The sector reshuffle is only adding to the higher education kerfuffle

The merry-go-round of senior figures and a lack of coordination among mission groups has weakened UK universities' influence, says Nick Hillman

November 9, 2017
Miles Cole illustration (9 November 2017)
Source: Miles Cole

After the spate of recent attacks on universities and with all the uncertainties of Brexit, it has never been more important for everyone involved with UK universities to make a positive case. But this has been harder than usual because nearly all the sector bodies have been undergoing enormous change.

It is not just that the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access are being replaced by the new Office for Students, or that a new body, UK Research and Innovation, is being established to coordinate research policy. Other organisations have been undergoing a period of turmoil too. The latest change, announced last week, was the replacement of Wendy Piatt as chief executive of the Russell Group with Tim Bradshaw. And the leadership at Universities UK, MillionPlus, Ucas and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator have all been (or still are) in flux. Meanwhile, the Higher Education Academy, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Equalities Challenge Unit are about to be merged.

It is virtually impossible to emit positive collective messages when there is so much change. Indeed, the volume of turnover helps to explain why the government is winning so many of the most controversial arguments on higher education, getting its new primary legislation on the statute book, introducing the teaching excellence framework and stimulating a debate about the graduate outcomes of individual courses.

On the other hand, turnover has its good points. New faces bring a healthy blast of fresh air, allowing old arguments to be seen from new angles. To give one example, the constructive relationships that the new president of the National Union of Students, Shakira Martin, is forging across the sector are likely to prove more fruitful than the approach of her predecessor. Her willingness to take the voice of students to places where it had not been heard sufficiently in recent times (the recent Conservative Party Conference, for instance) and her focus on student poverty will make more difference than a hundred protest marches in Central London.

The Russell Group is another organisation that has not always been as effective as it could be. All 24 of its members are in the top 250 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, so it has great potential to make a difference to higher education policy and, ultimately, to national prosperity (a report by London Economics, published last week, calculated that Russell Group universities inject nearly £87 billion into the UK economy every year). Yet it has sometimes appeared to punch below its weight.

Perception may not reflect reality, for much of its work is undertaken through private back channels. If a mooted policy looks like a risk to its members, a quick telephone call to the cabinet secretary or the No 10 Policy Unit can work wonders. One reason why the group was so furious when former chancellor George Osborne announced in 2013 that student number controls were to be removed was that it came out of the blue. They had not had a chance to lobby on the details of the policy before it became public.

It is important that policymakers know what the UK’s oldest, richest and most famous universities think. So it would be silly to object to private back channels when they lead to better-informed policymaking, even though these are not as open to other parts of the sector. But behind-the-scenes activity can have a negative consequence too, for it reduces the need to make positive arguments in public. As a result, the ground is less well prepared when an onslaught arrives from an unexpected direction.

Another error arguably made in the past by the UK’s most well-known mission group was to assume that the interests of its members and the interests of the whole sector were different. Demands for research spending to be concentrated in large research-intensives may be interpreted by politicians as calls for a more limited research budget. It is better to argue for a bigger cake for all, before arguing over who gets what. Similarly, the best way to ensure that Russell Group universities are open to the rest of the world is not to lobby for some special immigration rules for them, but to ensure that the whole sector remains open.

It is not fair to dwell on the Russell Group alone, however, because the volume of the sector’s voice in the corridors of power is also diminished by the absence of some other bodies that should have been established by now. In particular, despite the success of independent higher education institutions, we still lack a lobby group for the most prestigious among them: a “Russell Group for private universities”. We also lack a body to represent campus universities that successfully balance teaching and research, as the old 1994 Group used to do. Such organisations been announced more than once in recent years, but they have yet to appear. We need them soon if we are to survive the next onslaught unscathed.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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