We held the third annual Wonkhe Awards on the Monday evening at Wonkfest – celebrating the best of the higher education community’s contributions to policy.

At Wonkhe we’re all about opening up the higher education policy debate – we give a platform to new and previously unheard voices and perspectives. This year’s awards highlighted the best of our community’s writing, the original ideas and analysis that help drive forward the higher education debate for the benefit of the whole sector. Congratulations to all our winners!

Categories and shortlist:

Access & Participation

Winner: Universities are being asked to do more to support care leaver students. Susan Mueller explained that others also need to share in the responsibility.

Kim Eccleston raised a salute to the admissions teams working to support applicants through A level results day and Clearing.

Neil Harrison and Richard Waller argued that when it comes to widening participation, aspiration isn’t the issue – and that a “possible selves” approach might be the way forward.

Lifting the lid on open day costs, Julie Kelly revealed the hidden expenses incurred by students and their families during open day visits. 

Julian Crockford looked in detail at OfS’ shift to measuring by outcomes, asking if it’s really as simple as it sounds.

Josie McLellan, Richard Pettigrew, and Tom Sperlinger – authors of the book Who are universities for? – argued for a radical overhaul of undergraduate admissions to make universities truly inclusive.

Graeme Atherton argued that the coming demographic spike will have a differential effect across the English regions. 

Social mobility is in freefall. Duncan Exley examined the role that universities play in the problem.

Dan Howells looked at the need to carefully evaluate the outcomes of institutional access and outreach activity.

Two concurrent reviews of admissions practice felt like a lot for Colin McCaig, who looked back to Schwartz to understand what may follow.

Funding higher education

Winner: The Augar report talks a lot about value. Johnny Rich asked what it means by the word.

The voice of parents has been neglected. Caroline Chipperfield and Nick von Behr outlined how to engage parents and guardians in student finance.

Have universities colluded in a systemic attack on the arts and humanities? Mark O’Thomas thought so as he tried to redefine “value”.

How does the Augar review sit alongside the agenda to revitalise our regions? Victoria Stott argued that these issues needs to be considered together.

Have we overstated the civic value of universities? David Barlow suggested that the sector needs to be honest about the limitations of university influence on local growth and development.

Lucy Hunter-Blackburn foreshadowed the implications of the Augar review across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mark Corver of dataHE explained why the higher education sector is far from ready to confront the coming explosion in demand for higher education. 

Willy Kitchen took issue with the presumption against foundation years within the Augar review.

Andrew Boggs argued for recognising the value of access to higher education for future generations. 

The team from London Economics provided some early modelling of the impact of Augar’s proposals on institutions, the state as well as students and graduates.

Leadership, governance and management

Winner: Shân Wareing said the university sector has to show stewardship of its mission, collaborate more, and redesign its cost base if it’s to survive.

How do researchers learn how to lead massive research projects? For Matthew Flinders, the traditional laissez-faire approach is not sustainable.

Tessa Harrison from King’s College London considered the role of academic governance in rebuilding trust in universities.

Peter Rae of Nazarene College asked why the OfS subscription rate per student is so much higher for small institutions.

From across the Atlantic, American academic Peter Eckel proposed a fresh framework to transform the way governing boards approach their work and decision making.

The OFS register is a key part of the regulation system, and Mike Ratcliffe wondered why hundreds fewer providers are going to be on it than previously predicted?

John Sawkins shared the secret ingredients of Scotland’s coregulation system.

Hugh Jones wondered what counts as “academic” when thinking about academic governance.

There is a buzz in the air. Alistair Brown wrote about the rebirth of the creative city and the possibilities for higher education.

Adam Dawkins from the University of York looked at former vice-chancellors as external or lay members on UK university governing bodies.

Made us think

Winner: Vera Castiglione from the University of Bristol asked whether the stresses and issues faced by students and staff are really that different.

Carola Boehm explained why she believes that the arts offer a route to meaningful critique in an era of post-truth politics.

Andy Pitchford from Bath University argued for a community development approach to higher education.

Phil Pilkington had with a novel take on the civic role of universities, as part of the narratives on higher education series. 

Jonathan Michie reflected on a century of reforms to adult education to pose a vision for the future. 

Martin Levy placed Mary Poppins author M.L. Travers within the “free university” movement of the mid 20th century.

Jonathan Saha introduced a Royal Historical Society report into race, ethnicity, and equality in the UK academic discipline of history.

Jonathan Rees introduced us to the way medical education is funded, delivered, and managed – and how in many ways it falls short of what it could be.

Jonathan Grant and Jente Althuis analysed university mission statements in search of the idea of service.

Many parts of Britain are seeking their own university but, as Garbhan Downey explained, for Derry it is a part of a much longer story.

Student outcomes and employment

Winner: Quality teaching is about transforming lives. Paul Ashwin argued that excellent teaching leads to students acquiring powerful knowledge. 

The introduction of the PG Loan scheme was supposed to help sustain master’s study in the UK. Did it work? Michelle Morgan investigated.

As the TEF review continued, James Derounian of the Association of National Teaching Fellows made the case for a consideration of value added.

The Open University’s Peter Brant explained the curious official distinctions between graduate and non-graduate jobs.

Paul Gratrick’s research showed that, despite how visible metrics are, student perceptions of value are shaped by cross-cutting services like careers.

Instead of trying to deny the fact that course doesn’t usually lead to career, we should be celebrating it said Mike Grey.

Mary Curnock Cook reported back from the inaugural conference of the Men and Boy’s Coalition – which focused on male educational underachievement.

Martin Perfect asked whose responsibility is it to help graduates without graduate jobs.

Malcolm Todd of the University of Derby made the case for careers in sectors such as leisure to be seen as “high value” and argued that traditional views of “graduate jobs” needs to change.

Politics and sector reputation

Winner: In the lead up to a Tory leadership contest, Jonathan Simons challenged the sector to think about the Augar report in wider political context. 

Zahir Irani argued that promoting vocational routes doesn’t need to mean doing higher education down.

James Wilsdon felt that a new university ranking based on contributions to society is too little, too late.

David Latchman grappled with some of the challenges facing the Labour Party’s lifelong learning commission. 

The Office for National Statistics published its view on how student loans should be treated in the national accounts. Andrew McGettigan took a close look at the announcement.

Iain Mansfield lifted the lid on how your consultation responses shape government policy.

Before Augar, there was Browne. Dame Julia King highlighted the lessons to be learned from past reviews into higher education and funding to inform future reforms. 

Steven Jones worried that the sector’s scepticism toward a post-qualification admissions system makes it seem out of step and resistant to change.

The trend in visa refusals for academics is a cause for concern warned Roscoe Hastings. Without a significant change in approach, there is a risk of perpetuating bias towards western research.

Reviewing the long-awaited Civic University Commission report, Andy Westwood argued that now is the time to act.


Special commendation: The dominance of metrics in higher education policy is undoubtable – but what do we miss? Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam on hearing student stories.

Winner: David Payne introduced the idea of a universal basic research grant as a solution to the problems faced in funding early stage research. 

Doctorate apprenticeships? If we embrace alternative modes of study, do the expectations around Level 8 awards suffice? Neil Willey and Liz Cleaver took a look.

Marcus Munafó asked what universities can learn from the airline industry in learning from errors.

Richard Jones, of the University of Sheffield and the KEF Technical Advisory Group, wanted university’s contributions known.

Doctoral Training Centres were a research funding innovation launched with no small fanfare. Nearly a decade on, Richard Budd evaluated what their impact has been.

Sarah Kember asked: who pays the price for open access to publicly funded research?

Emily Nordmann described the experience of and benefits of research preprints.

Jonathan Grant and Deborah Bull interrogated the ethics and framing of public engagement practice in UK universities. 

Students and students’ unions

Winner: James Hare asked why much of UK higher education is so obsessed with specialism in its teaching and learning.

Special commendation: University leaders often readily agree to implement student leaders’ policies – but are they as easy to deliver as they look? Alan Sutherland had a water cooler moment.

Who wouldn’t have a “zero tolerance” approach to harassment and hate crime? Alisha Lobo unpicked what it might actually mean.

Politicians keep suggesting that we look to Singapore for inspiration on the economy. Robert Liow found an interesting approach on international students. 

If the lives of campus-based students are a mystery, then those of distance learners must be even more so. Cath Brown from the OU looked at the data.

Neil Mackenzie of Sheffield Students’ Union argued that we should shift our focus from developing “resilient” students to developing resilient university communities, instead.

Looking at the comments on a local media uni news story is an eye-opener. Gareth Hughes wondered what SUs should do about them.

Should SU officers have polite meetings or student demos? Eve Alcock on the false choices facing student representatives.

Could student involvement in university strategy development mean more than surveys and postcards? Bradley Fox found out.

Jonathan Stephen of Huddersfield Students’ Union said that data isn’t the be all and end all for student experience. 

The student experience

Winner: We need to have frank discussions with our students about unconscious bias and recruitment, suggested Iwi Ugiagbe-Green.

Are there lessons for the sector to learn from the Warwick group chat scandal? Jenny Hoogewerf-McComb took a look.

Emma Bond and Andy Phippen broke down the myths and misnomers of online abuse, and explain how to keep students safe. 

Research by Jacqueline Stevenson of Sheffield Hallam University and Becca Bland from the charity Stand Alone, showed the importance of family to students, the disadvantages of estranged or distant relationships, and the need for universities to do more.

For international students, Louise Nicol argued that the focus on post-study work entitlement diverts attention from graduate employability.

For David Thompson, introducing creativity into higher education meant working against an entire system designed to exclude it.

Chris Shelley challenged the view that universities are failing students on support for mental health.

Roger Gherson examined the consequences of academic progression rules for international students. 

Alex Buckley asked just how reliable your institutional NSS results really are.

Can we justify ignoring information that suggests a student will leave higher education? Adam Tweed explored where we should set the moral limits of student data use by universities.

Working in higher education

Winner: Lizzy Woodfield spoke out about how the menopause affects women working in higher education. 

Teesside PVC Jane Turner shared her advice for surviving Ofsted inspection of higher apprenticeships.

Marian Hilditch introduced us to one of HE’s most misunderstood groups – the institutional “HESA people”.

Judith Davidson, chair of the Student Records Officers’ conference (SROC), explained the role of student records officers in keeping things running behind the scenes. 

Paul Boustead and Helen Scott of Universities Human Resources (UHR) explored the slow, laborious, but effective work to address the gender pay gap in higher education. 

Felicity Callard explained how last year’s USS strike led to the establishment – a year ago – of a new platform for staff and students to share perspectives and analysis.

Dan de Sousa of Brunel University asked why we don’t have a more meaningful name for the non-academics who work at our universities.

From the sidelines to the mainstream. Claire Alexander shared some pioneering work being undertaken to decolonise the curriculum in schools and universities. 

Programme directors shape the student experience of learning, translating the big picture of the university’s aims and vision into the everyday realities. Ruth Massie revealed more.

Mario Ferelli looked back over a life of data at HEFCE, and cautioned against the trend for more and faster data in regulation.