closed
    doors in wood-panelled rooms in private members’ clubs. Yet the top half of Wonkhe’s annual Power List two months ago was dominated by bureaucrats, technocrats, and regulators.

    As Mark argues the danger is that higher education has replaced one kind of top-down, centralised leadership with a new one.

    We need inspirational, creative, and bold new thinking, not the status quo. We must believe that together we are part of the solution, not part of the problem. We must erect no barriers or dividing lines about who we work with. We should never care about role or responsibility or title. And we must believe the best ideas come from the bottom up, not the top down.

    And Mark writes that the key is honest, transparent and open debate

    Wonkhe is not a political thinktank 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, and all that universities do best. But we want to create the policy space to get there: to allow people to ask open-ended questions, to make balanced judgements, and to respect people for choosing to agree or to disagree.

    Join that debate using #Wonkfest18 today.

    For Mark’s full editorial read here.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018 Editorial: We Must Build A Bold Vision and Progressive Consensus
  • Setting the scene…

    We’ll be previewing today’s events over the next hour or so – before our coverage gets fully underway from 1045.

    And then we will keep you up to speed with live news, comment and reaction, right here on on our live blog and across Twitter for the next two days.

    Wonkfest18 is running across three main stages – the HSBC Stage; The Guardian Stage; Debate Stage and then a mass of fringe events in our Learning to Wonk area and Wonk Corner.

    The full programme is here.

    We want to hear from you – so join in the debate on twitter using #Wonkfest18, whether you’re here with us today or part of the wider Wonkhe family.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Wonkfest18’s Home from Home

    We’re back for a second year at Ravensbourne University London, slap bang next to the O2 on the Greenwich Peninsula in London.

    We love it here – the brilliant staff, the great students and the awesome award-winning campus. If you’re here, lucky you. If you’re not, we’ll bring you all the atmosphere.

    Ravensbourne, if you’re not familiar, is a specialist digital media and design university – founded in 1959 and based in Greenwich since 2010.

    It runs vocational courses in fashion, television and broadcasting, interactive product design, architecture and environment design, graphic design, animation, moving image, music production for media and sound design.

    The Director and Chief Executive Linda Drew is speaking at Wonkfest18 both today and tomorrow – so look out for her too.


    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018
  • Welcome to Wonkfest18!

    Wonkfest is back by popular demand – brought to you by Wonkhe, the home of everyone in higher education engaged in its policy, people and politics.

    Over the next two days, Wonkfest18 will bring together 500 members of the Wonkhe community under one roof – with a non-stop programme of 50 speakers and 50 events across our five stages.

    It’s the UK’s biggest and best higher education policy festival and, even if we do say so ourselves – frankly, the most fun.

    Over the last eight years, we’re so proud to have built up a following of tens of thousands of people across the higher education sector.

    You play an equal part in what we do, whether you are one of the scores of contributors who write for us; among the 35,000 subscribers who get our Monday Morning Briefing; listen to the Wonkhe Weekly podcast; or the tens of thousands of visitors to our website every week.

    And Wonkfest really does celebrate the work you all do – people not just passionate about the power of education but committed to driving higher education forward.

    6 years ago
    Nov 5 2018 Welcome to Wonkfest18!