PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Academic strategy

Jo Bowman highlights how the controversial Higher Education Bill has revealed a change in lobbying strategies

The Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly wasn't the only issue contributing to Tony Blair's sleepless nights of recent months.

The cliffhanger vote on the subject of university top-up fees hit the headlines time and again, and it showed not just the power of last-minute lobbying, but how the big stakeholders in education have sharpened their approach to swaying public and parliamentary opinion.

Students, teachers and universities understand that to be heard as a credible voice, or indeed to be heard at all, they need to be not just articulate and professional, but highly strategic in their approach to the corridors of power.

Compared to even just five years ago the levels of sophisticated lobbying in education have changed. As interest groups and businesses across other sectors have learned, getting what you want out of government policy starts long before parliamentary debate. And, in many cases, that's meant hiring public affairs experts, either to support a single campaign or, increasingly, as permanent staff.

Combine all this with an evolving political landscape and you'll find the lobbying process has changed with it. While the Government's power has, since the Thatcher years, been far more centralised at Number 10, increasing privatisation has given a greater range of people than ever before - from private-sector employees to shareholders - a say in how the country is run.

Student lobbying

Crucially, the education ballot on whether students should pay more towards their tertiary education showed that party lines are not always set in stone. Indeed, the lobbying over the controversial issue of university top-up fees has shown that arguments can be won or lost by convincing one MP at a time of your case. The result? A back-to-basics approach to lobbying, heavy on painstaking background research and one in which every vote counts.

Lobbying from the National Union of Students (NUS) is a prime example.

It's been conducted on a much bigger scale than ever before and, with what NUS president Mandy Telford calls, a more strategic approach.

'We found out about MPs' backgrounds, tracked what they've said in the Commons, tracked early day motions,' she says.

This information was then fed to student representatives in target MPs' electorates, who tailored presentations in line with MPs' interests.

'One MP might be more concerned about debt or access issues than with variable fees, so while the ultimate goal is the same, we go in armed after finding out as much as we can about the MP. We meet as many MPs as possible, but it's actually a lot more effective if they hear from their own constituents,' she adds.

With limited funds to pay for its anti-bill lobby effort, the NUS teamed up with the Association of University Teachers, pooled resources and often carried out joint briefings.

As one political insider notes, perhaps a little harshly, students are 'no longer represented by a rag-tag bag of hairy scruffs who are whinging and moaning'. But, as Telford adds, there is a place for waving placards and shouting, but an MP's face is not it.

Conversely, this back-to-basics approach wasn't the path of choice for all lobbying parties. As the Higher Education Bill was so big and so new the strongly pro-reform representatives of Universities UK (UUK) chose to hire external public affairs consultants for the first time, taking on Finsbury for advice on its lobbying efforts for its Higher Education Bill campaign. As a one-off, it held some early conversations with Finsbury about parliamentary procedure and what happens when.

UUK already meets MPs at the three major parties' annual conferences, and frequently sends out - and is asked to provide - briefing information for MPs on issues affecting universities.

Money, however, was the driving factor on the decision to not hire public affairs consultants for the University & College Lecturers' Union.

'Our union and the Association of University Teachers have largely been squeezed out of the whole Higher Education Bill debate - we both have a clear policy against variable top-up fees and sadly we've not had the opportunity to explain that,' a spokesman said. 'There's a traditional reluctance to speak to trade unions. We're no strangers to being forgotten.'

The truth is, though, that while the bill's survival was hanging in the balance until the last minute, much of its finer detail had been determined many months earlier. The public affairs process, therefore, begins with a focus on the civil servants who draft legislation, before they even begin. So even those who adopted the back-to-basics approach to lobbying, simply putting pressure on MPs, who have party whips to contend with, is often too little, too late.

What happened in the vote on education came about because education - like health - is one of the issues most MPs - and indeed many voters - hold dear. And, unlike the complicated debate on foundation hospitals, the notion of adding X amount to a medical student's university bill was easily understood.

But there is nothing unique about the education sector's growing understanding of good public affairs, nor its willingness to seek advice from public affairs consultants.

Education activists have impact

'Politics was seen as something the company secretary deals with because it was a "legal issue", but now they understand the value of public affairs,' observes Weber Shandwick/GJW Public Affairs joint MD Paul Barnes.

The fact that the Education Bill vote was such a close shave for the Government does, however, give activists within the education sector confidence that they can have an impact.

And it gives interest groups in other sectors hope that they can have a powerful impact on a debate and subsequent government policy.

'Once people (MPs) are mindful to rebel over one thing, why not another?' says Garry Walsh, Grant Butler Coomber head of public affairs.

There are some areas to be mindful of. Downing Street is currently considering having all lobbyists register with a central body, not just the self-regulating Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC). The APPC has its own code of ethics, but does not count all the UK's political consultancies as members.

What is exciting for the public affairs industry, however, is the opportunities that greater attention to strategic government relations and lobbying present - the Higher Education Bill has certainly highlighted that there are a lot more options available to lobbyists.

With more interest groups around than ever before within the education sector, all competing for their share of voice, there could well be a spate of hiring public affairs specialists to support them, whether it's for parliamentary monitoring, strategy formation, or raising the public profile of their spokesman.

CASE STUDY: THE IN-HOUSE OPTION

A full-time public affairs team has just been set up within the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, taking over projects that for the past six years have been handled by an external consultancy.

'It was brought in-house because it became clear that there was so much to do. An exam board touches so many bases in education that either you buy a PR company wholesale, or appoint an internal team,' says Bene't Steinberg, UCLES group director of PA, who after three months in the job himself has just appointed two other PA consultants.

UCLES is best known at home for its UK arm, OCR Examinations, which is one of the three exam boards to design and mark GCSEs and A-Levels. OCR hit the headlines in 2002 when it was accused, and later cleared, of 'fixing' A-Level results.

Steinberg, who previously worked for Chelgate - which advised UCLES until his appointment in October - says that given the high stakes in education, a professional, strategic approach to lobbying is essential if stakeholders are to have any impact on the legislative process.

Steinberg's public affairs programme for UCLES now includes commenting on the E-learning white paper, and on the Schwartz Inquiry due out soon on fairness in access to higher education. The organisation also has a keen interest in having its views heard by the Government working group led by Mike Tomlinson, which is mapping out the shape of assessment and examinations in UK schools for the next decade, and the possibility of a baccalaureate system.

Steinberg says UCLES has to talk to everyone involved in the decision-making process - special advisers to the Government, think-tanks, politicians and teacher organisations. It is also pushing for a change in the regulations that govern its work, to allow it to talk to students and parents about the exam system.

'The creation of this operation (the PA department) is partly a coordinating role, to gather in lots of things we're doing all the time and give it a focus, and to give it more elbow power,' Steinberg adds.

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