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How I got into education policymaking – Part 2

  • 27 November 2017
  • By Diana Beech

Earlier this month, HEPI Director Nick Hillman shared his story of how he got into education policymaking to help those seeking similar roles in the future. Having come to the profession from a completely different angle, I wanted to share my own story too, as it strikes me as important to show there is more than one way to get into the career.

Unlike Nick, I did not know I always wanted to work in policy. In fact, I don’t think I ever knew what I wanted to do. In many ways, I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to put off any big decisions regarding the world of work until I had completed a PhD and two subsequent post-doctoral positions – all in the discipline of German.

Although I realise I was extremely lucky to receive funding for these opportunities, I never wanted to pursue a traditional academic career and I soon found myself getting frustrated by the uncertainty of where my next scholarship would come from, or even where it would be. I had already moved from the UK to Canada and then to Germany and, although this may seem exciting to some, I began to fear where I would be setting my bags down next. I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase any longer.

My lucky break came a few months into my second post-doc when, thanks to the nature of grant applications, I was already thinking of my next move. It was then that I saw a post advertised for a three-year research project back in Cambridge exploring the values behind European science and research policy. This was in 2011 – at a time when EU member states were busy working out what the ‘Horizon 2020’ framework programme would look like. Although I hadn’t given much thought to European research strategies before this, I figured it could be a good way to apply my European experience and, luckily, I got the job.

Little did I know back then that my foray into the world of European research policy would be a truly life-changing moment for me, instilling in me a passion for all things higher education and research. One of the project’s outputs was a report, encouraging European officials and policymakers not to neglect the values that have come to shape European scientific collaborations since the 1950s. It soon wasn’t enough for me just to look at the political theory behind it all, however, and I found myself striving to be at the heart of the action.

In 2012, I was fortunate to be selected as a founding member of the European Commission’s Voice of Researchers (VoR) network, which gave researchers a seat at the European policymaking table. Through this, I felt I got to make a real difference, partaking in conferences in China, Thailand and Singapore to promote international research collaborations, and tabling policies to improve the recruitment of researchers across the ERA (European Research Area).

By the time my research position in Cambridge was up, I knew I couldn’t leave higher education and research policy behind. It had become my life. But how to make a career in it? I may have been established in European circles, but I knew I needed to get experience of UK policymaking if I were ever to build a successful career here. And, with the prospect of an EU referendum on the horizon, cementing my British credentials seemed like a sensible thing to do.

For the next couple of years, I ended up building a portfolio. First, I took a ten-month placement managing the ‘OAPEN-UK’ project, gathering evidence on the impact of open access mandates on scholarly monograph publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Next, I went through a specialist recruiter, who found me work at a major UK trade body. Although it was in a different, albeit not completely unrelated sector to higher education, this was the position which gave me the skills I needed to take the leap of faith into Whitehall. As the Senior Researcher in the organisation, I was fortunate to work on producing reports with which to lobby Government, including one on progression for low-paid workers and another on the gig economy and the ‘Uberisation’ of work.

Last summer, a stroke of luck came my way when the Department for Education (DfE) began recruiting for someone to programme-manage the establishment of the new market-regulator for higher education – the Office for Students (OfS). Getting this role took me right into the heart of British policymaking, tracking the Higher Education and Research Bill (as it was then) through parliament, and managing multiple stakeholders. Even though my time in the DfE was relatively short, it taught me how Whitehall operates and who the key figures are – important knowledge for anyone wishing to influence policy debates from the outside.

Yet, as Nick wrote in his own blog, civil service jobs are transient and people tend to move to where the policy need is. So, as I knew my heart belonged to higher education policy, when I saw HEPI was advertising for a brand-new Director of Policy and Advocacy, I knew I had to give it my best shot… and the rest is, thankfully, now history!

If I have to draw five key lessons from my experience to complement Nick’s, they would be:

  1. Follow your heart and do what you love.
  2. Think strategically and gather the experience you need for your dream role.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try work in other sectors first – that’s how you gain invaluable transferable skills.
  4. Listen to recruiters and see what they have to offer for you – they know more about the labour market than you do.
  5. Get yourself known in the sector you want to work in – lobbying, blogging and networking all help to build your profile.

…In many ways, I am still working on the latter and hope that, going forwards in my new role at HEPI, I can come to be recognised for my commitment to the UK higher education sector and my determination to uphold its first-class reputation for the future.

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