Alison Wolf

January 21, 2005

Why are we so reluctant to make a nuisance of ourselves over nonsensical policy? It boils down to the politics of size.

We all know about special-interest groups. They are selfish, underhand affairs, lobbying for their own benefit to the detriment of the public good. In a perfect world, they would have no influence on the Government and everyone would be the better for it.

Well, no. Special interest groups are not necessarily bad.

Indeed, in higher education, we need more of them. I want them lobbying actively, making a nuisance of themselves, sticking their necks out and even, maybe, getting things changed.

This paean to special interests is born of a day spent on forms designed to "satisfy the Quality Assurance Agency". Given the consensus that most QAA demands are a waste of space and the supposed move to a "light-touch" regime, you might expect a decline in meaningless form-filling. On the contrary. In every institution I know, it continues apace: a defensive exercise in providing, on paper, every assurance and statistic and policy declaration that could possibly be imagined.

For five minutes I fantasised about not filling in the pointless bits, rallying the committees and striking a blow for the good of academics everywhere.

But, of course, I did no such thing. It would be too much effort and would inconvenience my colleagues. Even if I succeeded, in which case lots of others would benefit, I would get precious little recognition and no points towards the research assessment exercise. Instead, I added to the gigantic administrative costs that weigh down higher education (and many other sectors beside).

But why isn't the Association of University Administrators lobbying Parliament? Why doesn't Universities UK simply refuse to cooperate with nonsensical demands? Surely they could afford a fighting fund?

One of the astounding things about the past 30 years is how little, until recently, universities' predicament registered with the media, the general public or the mass of MPs.

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, has pointed out that universities cannot even collaborate in refusing to collect data on "non-credit bearing courses". These are data demanded by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that no one has published, let alone used, about courses that do not receive a penny of public funding. So higher education's lack of lobbying clout is neither new nor specific to QAA-related matters. Just what is our problem?

It is partly that we are public-sector employees with a solvent pension fund: we won't go out of business if we fail to act. It is also the higher education culture: we believe that reasoned argument will win the day. The real answer, though, is that there are simply too many of us: too many academics, too many administrators and, above all, too many vice-chancellors and universities.

The great economist and social scientist Mancur Olson explained why size matters in his work on "public goods and the theory of groups". People in the same sector, or walk of life, share interests. Many of the goods and policies they want depend on government agencies taking action, and which, if they materialise, will benefit everyone in a group, not just the campaigners.

Reduced form-filling in academic life is one example; but so are police-supported neighbourhood watch schemes, the "right to roam" or a sector-wide increase in government subsidy.

The larger the group, the harder it is to organise everyone into campaigning, or to stop free-riding by non-contributors. Very often, the potential benefit for an individual or organisation is far less than the effort it would demand if they did all, or most, of the work themselves. So no one does - they just whinge, like me.

In small groups, however, the benefits of action can often be great enough to justify one or two players (typically the biggest) putting in the effort. It is also much easier to shame and pressure others into helping.

Olson provides numerous examples. I am sure he would have predicted that 100-plus equal-size institutions that form the bulk of UUK's membership are not likely to get far.

Lots of people agonise over the development of organised "sub-groups" of British universities - Russell, Mainstream, 1994 and so on. I think they signal salvation. They are far more likely to campaign effectively for policies that matter to them - many of which will not, in fact, be bad for the rest of the sector, but are simply lower down their wish lists.

If there are conflicts of interest, then far better to thrash them out in public, than patch together some behind-the-scenes compromise that satisfies no one.

So two cheers at least for the Balkanisation of UUK, and may this be a bumper year for university lobbyists.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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