Policy advice in higher education: a historical pathway?

At university, I remember being faintly jealous of fellow students who had a clear sense of the path ahead (a medic and a lawyer being among my housemates).  Even if they weren’t sure of where they’d specialise, they knew there was a thing called medicine or law, and that they’d find their places in time.

It’s far less easy as a student to identify a ‘thing’ called history outside the confines of study, much less imagine all other other things that touch on, connect with or are enlivened by history.  (I hope to help my students do such imagining but that’s for another post).  So like a lot of graduates, it took me some time to find a path I wanted to follow, which mainly involved taking opportunities as they arose.

Policy advisers have been around for a long time in different guises but are relatively new in universities.  As a result, I wonder if they attract those, like me, who didn’t have a ‘thing’ but rather fell into the role with a commitment to higher education and a bundle of skills, experience and interests we hoped would be of use.  Many universities now have someone in a policy-related role and it’s great that a network has now been formed under the auspices of Universities UK to allow the members of a new profession to connect.  (I try to resist the term ‘wonks’ as embraced by Mark Leach of Wonk-HE in the Times Higher but have unfortunately failed to come up with a neat and catchy substitute as yet).

Maybe as roles develop and become established in university structures and advisers gain some profile in their own right, students will be able to identify them as part of a new career path, a new ‘thing’ to work towards.  Placements and internships can play an important role here but there’s also some advocacy to be done here.  Occupying as I do a strange world between the professional and the academic domains, I hope to be a double agent: exposing students to policy work as something that’ll make good use of their historian’s skills and then bringing them into my team for some practical experience.

In a 1984 Public Historian article, Avner Offer calls on historians to ‘stimulate demand; supply will then take care of itself’.  Policy advisers (wonks, historians or otherwise) could usefully adopt the same mantra.  Stimulate demand, from students, from universities, from government and stakeholder organisations, and we too will have a clear path ahead, and a ‘thing’.

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