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Lizzie Ellen, Communications Officer at the Policy Institute, King's College London

12 June 2019, 10:59 UTC Share

Student engagement: Serving the needs of society by influencing policymakers of the future

Like many similar units, the Policy Institute is primarily concerned with producing academically rigorous solutions to policy challenges. But in addition to research, we’re also passionate about working with students, partly to help develop those solutions, but also to add to their experience of King’s, and ultimately their employability and personal development.

Despite not having direct access to students through teaching and learning, we can still play a part in King’s mission to produce well-rounded, critical thinkers ready to take on global challenges. We just need to be a bit imaginative about how we do it. So we’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years developing ways to engage our student body. The students benefit from the skills and experience they gain, whilst we achieve impact, by helping to shape and influence policy-makers and leaders of the future.

We’ve developed a number of schemes. For instance, our hugely successful flagship event, Policy Idol, is an annual policy pitching competition for students and staff which has been running for five years (with funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account). Students from all disciplines and any degree level at King’s can enter their individual or team idea for a policy, and pitch it to a panel of experts from the worlds of politics, academia and industry. A large cohort of applicants are whittled down, based on the evidence and analysis underpinning their idea, receiving quality feedback throughout, to ten or so finalists. Finalists then present in front of a live audience and a highly prestigious judging panel, whose members have previously included former Cabinet Minister Lord Willets, Bronwen Maddox, Director of the Institute for Government, and journalist Polly Toynbee.

The winner of Policy Idol and runners up all receive cash prizes, but every student applicant benefits from this unique opportunity by receiving bespoke training in policy analysis and communications, delivered by Policy Institute researchers through mentoring sessions. We benefit too by helping to develop inspirational new ideas for tackling world-wide challenges. From reducing antimicrobial resistance by banning antibacterial soap, to introducing an ethical charter for AI, to traffic-light labelling to highlight the environmental impact of clothing, our students bring fresh thinking, energy and enthusiasm to policymaking. Former participants have attributed the experience to enabling them to enter competitive careers, contribute to policymaking in Whitehall or even set up their own think tanks.

Tapping into student’s fresh perspectives also benefits our research projects. For the NHS’s 70th birthday, we set up a student-led health commission, overseen by our researchers, to come up with radical ideas for the health service of the future. The project, the first of its kind in terms of student engagement, equipped students with training and experience on running policy labs (interactive workshops with stakeholders and experts), analysing data from interviews, surveys and desk research, and writing it all up into a report – Futureproofing the NHS. By involving students in our research, we’re shaping decision-makers of the future to look for robust and research-led solutions to societal challenges.

By engaging with our students, we provide them with unrivalled skills, experience and input from our researchers and high-profile networks. For the Policy Institute, it enables us to contribute to one of King’s top priorities – “Service” – the University’s commitment to serve the needs of society. And what better way to do that than by developing students to go out into the world, equipped with the tools and experience to leverage the change they want to see in society.

Lizzie Ellen is Communications Officer at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

Author: Lizzie Ellen, Communications Officer at the Policy Institute, King’s College London

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