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For the greater good


Jonathan Grant’s new book puts social responsibility at the heart of universities, says Rachel Hewitt

Jonathan Grant’s The New Power University argues that the world is going through a seismic shift—that we are living in an in-between time, and that to move with these times, universities need to radically reset their future purpose.

I am often sceptical of authors or speakers whose project rests on a radical change just beyond the horizon. However, given the times, and the book’s carefully considered vision, Grant’s proposals seem to have arrived at the optimum moment.

New power, a term coined by the US social entrepreneurs Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans in their 2018 book of the same name, is what you get when top-down “old power” gives way to what Grant describes as a focus on “participation, networks governance and radical transparency”.

The New Power University sets out what this might look like across higher education, giving a vision for universities and a plan to get there. This includes fair pay and working conditions for all workers; responding to the attitudes and circumstances of Generation Z; making social responsibility part of the core mission; and changing the power balance in research. In each case, power is redistributed to sit among the groups within universities, as well as those affected by universities.

Grant—whose career has taken him from senior roles at the Wellcome Trust and RAND Europe to King’s College London— cautions against cherry-picking parts of his model, but some aspects of it seem particularly inarguable. It is indefensible for higher education institutions to pay any staff below the national living wage. And universities should see themselves as leaders on social responsibility, including on issues such as climate change, social justice and delivering public good in their local areas.

The book gives many compelling reasons why universities should enact this agenda, some of which are self-interested: by showing how they are delivering wider social responsibility, for example, universities might be able to polish their tarnished image among the public and media.

Like any good book, The New Power University left me with questions. Three in particular stand out. First, how can universities move from being at the mercy of government policy, to taking the more active role in setting policy that the new power model requires?

Grant largely avoids touching on the policy environment for universities. Given his expertise in the policy space, I read this as a deliberate omission, for which there are fair reasons. You could argue that the values and visions of universities that last for centuries should not be restricted by the policies of governments that change every few years.

Nonetheless, the policy landscape cannot be ignored. A government move, for example, to cap access to student loans would have a massive impact on the feasibility of Grant’s call for 80 per cent participation in further and higher education.

Policy should not dictate the future vision for universities, and institutions should seek to shape policy, but it is difficult to see how the new power university could be achieved under such immediate and labile policy pressures. On the other hand, perhaps that makes this the ideal moment for universities to clearly consider their own missions and values.

Second, could all UK higher education institutions become new power universities, delivering every element of Grant’s programme? The core principles seem adaptable enough but, for example, is every institution in a position to operate both locally and internationally, as the book recommends?

It seems to me that universities would be best served by limiting their missions to a small group of principles. Grant acknowledges this, describing how “it is likely that different institutions will put different emphases on different elements of the New Power University”. I agree—each university leader reading this book is likely to take away different elements for their own institution.

Finally, has the Covid-19 pandemic moved universities closer to the new power model, or further away? It feels as if it may be too soon to tell.

We have certainly seen radical changes in the past year. While the book was largely written before the pandemic struck, Grant highlights in a postscript how many of these changes have served to show how adaptable the higher education sector can be when it needs to.

However, the past year has also intensified attention on short-term concerns, as universities have focused on making it through the crisis. 

As the UK and the world move beyond this point, the model of a new power university could provide a handbook for how we rebuild and reimagine our higher education sector. 

Rachel Hewitt is director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version also appeared in Research Europe