Who let them in?

Advisers, administrators, trusted vice-chancellorial aides and henchmen: Mark Leach considers the rise of the 'policy wonks' and the mixed reception afforded a new force in the higher education hierarchy

January 19, 2012

Power hierarchies in higher education are being challenged. A new breed of professionals is shaping policy inside universities and across the sector. But while universities are their natural habitat, these policy experts - known informally as "wonks" - are not "of" the academy. They can be looked down on, sneered at and misunderstood, and they occupy roles that are frequently a source of conflict amid the daily grind of institutional politics. The rise of the wonk represents a new way of doing business in national higher education policymaking, and for the vice-chancellors who make use of them. As wonks' numbers swell, their presence in the academy can no longer be ignored.

The modern construction of the wonk has roots in recent political and popular culture. The policy wonk was popularised in the US during the Bill Clinton administration, when some of the policy advisers whose roles had previously been hidden from view gained their own public profiles and following. The cult US television show The West Wing, broadcast on NBC from 1999 to 2006, built a fictional version of the White House and rode the wave of public interest in the newly unmasked wonks. Wonks became fashionable in the UK, too, with business leaders hiring their very own "chiefs of staff". At the same time, the increasingly professionalised public and third sectors recognised a growing need for policy wonks to engage with, and influence, the government's policy army in the Civil Service.

In higher education, a line can be drawn directly from many of today's higher education wonks back to trailblazing researchers working for the National Union of Students and other bodies that traditionally relied on expertise, analysis and research to influence policy.

Modern higher education wonks are a disparate bunch. Funding councils employ them to manage policy, and sector organisations and lobby groups employ them to provide policy advice and external representation. Vice-chancellors hire them for a host of reasons: wonks can help leaders stay abreast of complex and constantly changing higher education policy developments, and they can become trusted aides. What unites those multifarious roles is the way they call into question the traditional understandings of power and authority in higher education. The relationship between the higher education wonk and the rest of the academy is a complicated one.

My own policy career started at the NUS in 2007, when I was given the grand title of "education research assistant". Much policy-making in higher education takes place in a territory located somewhere between the government and universities, a zone driven by representative bodies, funding councils and other interests. This is the natural domain of the wonk, and it is the environment in which I spent much of my time at the NUS, working with the sector on a broad range of areas from quality to credit frameworks.

My first week made a lasting impression on me. It included a meeting that was chaired by a Dame and attended by senior government officials, vice-chancellors and the chief executives of sector organisations. The gulf between their experience, knowledge and seniority and mine (I was 22) was immediately apparent to everyone in the room. I was viewed with incredulity for much of the afternoon, and my brief spoken contributions were greeted with both surprise and alarm.

It was a memorable induction into the world I had been plunged into, and that awkward experience has served me well ever since (I learned, among other things, always to do my homework). For some time, I was greeted with a similar reaction; at important meetings with a noted membership, it seemed unusual for someone so young and unknown to have a seat at the table.

The perceived link between seniority and legitimacy in higher education quickly became clear to me. Long careers have been spent on the way up to the top of academic and professional leadership of the sector. For this reason, much of my early policy career was spent avoiding glares at lunchtime that implied that I might have crashed the meeting to steal some sorry-looking egg rolls.

But today, members of the traditional upper echelons of decision-makers are increasingly being joined by well-briefed junior colleagues with a legitimate mandate and plenty to say. Perhaps even more challenging to higher education's accepted order are the growing ranks of policy advisers who are being recruited to work closely with vice-chancellors at the top of institutions.

University presidents in the US have had their own policy wonks since the early 1980s, and now there is a comparable post in almost every higher education institution in the country. There is even a fully fledged professional association, the National Association of Presidential Assistants in Higher Education (NAPAHE). As recounted in the book Other Duties as Assigned: Presidential Assistants in Higher Education (2009), the group was born out of the sense of isolation felt by Pamela Transue. In 1987, while presidential assistant at the University of Washington, she picked up the phone and rang 24 people in similar roles across the country, "all of whom seemed startled and delighted to learn that there might be other struggling subalterns like themselves out there".

Although the picture is patchier in the UK, as the sector navigates through unprecedented change, vice-chancellors are increasingly looking to professional policy wonks to help their staff make sense of it all, as well as to smarten up external relationships with policymakers. They are not yet as ubiquitous as their US counterparts, and there is nothing comparable to NAPAHE in the UK, but the wonks' presence is certainly being felt.

The role of the wonk who works in a vice-chancellor's office varies widely in scope and responsibility depending on both the institution and the personality of the vice-chancellor and their leadership style. Duties can include that of speechwriter, gatekeeper, henchman, fixer, trusted adviser, public affairs officer and administrator, and often the job involves juggling all these roles at the same time. Wonks sit outside the traditional management structure of the university, and this is the key cause of tension between them and the members of an established hierarchy who thought they knew how to play the game of university power and politics long before the wonks arrived on the scene.

Some vice-chancellors see the appointment of a policy wonk as an essential part of helping to establish their authority across different parts of the university. That is where the henchman role comes in. Others simply prefer to have someone close who can provide advice while remaining outside of and "untainted" by the traditional university hierarchy.

One policy adviser, who asks to remain anonymous, explains that their closeness to the vice-chancellor means that they are often required to "change the work of senior staff, behind the scenes". In these instances, conflict is inevitable, and it can and frequently does spill over into open hostility. The idea that a much more junior colleague carries such clout and responsibility sits awkwardly with many senior colleagues who have spent a long career working towards the top.

Of the day-to-day job, another wonk notes: "While you are neither Alastair Campbell nor Malcolm Tucker, you often have to step in to prevent or clear up communications disasters, generally out of hours. Often this means enabling the vice-chancellor to step in with the solution so you can stay behind the scenes. Also, like special advisers in government, we can be a good source of information about the vice-chancellor's likely response to an institutional policy paper as well as their current priorities."

But because of the widely felt unease about how policy roles fit in the university hierarchy, senior managers may take exception to being directed by an ostensibly more junior colleague. On several occasions, the same policy adviser has been accused of "over-stepping the role, interfering and feeding information to the vice-chancellor via the back door" - and not in the most pleasant of tones.

A pro vice-chancellor in a university that does not employ a policy adviser told me that he liked to be involved in discussions with the vice-chancellor on policy and future direction. If someone junior to him were to have more information about what was going on - and therefore more power - he would feel "bereft".

But the wonks are here to stay and, as their numbers grow across UK universities, these conflicts will play themselves out again and again. Such tensions, however, will always be a distraction from the core business of the university that academics, managers and wonks are championing and delivering.

Conflicts notwithstanding, universities are thrilling organisations to be part of, and the policy advisers who spoke to me are clear that they love and value their role, particularly when it enables them to make the case for their universities and the wider sector.

Richard Pyle, head of the vice-chancellor's office at the University of East London, says: "I do what I do because I believe in the values of my university. I see my role as being part of that process of changing the hearts and minds of people within and around the sector, so that they see that higher education is about driving an agenda of change in society."

The proliferation of wonks in universities has been matched by their growing ranks in funding councils, mission groups and elsewhere in higher education. Despite being geographically disparate, wonks collide at meetings, functions and conferences, via social media, and even at parties. However, little has been done to build a sense of community among the policy professionals, and there might be something to learn here from the experience of wonks in other sectors.

The science policy community, a close cousin of higher education, appears to be active and influential in its sector. However, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, notes that higher education policy "requires its practitioners to pull in different directions more often than science policy".

This is an inevitability, he thinks, given "the independence and sometimes differing aims of higher education institutions and mission groups". This could mean that any real effort to bring UK higher education policy wonks together, as NAPAHE did in the US, is likely to flounder. But perhaps there is more that unites the different perspectives and missions in higher education than divides them.

Research in the field of higher education is often described as being "in crisis" because of its supposedly waning influence on policy and practice. But education research does matter, and wonks can sometimes serve as the bridge between research findings and policymaking outcomes. Because they work in the university sector, higher education wonks have unrivalled access to knowledge and to the latest education research, and such information could and should form the bedrock of policymaking activity. However, academic conferences on education are short on policy wonks, while policy conferences often lack the evidence driven by academic researchers in education.

Both parties would benefit from greater collaboration. Through this, academics might find a new route to disseminate their research and see its impact on policy. Policy wonks, meanwhile, are far more effective when they have a broad-ranging arsenal of evidence and deploy it wisely.

There are notable exceptions, where the policy and academic worlds successfully merge. Scholars of higher education policy such as Gareth Parry, professor of education at the University of Sheffield, are regularly commissioned by government departments and funding councils to draw on their academic discipline to advise on policy.

Further strengthening the links between the two worlds could also help to offset much of the wonks' perceived mismatch between seniority and authority in some quarters. If policy wonks, who are not "of" the academy, form a deeper collaboration with the academy, a ticket to mainstream acceptance in the higher education community may await. The benefit to the policy profession will be matched by the benefit to the academics who contribute to our knowledge about, and understanding of, education. If the finest academic minds and most talented wonks work together, the advantages will surely be felt across the sector, to the clear benefit of policymaking in the academy and beyond.

'If my role is misunderstood, it means I need to get out more in the university. it's up to me to demonstrate my value'

Name: Alix Green

Age: 34

Title: Head of policy, University of Hertfordshire

Time in post: Five years

Qualifications: BA, MA and MPhil in history, University of Cambridge; now studying part-time for a PhD in history at the University of Hertfordshire

Previous jobs held:

• Criminal intelligence analyst, Essex Police

• Research and development liaison officer, National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, Institute of Education (with Department for Education and Skills)

• Research manager for New Local Government Network, a thinktank.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of your job?

Much of it is about translation, interpretation and engagement. You're working between two worlds - university management and central government - sharing ideas, asking questions, finding common points of concern and interest.

It is intellectually challenging in the best sense of the word. Institutional realities do not always align easily with policy priorities or political imperatives, but it is vital to invest time and energy in understanding each other's agenda.

A similar process often needs to happen internally, working between a corporate perspective and those of departments or groups.

What qualities, experience or specialist knowledge do you bring to the role?

The two years I spent in a role split between a central government department and a research centre were invaluable. I'd like to see much more movement between government and academe (though not just in these sectors) via secondments and joint projects. There's nothing better than working within other people's parameters and pressures to help you to understand that world and how you can make the most of those relationships.

I'd also say that my academic training has helped. My PhD research is looking at the potential role for the historian's mindset and skill set in public policy development.

I'm also keen to see historians and philosophers join engineers and business studies students on placements and internships. Policy would be just one area where valuable experience could be gained, even if the students go on to work in very different careers.

How do you think the post of the higher education policy adviser is perceived, in general, by academics?

My experience at Hertfordshire has been very positive. I think there's a genuine spirit of collaboration here that means people are respected for what they bring, whether it's pure research expertise, experience from industry, excellence in teaching or professional skills of various kinds.

Do you think the role is often misunderstood?

Yes, it probably is, at least initially. But if that happens, I would take it as an indication that I need to get out more in the university! It's basically up to me to build those relationships and to demonstrate the value that I can add to the institution.

'I get to learn from an inspiring v-c'

Jodie Anstee

Name: Jodie Anstee

Age: 31

Title: Policy adviser to the vice-chancellor, University of the West of England

Time in post: Two years


• BSc in psychology, MA in international relations and PhD in politics and international relations, University of Exeter

Previous jobs held:

• Policy support officer, planning and business intelligence, UWE

• Teaching and research assistant, department of politics, University of Exeter

• Research assistant, Amnesty International

What does your role involve?

It covers a broad range of tasks including drafting speeches and papers for the vice-chancellor, working on strategic development and communications, producing briefings on external policy changes, responding to consultations and working with sector representative groups, as well as providing a general "sounding board" for the vice-chancellor.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of your job?

Because of the breadth of the role, it can be hard to set clear boundaries in terms of responsibilities and to clearly communicate these to others. You can end up being drawn into a lot of unexpected activities! Moreover, as it is a unique role within the institution, reporting directly to the vice-chancellor, it can be misunderstood. Networks with other policy advisers across the sector are therefore hugely important.

What are the most enjoyable aspects?

Our vice-chancellor, Steve West, gives speeches on a wide range of topics, from widening participation, public engagement and partnerships with business to strategic challenges facing the sector, the future for the Bristol region and health and sustainability. This means I get to research and write about all these areas, and I get to learn from an inspiring vice-chancellor, which is very valuable, especially at this stage in my career.

What qualities, experience or specialist knowledge do you bring to the role?

My PhD involved analysing the speeches of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. I focused on how they communicated and managed the normative constraints of their environment to establish the framework for policymaking for the detention of terror suspects. This subject area is vastly different from what I deal with now. However, many of the theoretical principles are very useful in my current role as much of the theory was drawn from social and organisational psychology.

'Some academics have seen policy as a nuisance. Now that view is becoming less prevalent - everyone wants to weigh in'

Alisa Miller

Name: Alisa Miller

Age: 31

Title: Policy officer (research and innovation) at GuildHE and research network coordinator, Consortium for Research Excellence, Support and Training (Crest)

Time in post: 18 months


• BA in history and English literature, University of Michigan

• MA in the history of international relations, London School of Economics

• DPhil in modern history, University of Oxford

Previous jobs held:

• Researcher/cataloguer for the First World War Poetry Archive and the Great War Archive, and tutor, University of Oxford

What does your role involve?

It is a balance between advising on and disseminating information about policy issues relating to research, the research and funding councils and, increasingly, the research excellence framework and the European Council, liaising with various sector bodies, and facilitating interactions between the stakeholders and our members. I also represent members' perspectives and try to feed those in to research and policy discussions. I work primarily with university heads of research, and also with the heads of institutions.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of the job?

Every day is different, and for the most part I enjoy having a number of things going on at once. I love visiting institutions to hear about the research going on there, often in specialisms - agriculture, art, craft, design - that I might not have been exposed to in a more traditional academic role. The policy side, and working with heads of research, is fascinating. I was pretty locked in (as I think you have to be, to an extent) to my own particular research area and community when I was doing my DPhil, and wasn't that aware of the debates and organisations influencing higher education in the UK. Academics need to be aware of these discussions much more now, so I feel really fortunate.

How do you think the post of the higher education policy adviser is perceived, in general, by academics?

Within our member institutions, the people I work with are incredibly busy, and I think they appreciate our flagging up issues on the policy side of things. It is always a two-way dialogue. I mostly listen, and because the people involved in GuildHE and Crest are really passionate about research and teaching and who has access to it, they want the research profiles and the role of the small and specialist sector to be taken into account with respect to national policy. Hopefully they perceive my role as helpful, and not as creating extra work for them. It also helps a lot that I am an active researcher myself.

I sometimes get a sense that some of my colleagues who have gone on to become lecturers or postdocs in the research-intensive universities consider the policy side of things a nuisance, or something that impedes "real" academic work.

But given the changes that have taken place in higher education of late, this view is becoming less prevalent because everyone is involved and wants to weigh in. For example, the REF has also had an impact on how academics view policy advisers; they don't want to spend any more time on it than they have to, but they want to get the best results, so the emphasis has to be on helping to facilitate this. So perhaps perceptions are changing.

'People don't always know what you're working on and why it's important'

Colette Cherry

Name: Colette Cherry

Age: 31

Title: Policy adviser to the vice-chancellor, Bournemouth University

Time in post: 10 months


• BSc in biological science, University of Birmingham

• MSc in palaeobiology, University of Bristol

Previous jobs held:

• Aide to the chief executive, Quality Assurance Agency

• Higher education adviser, Higher Education Funding Council for England

• Research assistant, University of Bonn

• Research technician, University of Bristol

What does your role involve?

The focus is on providing high-level support to the vice-chancellor and members of the university executive team in the implementation of policy and strategy. It requires senior-level analysis of higher education policy and its implications for Bournemouth University, as well as support in policy formulation and implementation. In addition I have some further responsibilities outside the main core. I research and draft responses to sector briefings and consultations, draft the vice-chancellor's speeches and presentations, coordinate meetings of the two senior teams at the university, and manage the executive support team in the office of the vice-chancellor.

How do you think the post of the higher education policy adviser is perceived, in general, by academics?

I think it is viewed with a bit of scepticism. These are very tough times for universities, and the policy adviser role is new to most institutions. Also, the policy adviser isn't necessarily very visible to the rest of the university, so people don't always know what you are working on and why it is important.

At Bournemouth I hold policy seminars for staff and students to try to stimulate debate around the big policy issues, and create opportunities for people to contribute directly to some of the big consultations shaping the future of higher education. There is still a lot more that could be done, but I think we're making good progress. A couple of professors have commented that they didn't appreciate the value that I brought to the university until they saw me in action.

This is a challenging role that can sometimes feel a little isolated, so I think that developments such as Universities UK's new political affairs network are very welcome.

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