Revenge of the Expert: Wonkfest 2018

Alison Jones is the Chair of the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA) and Former University Secretary at the University of Bradford. She reports on the recent Wonkfest event in London, a festival of ideas and debate about the future of universities.

Colleagues from all parts of the higher education (HE) sector converged once again on Ravensbourne University London for the annual Wonkfest. They were eagerly anticipating the latest thought-provoking presentations and discussions – ably directed by the Wonkhe team – and the general view was that they were not disappointed.

Following suit from last year, the programme for the two days was diverse and engaging, and the open plan setting of Ravensbourne allowed for the free flow of delegates between the different sections of debate and discussion. The sessions ranged across UK/US politics, bad science, freedom of speech, the civic role of universities, horizon scanning, equality and diversity, the fiscal illusion of higher education funding, governance and data science, but the subject that attracted most attention and discussion was the ‘no bail out’ position of the Office for Students (OfS) and the Department, presaged by an interview with Sir Michael Barber on the Today programme on the Tuesday morning. More on that later.

The conference started with rousing presentations from the Wonkhe team advocating for a more intelligent approach to higher education policy making, and a call for the sector to take the lead in ensuring that HE is seen as a national treasure, rather than a drain on the taxpayer; a message that recurred throughout the two days.  Delegates were encouraged to participate, debate, ask difficult questions and to mark the conference as the ‘revenge of the expert’.

A theme from the previous conference continued this year with a number of sessions focused on freedom of speech, the accusation that universities are ‘left wing madrassas’ and that young people are incapable of entering into robust debate for fear of offending or being offended. Steve Kolowich, Senior Writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US, provided an interesting, if concerning, insight into the increasing attempts by the conservative media in the US to expose the apparently liberal, politicised universities indoctrinating their students; drawing on parallels with recent press coverage and government comment on the UK landscape. The panel discussion on this subject worked through the legal obligations in respect of free speech alongside the imperative for universities to encourage healthy debate and exchange of ideas, with the clear premise that with rights come responsibilities.

Delegates heard clearly from both the Chair of the OfS and the Minister that with institutional autonomy comes responsibility, and neither of them could have stated more strongly that there would be ‘no bail outs’.  Michael Barber joined the conference fresh from him interview on the Today programme and was keen to impress upon delegates what the OfS is and what it is not, starting with some popular myths that he has discovered on his visits to universities.

Myths about the Office for Students:

  • They are Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Mark II
  • They are against the sector
  • They are obsessed with marketisation
  • There will be a fault line between the OfS and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
  • In the end they will bail out universities that are performing poorly financially

He went on to rebut categorically each of these myths, particularly the latter, stating that the act of bail out was inconsistent with the concept of institutional autonomy. Instead, the OfS would operate on the basis of trust-based regulation, with the onus on providers to identify and alert the OfS early to any matter that may impact on their future sustainability. Providers acting responsibly would then have the support of the OfS to explore potential solutions, with the primacy of protecting the student interest as the driving force behind what those solutions might be.

Both Barber and Gyimah emphasised this protection role of the OfS and both were critical of the Student Protection Plans submitted by providers as part of the registration process. They hinted that more would be required of providers in the future to set out granular detail in their plans, with clearer expressions of risk and potential means for students to ensure that they could complete their studies.

Neither speaker would be drawn on the implications of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) review of treatment of student debt and the potential ramifications for the Augar Review and subsequent decisions regarding tuition fees, but Michael Barber was clear that the OfS would prioritise any available funding to support access and participation.

Resonating with the opening address from our friends at Wonkhe, both the Chair of the OfS and the Minister impressed upon delegates the importance of the sector and individual institutions being able to set out a positive vision of higher education and the impact of sector.  As Michael Barber put it: “Don’t take the values [of Higher Education] for granted; inclusivity, diversity and the pursuit of truth have to be promoted – don’t let reason sleep.”