The Alan's Reckonings

Because fact and opinion aren't mutually exclusive

Who are the policy makers?

I don’t have a qualification in public policy, so forgive me if I’m just regurgitating something everyone else knows. A day-long consultation on the future of the engaged university got me thinking.

I reckon there are four types of policy makers:

Funders/resource providers
Interest groups

In HE this makes a lot of sense to me, with policy makers using evidence to develop standards, to focus resources, to interpret and implement conditions, or to advocate interests and influence.

If I had the skills I’d draw them in some kind of concentric circle with arrows and stuff- you get the picture.

Interesting in that when we commission or produce research, we normally do it with one or two of these, the temptation being to load the findings to our policy objectives. The best pieces of research, however, are able to be used by (and produced specifically to be used by) each of these kinds of policy maker-as each will interpret the findings to their mission as such.

I guess the trick is to be the first policy maker on the scene, to be able to advocate your mission/interest first, possibly capturing the public narrative- meaning that you ‘own’ the first impression, the first response – the other policy makers now have to deal with three times as much: the findings, your positions (and their ramifications on their mission) and the new public perception of the problem as influenced by your position.

So, do the research, share it by all means (otherwise credibility and implementation are threatened) and seize the opportunity.

That’s what I reckon anyhow.


Is participation all it’s cracked up to be?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently…maybe three months…looking at the experiences of students from different postcodes. POLAR 2 is the categorisation used to assign postcodes by one of two measures- of young people going into higher education, and one of adults holding higher education qualifications.

It’s been very useful and has, as with most social science, helped me to point out the bloody obvious in order to make recommendations as to how to improve people’s lives- the mission of any policy-comms person.

POLAR 3 came out right in the middle of the analysis work we were doing (typical timing aka Sod’s Law) and I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of what the new updated categorisation means in a coffee-ridden meeting at BIS. You’ll have seen it by now: a 2% increase in participation across all five participation quintiles – great news for widening participation policies over the last ten years. What’s even better is that the impact of a 2% increase on lower participation categories is proportionately more impressive than 2% on quintile 5. By this point you may well be asking what gibberish I am on about. Trust me, if I could whack a graph into this it’d do wonders, but I won’t. Basically it shows that the gap in participation between higher participation neighbourhoods and lower participation neighbourhoods has closed somewhat (it’s still not level) but generally, it’s a bit fairer.

Whether it remains this way with the recent omnishambles in all education policy (not just higher ed.) we have yet to see.

Anyhow. The point: Detractors came out in the (HE) press over the use of POLAR categories- over the use of postcodes. Their belief is that measuring participation in a postcode, particularly in areas like central London, paints a misguiding picture as the categories are (generally rightly) seen as a proxy for socio-economic class. To some extent there may be a point, particularly in high-rise accommodation….OH HANG ON…

No. I reckon this:
1) I’ve seen a few high-rise blocks in my time. I’ve lived in them, they can be great- they tend to not be great in many ways too. I’ve also been in the refurbed posh ones. They’re over-priced. What I haven’t been in yet is one that genuinely does mix our glorious class and income-riven society. I’m sure this does happen- I’ve only given anecdotal accounts here…multiple anecdotes do not make data. Nevertheless, stop clutching at straws. Any category error here will be marginal.

2) it’s what we’ve got. It’s based on census data. It is updated. It is taken in conjunction with OTHER EVIDENCE. Oh and those that work with it, admissions and widening participation professionals, know how to do their jobs.

Anyway I reckon that people will cast aspersions on any method you use for this stuff…sometimes for marginally valid reasons, sometimes because it’s about what your trying to achieve- they don’t believe in the WP agenda- sometimes because it sounds convincing. Don’t get carried away with this, POLAR categories help us to paint a picture of who goes to uni and how they get by- important stuff. For every postcode that is flawed, 99 are spot on, for those 99 we will do great things, for the one that’s wrong – its our job to work it out, get in there and make sure that the door of opportunity is open still.

Anyway, back to these bleeding graphs!

The power of a good reckon.

I was considering how I would frame my first ever blog.

In work terms, I have a lot I could talk about – from investment in student support, supporting student officers, obliterating a strategic plan or plain old politics. Outside of all of that stuff, I’m a keen overthinker of music and have a personal code of ethics and unwritten rules which make my behaviour in life at least predictably erratic: I’m easily obsessive. However I didn’t want to write a blog about any one of these things on their own.

Besides, a lot happens in life, why pigeonhole yourself?

I do think that, linking all of this together is my approach to everything – it always starts with my gut instinct: largely, every single one of my opinions, decisions and actions are based on what I reckon as opposed to what I actually know – knowing is what happens after you’ve worked out if what you reckoned was right in the first place.

I work in the student movement as a policy officer at NUS. It’s exciting stuff if you are a wonk-aspirant, but I feel sometimes not too accessible to all that might have something valuable to offer. I’d spend a lot of time worrying about how engaging policy development was, if I were not too busy actually developing it. So I much prefer to reconstruct my language day to day, in the hope that an officer, a student, a colleague or indeed my dear old mother might stand more of a chance of getting what’s important about an issue as opposed to having to do the work of translating the process and jargon.

So yeah, I’ve never come up with a single hypothesis in my life. I have on the other hand seen some stuff and very quickly reckoned that Group A were “sound” whereas Group B “did bugger all work” and were indeed “rubbish graduates” to pull out a decent example.

We haven’t all got a phd (although I’d like one) but we can all think, we can look at stuff and get a gut instinct and take a punt.

So, I reckon it might be interesting for me to write a blog based on things that I reckon. It gives me room to be opinionated (obviously), means I’m less likely to get into trouble, and gives readers an open goal to agree, disagree, modify or even get us to that stage of knowing.

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