Wonks, tanks and dancing bears

Given the key message of Padraig Hogan’s book, and the papers I have read over the last week critiquing and explaining education policy, I was curious to discover the mechanisms through which academic research can inform education policy, and the extent of its influence.

I took Stephen Ball – whose paper was the subject of my last post – as a case study. The IoE website helpfully details the funded projects he’s been involved in and tells me that his work in this area has been funded by ESRC and the European Commission, among others.

The EU Commission calls for specific research in areas of priority set by themselves, and one would assume there is a direct path then for the findings to inform policy. NB – I was really pleasantly surprised to see the vast majority of the calls for EU Commission research funding are focused on green technologies, sustainability, gender equality and collaborative processes. Similar areas were the subject of the recent round of PhD scholarships awarded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The ESRC – where most of Stephen Ball’s research funding has come from – manages certain programmes specified and funded by government agencies (e.g. HEFCE), but also allocates a significant proportion of their funding to open calls. This is obviously an important system to have because it allows academics to research what they think is worthy of study and the ‘disinterested search for truth’ to continue. But where does this knowledge go – is an academic journal or book the only endpoint? It is particularly ironic if research on the knowledge economy and knowledge exchange between universities and the outside world (e.g. Olssen & Peters 2005) does not find its way to the policy makers! I did a bit of googling to see if any Knowledge Transfer Partnerships had been funded in education policy research but found none (most had a STEM focus).

Even research programmes explicitly demanded and funded by government agencies appear to have a very limited impact on policy. I found an ESRC evaluation document for the second phase of their Teaching & Learning Research Programme (TLRP) that explicitly examined the extent of impact on policy, the ways in which that impact has been achieved and the value of that impact.

The TLRP was a £30 million initiative (funded by HEFCE and the UK government departments responsible for education) to build research capacity in education within UK universities and respond to criticisms that educational and pedagogical research was ‘small scale, irrelevant, inaccessible and of low quality’. Overall the evaluation concludes that while the TLRP appeared to have succeeded in producing research that met certain quality criteria and impacted positively on some areas of teaching and learning practice (p11), there are “relatively few success stories” of impact on educational policy (p40).

It sounds to me as if – while the government wanted the quality of educational research (according to certain criteria) to be raised, they never actually intended to listen to it.

In the bit of the evaluation report that presents the lessons learned (i.e. how to have more of an impact on policy), a telling mismatch is disclosed between what the researchers think they should be doing (publishing in journals – p17) and the case study evidence that emphasises non-publication activities as impact enablers (such as liaison with external bodies). In fact, project stakeholders explicitly reported their concern about the ‘traditional focus of academics on refereed publications’, explaining that what was needed was clear, brief, jargon-free outputs that could be turned into direct action. Now, this isn’t to say that the more impactful projects (yes, that’s a word) didn’t publish in journals – they did. But this evaluation report underlines the concerns I outlined previously about certain kinds of educational research not ending up in the right places for it to make a positive difference to the world.

So, the report’s recommendations for enabling impact (p40-41) firstly suggest that policy research must be accessible to those in the ‘policy arena’. Naively I kind of thought the Department for Education would have a subscription to the Journal of Educational Policy, but it sounds like this isn’t the case. Actually… crumbs, I shouldn’t even admit to this, but I only found out this week that universities aren’t the domain of the Department of Education but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – ‘the department for economic growth’. Ouch.

The report also seems to suggest that we need to involve a lot of middlemen; that engagement with ‘brokers’, ‘evidence mediators’ or others who influence policy teams may be more successful than direct engagement with policy-makers. Who are these brokers and mediators? Who employs them? In what capacity? This is all very interesting…

Think tanks. I never really considered what they actually were. I guess I imagined something like a septic tank that you put politicians in so that they can think about what they’ve done.  It turns out they’re small groups of ‘experts’ (not necessarily academics) who inform policy, with funding from somewhere (often charities) and a board of trustees. I picked one at random – British Future – made up of a Director, a Director of Communications, a Director of Strategy and Relationships, an Office Manager and an Intern. These are not academics – these are mediators – experienced ones. By the look of their biographies, they seem like decent people.

Million+ is a Higher Education think tank that produces the kind of brightly-coloured, jargon-free summary booklets that policy-makers supposedly want. Here is their Manifesto for Universities. I felt it was disappointingly anodyne and forgettable. Million+ comprises a VC, a chief exec, two policy officers, a press officer and an office manager.

I’ve come across HEPI before as I think they were the first people to suggest the rising cost of unpaid student loans is approaching the tipping point where it wasn’t worth raising fees. HEPI have written a briefing for the upcoming election, and an interesting collection of essays on student fees, including one from our own VC at UAL, Nigel Carrington. HEPI’s director Nick Hillman sounds like an amusing kind of chap. I’d like to see more on their website about who they are and who funds them. I don’t feel satisfied with these organisations calling themselves ‘non-partisan’ and ‘charitable’; non-partisan can mean anything you want it to mean, and charities have agendas too.

Gideon failIt transpires these think-tank people come under the umbrella term of ‘policy wonks’. There are some interesting theories about the origin of the word ‘wonk’ here, but it seems the wonks have chosen to own their name. They now have their own community website; wonkhe.com, that speaks in unusually glowing terms about our glorious Chancellor. There is a very balanced THE article about wonks here. You would expect it to be balanced, given that it’s written by someone I would describe as a ‘career wonk’.

So, there we go – that’s who is influencing policy, apparently. There is, of course, Universities UK – made up of the executive leaders (VCs, etc) of UK Universities – they speak of ‘shaping the agenda’, which seems like a rather diluted version of influencing policy. I checked out the vacancies page, curious about what kinds of people Universities UK were looking for – ‘dynamic, well-connected and politically astute’, apparently. I think I’ll stay where I am, thanks. And that’s part of the problem; people with certain kinds of views and feelings about HE simply don’t want to get involved with this lot.

Another notable recommendation from the TRLP evaluation report is that it helps (obviously) if research projects and outputs have explicit, direct relevance to policies and policy areas, and are appropriately timed to inform the cycle of policy development. The wonks are clearly taking this approach.

What all this is pointing to is that academics need to wise up and play the game. If they want their work to have more of an impact they need to be proactive in this whole circus without becoming one of its dancing bears. But they’ll need to hold on tighter to their principles than Frodo with his stupid ring.


Some other articles, policy research & policy documents I found on my virtual travels:

How to Influence HE Policy – Guardian (2012)

How I’m taking University of Hertfordshire to the Policymakers – Alix Green, Guardian (2011)

Students at the Heart of the System – BIS White Paper for England (2011)

The Funding Environment for Universities – Universities UK Report (2013)

Futures of Higher Education: Analysing Trends – Universities UK Report (2010)

Higher Education & Society – OU CHERI Research Report (2011)

Effective Learning & Teaching in Higher Education – TLRP Commentary


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