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.

HE Policy: Short-term Futures and the Importance of Watching Everyone

The future of higher education is always just around the corner.

In reality, some concepts have hardly changed in hundreds of years, while others come and go so quickly they could be mistaken for a myth.

As things stand in 2013, institutions need to be ready to keep their current ground as well as prepare for growing trends in the short- to mid-term future. Long-term is a given, although my main reason to not mention it is because stakes are strangely higher in the short-term at the moment. As David Kernohan recently mentioned, “Institutional management has become an increasingly short-term enterprise”.

Whether you look at universities as competing elements or a bunch of diverse individuals, it would be wise to pay attention to what each institution is up to. A Russell Group member shouldn’t rest on its laurels, despite the perceptions of relative safety within such company. They should look further afield and pay attention to decisions made by new universities, private providers, and overseas players. Everything and everyone should be watched with interest.

Watching you, watching me, watching everyone. (Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Watching you, watching me, watching everyone. (Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

That’s just an example. No matter where your university hangs on the tree of esteem, it’ll be worth checking out the strategic moves of others across a wide area. Perhaps you complain that private providers are only in it for the money, but if their surprise move successfully captures an active audience it’ll be up to everyone else to catch up. For some, it may be too late to catch up:

“…as many as 20 to 30 current…institutions could become unviable if student demand continues to fall.” [THE]

The quote above refers to concerns from HE leaders interviewed by PA Consulting Group. It looks like everyone is vying for as much audience as possible. The report found the biggest major concerns were of a decline in postgraduate student demand and further reductions in funding. The biggest moderate concern was an inability to grow alternative sources of profitable revenues. Hence the continuing need for healthy numbers of bums on seats.

This may annoy some readers. “Students should not be seen as pound signs.” “Using admissions as a way to tempt people and dump them with little to speak of later is a disgrace.”

And there is a fine line. Institutions clearly need to highlight unique selling points to get a steady stream of keen applications. However, as Janet Graham, director of the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme, says in today’s Times Higher Education:

“…some approaches, while appearing to give institutions an edge, potentially push the boundaries of acceptable practice and fair admissions – to the detriment of the sector and the confusion of applicants.
“This carries a long-term cost, as it could harm institutions’ reputations among prospective students, parents, schools, colleges and the public. Short-term fixes must be thought through.”

In essence, a short-term view still requires a long-term attitude. All the more reason to keep track of new developments within a wide scope and at an early stage, so you can catch a glimpse of what’s playing out with time to breathe. Ish.

You may not wish to emulate particular success stories, partially in view of Janet Graham’s point above. However, you should build an understanding of what processes are working, whether they are relevant to your institution, and how you might be able to incorporate something similar into your plans.

Anything that seems dangerous or unacceptable may still contain useful fodder for your own future actions. You may be able to use it in a more reasonable way to make the point.

Plus, you can see where trends are starting to emerge. A small pool of providers may make a move toward something unusual, for instance. That’s a cue to assess what is going on and evaluate why the sudden interest is there. Always be on the lookout for clues. What looks strange today might be pretty standard tomorrow.

There is only so much you can do through surveys and studies and action groups. You won’t be first in everything. But when you’re not first, you should at least be aware so you can make well reasoned decisions to be close behind with a solid plan, rather than lag at the back in a frenzied attempt to mop up whatever is left.

Awareness also allows the confidence to dismiss some moves outright. Though mistakes are equally possible from this direction, none of us have a magical crystal ball lying around to get it right every time. Keeping careful watch and consideration is a reasonable alternative.

Question why new decisions have been made. Consider undisclosed background reasons behind why that direction is being taken. Could it work for you? Does it make sense? Is it reasonable? What’s missing? How can you find out more?

The short-term is where it’s at right now. That doesn’t mean the need for brash decisions. On the contrary, it often requires more consideration than ever.