The woman marshalling firepower for the intellectual battles ahead

March 16, 2007

Wendy Piatt, Director-General, Russell group

Three months into her role as director-general of the Russell Group of research-elite universities, Wendy Piatt has a clear vision of the issues she wants to tackle: the future of research; teaching funding, fees and student support; globalisation; and civic responsibility, including widening participation.

It is a long and ambitious list that covers pretty much every fundamental question facing the sector in the 21st century.

But her first key task, she believes, may be getting the heads of 20 powerful institutions to reach consensus on the way forward.

Dr Piatt, the former deputy director of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, has met with all the group's vice-chancellors just once so far, on a residential awayday where, she says, the "great, intelligent characters were on their best behaviour".

She is, however, fully expecting huge differences between them. "I'll have to try to bring people around, if not to one particular policy option then certainly to agreement on the principles.

"That's what I have been used to in Government. The whole point of being a civil servant is trying to bring people to some kind of consensus."

Dr Piatt is a graduate of King's College London and Lincoln College, Oxford, and a former senior research fellow in education at the Institute of Public Policy Research. She is as familiar with Whitehall as she is with academe.

Her experience bodes well for the group's new drive to help set government policy, rather than react to it.

The key to her strategy is digging out the hard facts to support the changes the group wants to see made. She says: "I want to take a step back and look at the evidence. It's much better to give them (the policymakers) the real intellectual ammunition to form an argument."

Part of the rationale for establishing a director-general's post is to "make sure that everything we do is underpinned with evidence", she explains. "I've been frustrated for a while by people not looking back at the evidence."

This is particularly true of the debate surrounding last year's introduction of student top-up tuition fees, she says. Russell Group vice-chancellors are keen to raise the £3,000 cap or even abolish it.

"There was so much controversy with the fees debate. It's counterintuitive when it comes to fees because it may deter working-class kids, but now we know that finance isn't the main cause - it's to do with achievement," Dr Piatt says.

A two-day conference she held with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, she described as "a great opportunity to look more broadly at the deep-rooted causes of underachievement" and the low participation of working-class children at university.

According to Dr Piatt, the evidence suggests that middle-class children overtake their working-class peers by the age of six, and her own work on social mobility and life chances and increasing the participation of working-class children at university feeds into that.

"It doesn't exonerate universities from doing more about widening participation, but it does show why it's so difficult. I want to drill down into what the real causes are."

Research funding - a key issue for the Russell Group - will also be a priority, and not just in terms of the research assessment exercise but also the research councils and the European Research Council.

"Are they representing the right areas? Do they represent the new media sector sufficiently? People are questioning that. They are so important.

"They have a lot of money, and the research direction they give is hugely important in terms of filtering down to the labour market and the rest of the economy," Dr Piatt says.

Crucially, she says the group needs to impress on ministers how essential these issues are. "Part of my job is to make these issues seem more sexy because it's so jargon-loaded."

The best way to do that, she says, is to encourage academics themselves to engage more with the Government, to help provide the evidence needed to shape policy.

"We're not able to harness what is done in universities for government policymaking as much as we should."

She added: "We have to rethink the incentives to encourage academics to take a more active role in policymaking. I think it's really important.

"Part of my role is to be that bridge between academe and the Government."

I GRADUATED FROM  

King's College London and Lincoln College, Oxford

MY FIRST JOB WAS

working in a sailing club

MY MAIN CHALLENGE

is to make a significant contribution to evidence-based policy-making in higher education

WHAT I HATE MOST

is bullying and intolerance

IN TEN YEARS TIME I

I would like to see a substantial increase in the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds at Russell Group universities

MY FAVOURITE JOKE IS

Well, a witty comment - Churchill had some great lines: "I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals".

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