politics

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

power-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.

1994 Group, Natural End Points, and Ongoing Plots

The 1994 Group of universities has today announced that it has come to a “natural end point“. But the end of this plot leaves many others wide open.

What will come of other mission groups? And for the universities previously under the 1994 Group umbrella, how will they choose to respond?

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman)

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mission groups generally set to put some kind of vocal pressure on the government and other policy shapers/makers when important issues are under discussion, or desperately need it. For that reason, I don’t think they’ll disappear any time soon. Uncertainty about the future will keep them going if nothing else will. Without wider representative voices, institutions would be in a much weaker position.

After the 1994 Group announcement, two tweets from Times Higher Education staff made interesting points:

Will the Russell Group become the ‘last one standing’? If so, what will that mean for the group and for higher education as a whole? If not, will other mission groups feel the need to alter their brand image?

With 24 universities currently in the Russell Group, I’ve mentioned before that it’s close to Michael Arthur’s comments on 25-30 institutions that should get the lion’s share of research funding.

Arthur’s comments suggest the possibility that we won’t see many more universities move over to the Russell Group.

No matter how large the membership becomes, if the group became the only one to remain, it would be all too easy to see the sector as two-tier:

1. An elite level of institutions in a powerful and vocal position;
2. All the rest.

That might be simplistic, but the danger is there. When I wrote a chapter for the Pearson book, Blue Skies, I made the following points:

“As a diverse community, we cannot all face the same direction, but we should aim to work as a collective nonetheless.”

and

“HE should benefit society as a whole. To do this, focus must rest more on achievement, and less on competition.”

The Board of the 1994 Group acknowledged this. They stated that “the sector is stronger when it works together”.

Sadly, the current system in HE, especially regarding fees, means that competition is only set to grow. How do you deal with collaborative representation then? Represent everyone and you represent no one.

It was less than a month ago when the Russell Group was being represented in the media, after calls for an increase or removal of the tuition fees cap. Does this favour all universities outside the Russell Group remit? Is it reasonable to focus on one group when it may only represent one aspect of the higher education landscape?

As Marie-Elisabeth Deroche-Miles has predicted, we could see greater competition, leading to more outspoken representatives.

From this perspective, mission groups on the whole could seek to toughen up, rather than close down.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes in terms of vision and/or membership. It may be a necessary development. So despite today’s news, the end of the 1994 Group isn’t a definitive sign that mission groups have had their day. It is more a sign of an unsettling under way. Where it will take us, we cannot yet tell.

As Phil Baty tweeted, many members of the 1994 Group had been strong players. This strength is what led a number of institutions to move to the Russell Group last year. If those universities believed mission groups no longer mattered, they would have simply left the 1994 Group, rather than move elsewhere.

Under the current system, the collaborations do matter. They help communicate the big ideas, outline the future visions, and point out oversights that make an impact on a wide scale.

No matter what scale you take representation, you will see many flaws as well as strengths. That doesn’t mean we should give up.

As my Blue Skies piece said, contradiction is (and always will be) higher education’s great strength. The community must work together, despite differences. Communities within that community must make their case heard. It would be a mistake to end up with one community in a dominant position and another community fighting for the scraps. That won’t be in the interests of society, since there is so much investment and involvement. Such an obvious two-tier setup would change opinions way beyond the universities.

Whether the end of the 1994 Group came as a shock or as an inevitable result of recent events, it marks the end of a chapter, but hardly the end of the book. The “natural end point” for the 1994 Group leaves enough characters remaining and many unanswered questions. Where will the plot turn next?

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Student Societies and the Problem With Controversial Invitations

Controversy is a strange thing. Simply knowing about the matter is enough to cause a reaction. Nothing needs to have occurred yet to cause offense. The implications and the possibilities can be enough.

Matters such as these that move into the wider public arena quickly draw attention. When people find out that something or someone controversial has been given a platform, opinions quickly divide. A mere invitation will cause offense, creating friction from the outset.

For student societies, that makes inviting any controversial public figure a tough job.

hot topic (photo by Enokson)

photo by Enokson – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Oxford Union, a debating society, recently came under fire for what looked like differing views in how to handle controversial invitations. Reactions surrounding invitations to Julian Assange and Nick Griffin appeared different. Assange was granted a platform, while Griffin was dismissed as not having even been properly invited. Independent student newspaper, Cherwell, quoted an Oxford Union spokesperson: “The Oxford Union does not wish to be associated with the BNP in any way whatsoever. We strongly disagree with their views.”

Assange, however, went on to speak in late January 2013. Former president of the Oxford Union, Izzy Westbury, explained to the Guardian why invitations like these are made:

“Inviting someone controversial – be it in a political sense, a religious one or, in the case of Assange, a legal one – is the best way of showing them for what they really are. When Assange is video-linked to the union, I would expect and encourage questions that challenge both his views and his actions. We should put him in an uncomfortable position – that is the condition of the invite.”

Writing for Cherwell, Alexander Rankine pointed out that such a vocal disapproval of one person and not another is contradictory:

“A Union invitation does not condone. Guests can be cross-examined. The Union is neutral. The idea of the Union adopting a political position or pursuing an agenda goes brazenly against this principle. Now it seems that the Union’s invitations are motivated by political opinions and specific agendas after all. And if that is really the case, then the Assange invitation starts to look more like a vote of support. The Union stops being neutral.”

An invitation is not an entirely neutral move unless you invite the entire population of the world on exactly the same grounds. Invitations arise due to some form of interest or controversy or debate or fame. The matter is complex, so cannot be neutral even if the intention was innocent.

What if a society was more explicit in explaining the reasoning behind an invitation as non-politically as it could? If that happened, the situation is still political, because reasons can be argued and people can disagree with the reasoning given.

Rankine handily wraps up the difficulty and the answer in a single sentence: “I always thought that the Union was meant to be a neutral debating platform.”

That term, “Neutral debating platform“. Can a debating platform ever be entirely neutral?

Debating occurs due to political matters. That’s the point of a debate. Be it a mild discussion, or an emotionally dividing battle, opinions are not all the same.

When Marine Le Pen, president of French political party Front National, spoke at the Cambridge Union, around 200 protesters gathered in opposition. One protester told The Cambridge Student:

“I don’t object to her speaking, but I think the important thing is we make it quite clear there’s opposition. The fact that you can get up and ask her a few questions afterwards is not really enough.”

The term ‘neutral debating platform’ comes into question based not only on the handing out of invitations, but also on the format of the debate.

Yet an invitation is placed in order to bring forth further debate, rather than endorse or congratulate (or, indeed, disagree or disparage) the parties involved. An opportunity for questions may not be seen as enough.

With so much to contend with, inviting a controversial figure cannot be completely neutral. Their views and actions are a necessary part of the package. It’s a big part of why their presence was requested in the first place. Those underlying reasons cannot be temporarily removed for logistical purposes.

Debating societies wouldn’t exist without some sort of controversy. That’s why an attempt to be neutral looks anything but to some. Politics may be intended only once everyone is gathered in the debating hall. However, some decisions are already political long before many realise they are political at all.

How would you handle controversial figures and controversial invitations?