Bursting bubbles in higher education

By Mark Leach –

In higher education, policy bubbles are commonplace. They float around the sector drawing disproportionate levels of interest and as they grow, they become less rooted in evidence, research or coherent thought. It is important to understand these bubbles if we are to improve policy-making in higher education, a project that has never been more important.

Shortly after tulips found their way across Europe in the 17th century, their exotic and beautiful qualities quickly made them a sought-after luxury item. In the Netherlands, they came to represent the newfound confidence of the Dutch who had cast off their imperial masters to find extraordinary wealth through trade around the world. The intensity of their colours and patterns caused by a virus in the bulbs made them unique amongst flowers available at the time. People started to pay extravagant sums for the bulbs so that they could get their hands on the ultimate symbol of status and wealth. Taking seven years to grow from a single seed, speculators saw an opportunity to make money and a tulip futures market was born. Prices started to rise as more and more speculators entered the market and the bulbs started being sold for outlandish prices, with many examples of people putting their entire life savings, property and fortunes up against them.

The peak of ‘tulip mania’ came during the winter of 1636–37, when it was commonplace for a tulip bulb to change hands ten times in one day, such was the vigour of the market. But like every bubble, the tulip market was to dramatically crash, after some non-payments led to panic and a collapse in demand.

Lessons from history have not been learnt and bubbles continue to appear across the gamut of human experience; most famously and damagingly, in the global economy. In his book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), Charles Mackay puts this down to the way in which crowds of people can behave irrationally, yet individually may continue act in clear and rational ways. Examples through history have shown this unfortunate human quality to linger, and policy-making has certainly not been immune.

The way policy is made in higher education, particularly at the level between universities and government, is both distinctive and misunderstood. It is also extremely important, yet the higher education sector will often underestimate its own power to make change; either by design to avoid political difficulty, or by ignorance born of a short-termism and the need to be ‘seen to be doing something’.

The UK government devolves much of the detailed policymaking to the funding councils who then work with different sector agencies to create something akin to a consensus about the way forward. This approach is used across a range of important policy issues – from teaching funding mechanisms, to the process and principles of quality assurance.

But terms are always kept deliberately narrow, and whilst the crowd around the table often represent big thinkers with rich experience, deeply held paradigms about power in the sector are often used to excuse not doing something. Policy bubbles are prone to originate in this zone, particularly when there is money to dole out on the trendy issues of the day such as ‘public information’ or the ‘student experience’.

But what is a policy bubble precisely? Its porous borders make it hard to define, but there are many examples of policy in higher education from the last few years that have taken on the characteristics of a bubble. Take student engagement, a classic victim of this syndrome in the UK.

It suffered from being too popular, too quickly and before it was firmly grounded by a coherent intellectual underpinning, a bubble was born. Politicians started to use student engagement as a buzz-word for sounding progressive and up to date about higher education. Commercial events companies began organising conferences based around the ‘issue’, without fully understanding it. Research was commissioned and presented, centres of excellence rose and fell; ink was spilled all over the education press. Yet as an idea, it had not yet been fully realised and defined, even by its biggest proponents and certainly not by its critics. When something starts to mean all things to all people, this is often the sign of a bubble about to drift away in to the policy stratosphere.

That is not to say that there is no good work in student engagement; of course there is. There are also many very well intentioned people working within this area right now, making positive progress with newfound support from senior university staff and policymakers. But by its definition, a bubble is not a sustainable construct and both their journey up and their dramatic end can be detrimental to policymaking itself. Those same people doing good work will want to ensure that it has a lifetime beyond a limited project fund or public ‘hot topic’.

But few bubbles leave much of a legacy to speak of; their volatile trajectory sees them suck in disproportionate attention, funding, interest and political capital on the way up. And when they finally burst, a lot of people are left to mop up the remains asking ‘where did this really take us?’

Bubbles also represent a particularly reductionist approach to policymaking, boiling down and dividing up the academy in ways that suit civil servants, not universities and students.

In times where resources are scarce, there is less scope to throw irrational sums of money into policy bubbles, but they continue to grow. Their journey depends more on human flaws and in an increasingly pressurised environment, people are more prone to do irrational things. Particularly when they act collectively, as history shows us. With so many big questions about the future of higher education on the table and a waning appetite for public investment, the pressure to answer them has never been higher. The need for more sustainable policymaking has taken on a new urgency.

This is why the higher education sector need to move beyond bubbles and shake other bad policy habits that do us no good at all. We must also stop underestimating just how much is in our power to make changes for the better.

We need to meet the policy challenges set by government, students, academics, a struggling economy and a more interested public, no matter which way the political winds are blowing. But it has to happen in a sustainable way and it needs to include input from all quarters. We also need leaders that are unafraid of challenging the old paradigms, prepared to take risks and perhaps try a different way of doing the business of policy. When these things come together well, magic can happen. And for those that work in policy and care about the future of our sector, that’s a far more beautiful sight than even the prettiest tulips.

Mark Leach is founder and Editor of wonkhe.com.

Wonkhe is a blog for higher education wonks, those who work in the HE sector and anyone interested in higher education policy, culture and politics.

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