Policy: Why a List of Power Shows the Real Winner to be Volatility


I had a quick look at the Higher Education Power List 2016, over at Wonkhe. I soon realised I’d need a longer look, as the list is a different beast to last year’s offering.

27 out of 50 entries are new to the list. More than half. Let that sink in for a second.

Volatility is a big part of HE right now. It’s no wonder the short-term focuses more than long-term plays.

Only seven entries rise in the list, with three in the same place. 13 entries fall, meaning that most people who remain on the list since last year aren’t seen to be as influential as they were.

Richard Brabner says that judging who shapes the sector with their power and influence, “is not a science. It is subjective“. What we can see here is how consistency isn’t currently on higher education’s side. The HE Power List is an example of a lively—perhaps erratic—situation.

Higher education is not shielded from current events and wider politics either. Aaron Porter explains:

“For higher education the politics are significant. Not least because the Higher Education and Research Bill is making its way through Parliament, but also because it provides the crucial context and backdrop for the sector.”

Porter adds, “The world is a very different place, and so is the political composition of the 2016 list”.

Jonathan Simons echoes this. He concludes that, “making predictions as to what will happen over the forthcoming year is a mug’s game”. While David Morris talks of “The strange and sudden unravelling of the ‘Osborne Supremacy’” that has seen George Osborne go from top of the Power List to not in it at all from one year to the next.

And what about the student angle? Smita Jamdar says that “the student-university relationship [has] been pulled in many different legal directions”.

Jamdar explains that while students aren’t new to protest, they are focusing on more targets and looking more widely around the world. When you add social media power and the need for institutions to listen to their ‘consumers’, students are in a position to make things happen.

Student influence is not currently in the direction of paying lower fees (or getting rid of them in favour of another model). Their current influence is in changing the layout, experiences, and atmosphere of student life.

Although students have not made the Power List this year, is it only a matter of time before we see the student collective making an appearance?

The HE sector is being pulled in all directions. Perhaps volatility should top the Power List. Unlike George Osborne, chances are it would stay at the top of the chart the next year too.

Why Students Must Keep Consumer Attitudes Away From Day-to-Day Academic Work


Jim Dickinson asked on Twitter why it’s so difficult for some “to imagine that students can both be customers AND learners”. A binary is so often assumed between students as consumers and students as producers. Why can’t people be both at the same time? After all, we see matters on a multitude of levels. Why should this be any different?

I agree. That said, I worry about the way in which some people use the consumer mindset. It’s easy to have good intentions, yet drift off toward a limiting conclusion.

Dickinson explains why the binary attitude doesn’t work:

“[Students are] usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.”

The ability to seek redress when something goes wrong is important. What’s difficult is keeping consumerist attitudes away from day-to-day academic work.

In a post on Quite Irregular, Jem Bloomfield refers to a paper which found that students with a more consumer mindset would achieve lower grades:

“The authors studied students from a range of British universities, and asked them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of statements intended to identify their attitudes, including their “learner identity” as someone who was engaged in intellectual development, and their “consumer orientation” as someone who was purchasing a product from the university. They also asked for the students’ most recent mark for assessed work.”

The paper concludes that “a lower learner identity was associated with a higher consumer orientation, and in turn with lower academic performance“.

Traditional school leaving students are already overwhelmed by the sheer number of changes and new considerations upon arriving at university. By introducing an additional layer of complexity that compels some students to look at value for money, there are potential dangers.


Instead of coming to university with an open mind to enjoy and experience a wide range of what’s on offer, some students see the huge investment they’re making and keep their focus on only what they consider they are paying for. They break down contact hours from lectures and seminars into divisible chunks. Divide the annual tuition fee by the number of contact hours per year and *that* is how much it costs to attend a session.

Breaking down £9k into a per-lecture framework is sobering. And unhelpful.

The sobering effect can focus the mind on putting all effort into the academic work. It’s this added consumer element that creates a jarring effect. Students are shocked by their three dimensional life and react by putting their actions in two dimensional terms.

Bloomfield says:

“It frames a degree as something which they can just add to their existing collection of possessions. This prepares them to resist ideas which might call into question their previous assumptions, since this would reduce their already accumulated “store” of ideas, rather than adding to it. It also discourages them from taking intellectual risks, since these might damage their final mark and thus devalue the “product”, even if they might also result in personal development and new perspectives which could be useful in future.”

For decades, students in different subjects have compared their workload and structure of their degrees. One spends hours on experiments in a lab and have cosy lectures with just a few other students present. Another has a handful of lectures with a hundred others, losing much of that personal feel felt in a smaller group.

Even when the contact hours are the same, other differences are a marker of better or worse value for money.

This forces an even stronger consumer stance. It’s not about getting what you need, it’s about not being diddled. If someone else can have that level of experience for the same price, why can’t I?

Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, expresses his concern:

“[A powerful] but in my mind distorting, view comes from the idea that value of a course is not measured in cost or effort but simply in the quantity of contact hours. It is in the comparison between subjects that don’t involve practice and those that do that the sharpest comments arise.”

Such a focus on this limited definition of value doesn’t provide enough context. So those who want better value for money and focus on the transaction may get less value for money as a result.


Even students who align their consumer focus to achieving the best academic results possible aren’t setting themselves up so well for the future. They work to the detriment of everything else for a top result when they graduate, but what other qualities and achievements can they showcase? Employers won’t be interested in how many contact hours they had.

In fact, employers are already less likely to focus so hard on a person’s academic study, choosing to look more broadly at candidates.

Yet research by The Student Room and the University of Sheffield found that 68% of A-level students now plan to take a postgraduate course after they graduate. Respondents mostly want to ‘enhance their career prospects’ and many also believe that postgraduate study will give them better chances of employment and better salary.

Spot the disparity. There are many good reasons you can give for taking up postgraduate study. Is the thought of having more chance of a job a good enough reason on its own?

The transactional side of higher education feels both valuable and damaging at the same time. Gaps could be widening at a time when people think they’re being bridged.

So how can individuals keep their positive three dimensional perspective intact? One way is to stay aware of the hidden value that exists where consumer ideas haven’t yet strayed. Another is to stay focused on the bigger picture as opposed to only what you think you’re paying for.

But if you must have it in consumer terms, think of the degree as the minimum viable product and you as the innovative business. You build your business to improve the initial product.

That product may start as a degree, but thanks to you–the business–it can grow into an irresistible package that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. Synergy-licious!

Why Bias Begins Long Before University Applications

How much applicant information do you need to remove before university admissions lose all bias?

Trick question. There’s always some sort of bias.

Anything attempting to level the playing field is better than nothing, but inequalities cannot be removed as easily as removing a name, or grades, or an institution.

As with Deloitte’s decision to ignore which university applicants studied at, the removal of names from UCAS forms is positive, but there is more to consider.

As Vikki Boliver says in The Conversation:

“Admissions selectors will still see each applicant’s home address, the school they attended, what they have written about themselves in their personal statement and what their teacher has written about them in their reference. All of this may provide subliminal clues as to an applicant’s ethnic and social background. Where applicants are interviewed as part of the selection process, the scope for unconscious bias becomes wider still.”

Social background can make a huge difference to applications. Lauren Rivera, author of “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs“, explains:

“Whether intentionally or not, elite parents expose their children to different experiences and styles of interacting that are useful for getting ahead in society.” – [SOURCE]

In exactly the areas where people are meant to stand out, some find it easier to do than others. Inequality starts early and may not even be deliberate. People want to do the best they can for their children with the resources they have access to.

Those with a disadvantaged upbringing in some way are less likely to succeed in using the systems in place to build an impressive personal statement. And if they do manage to attend their university of choice and graduate, there are further hurdles to cross in creating CVs and making job applications.

For example, extra-curricular activities are often dropped in favour of getting the academic work done. Rivera has studied this too and she believes there should be “less weight [given] to extracurricular activities” as they are “a huge source of class inequality whether it’s in university admissions or in interviews”.

Striving for a First gets in the way of making do with a 2:1 while building up other achievements and industry experience. Yet these differences are what employers differentiate on.

When it comes to making name- and qualification-blind decisions, it may appear over time that the same people as before are getting the university places and job offers.

The danger here is that some people may see this as proof that some people are naturally more accomplished than others. They will conclude that the cream really does rise to the top.

If a lack of change is apparent, that doesn’t mean these new approaches to university and job applications will have failed. But it will show that applications are not the original source of inequality. Bias begins long before university applications. There are many variables, which begin much earlier in life and can be difficult to overcome.

Becoming A Masterful Graduate: Class, Strategy and Playing ‘The Game’

Becoming A Masterful Graduate: Class, Strategy and Playing 'The Game'

“They have nobody to blame but themselves.”
“If they don’t put in the work, they don’t deserve to get anywhere.”

Comments like these assume that people have a great strategy worked out and simply choose not to bother using it.

These comments also assume that mistakes were made on a level playing field. The only possible reason for underachievement must be laziness and lack of trying. Fault is made to look totally one-sided.

It’s true that you should take responsibility for your actions. But life doesn’t operate on a constant, level playing field. Comparisons are rarely helpful.

Taking personal responsibility isn’t the one difference between success and lack of it. Matters out of your current field of vision and understanding can limit your mindset, even when you are (unknowingly) capable.


When something is out of your current field of vision, it’s time to get strategic.

At school, I jumped through hoops without understanding why. It was only when I realised I could be acting more fruitfully, MUCH more fruitfully, that I crafted a different path. I had made my initial UCAS application for all the wrong reasons and had focused in areas that would not have suited me.

In fact, at that time, university of any kind wouldn’t have suited me. I needed to make a leap. And it took a whole new set of experiences to show me the way.

I’m so thankful that so much changed in the incredible year between leaving Sixth Form and going to university. That in-between year still involved a lot of Sixth Form and university. But I managed, luckily, to change the game.

‘The game’ is all about strategy. Ciaran Burke’s new book, Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures: Degrees of Class, explores the problematic relationships between social class and graduate achievement.

Through a series of graduate interviews, Burke found that future career strategies are heavily impacted by early social and class experiences. He explains that individuals tend to feel in control of their destiny, yet appear to follow certain patterns depending on their class grouping.

Burke states:

“A common theme within much social policy, pertaining to social mobility, is individual responsibility…Social mobility policy needs to approach the issue more holistically, considering inequalities between groups rather than seeing it as a working-class problem; as Payne (2012) comments, low social mobility should not be understood solely as the working class failing to enter the middle class but the middle class, effectively, keeping them out.”

These issues, Burke argues, are not properly addressed in policy, which has led to “contradictions and limitations within policy narratives“. His work describes the need for widening participation and social mobility to be discussed with a more sociological approach. He suggests that some documents, such as Alan Milburn’s Unleashing Aspiration, come close, but “do not make the leap”.

Jo Johnson’s recent speech as minister for universities and science included the commitment to double the entry rate of those from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, compared to 2009 levels. However, greater access to university is just the start. Johnson also explained that UCAS will publish data and analysis regarding protected and disadvantaged groups. While this information will be useful in assessing applications, Burke’s findings appear to suggest that widening participation does not turn into social mobility and a guarantee of increased success off the back of securing a degree. Other strategies that must be uncovered to help these students, once they graduate, to understand not only what is within their grasp, but also how to firmly grasp it.

In a Times Higher Education review of Burke’s book, Huw Morris concludes:

What Burke’s book reveals to this reviewer is, first, the need to help young people and their families gain a better understanding of “the game” of graduate social mobility, and, second, the part that employers could play in rewriting the rules of a process that is becoming more costly and less like a game.

Better understanding of ‘the game’ is needed in order to improve the “field of the possibles” because Burke states that there is a “cap limiting what the working-class respondents understand themselves to be capable of achieving“.

Blinkered to the 'field of the possibles' can limit capability.

Being blinkered to the ‘field of the possibles’ can limit capability.

To overcome artificial limits, therefore, greater emphasis is needed on improving strategy.

For instance, Burke states that working-class students believe that an institution’s reputation “will increase their chances of securing graduate employment“. But middle-class students are playing the game differently: “The middle-class graduates understand the situation and read for their degree based on the merits of the individual course; they appreciate it is that course that will increase their ability to find a graduate job, not the presumed institutional capital.

I believe strategy goes far beyond the merits of a course too. University isn’t about a course, it’s not about grades, it’s not about social life, it’s not about engaging in seminars, it’s not about joining societies, it’s not about making friends, it’s not about writing essays, and it’s not about learning to be independent.

University is about all these things.

And so much more than that.

I see three big-picture terms within the strategy:

  1. Mastery – Move beyond learning the minimum. Basic expectations are there to be surpassed, not followed on the dot.
  2. Narrative – Explaining what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and where you’re going. Describing how you’ve mastered pertinent skills and why it matters. Signalling your achievements so they make sense to those who need to know.
  3. Self-imposed limits – Not self-imposed beliefs, but a conscious decision to focus on a small number of concentrated areas. It’s a cycle, because these self-imposed limits help you to achieve mastery and to form a narrative that’s exciting and makes sense.

As you develop your strategy, it becomes easier to take action. And once you take action, bit by bit, you discover more. You learn new things that you thought would remain a mystery your entire life. Discoveries that go way beyond your degree.

It could be how to play the instrument that you always wanted to enjoy. Or how to organise your life without breaking into a sweat…How to network like a champion…How to start a movement…How to work with others.

Social mobility goes beyond getting a degree. Access to university is one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Even if access to higher education never was an issue, it doesn’t help to simply feel entitled, as Burke explains in his book. To be the student you deserve to be, assumptions–both humble and grand–only serve to get in the way. As with coursework, there are no marks for assuming without putting in the research and experimentation.

The playing field isn’t level. That’s why strategy is so important. When I realised this, it changed my perception. Not only did more seem possible, but the work involved also felt less of an uphill struggle.

You’ve probably heard people say that because they were able to achieve a certain goal, it follows that anyone could achieve it. “If *I* can do it, anyone can!”

While there may be some truth in that, it’s too simplistic to see that as sufficient proof and motivation to guarantee success. More work must be done on developing strategic mindsets. More people need to be aware that they’re playing the game. When that’s apparent, people will also have a more conscious choice over how they wish to play it.