Empowering a new generation of policy leaders at the York Student Think Tank

The first time we heard about think tanks, like most students, we weren’t quite sure what they did. We knew they did something with policy, and that policy had to do with government – but it was all a bit murky. You don’t often hear about think tanks in mainstream media, and so their influence in politics felt limited. It didn’t take long to find out just how wrong we were.

In 2019, I [Pablo] became Chair of the York Student Think Tank (YSTT) and was joined a couple of months later by Viktoriia [Hello!]. The YSTT is a student-run think tank at the University of York, UK. It was first founded in 2012, but the who, how, or why it was founded is a bit of a mystery – we’ve tried to reach out to older members since we first joined, but have had no luck. By the time we got involved, the society had been inactive for a couple of years. Today, however, our mission is clear: to introduce students to the world of policy; to explain its importance; the role that research can play in policymaking; and to give students insight into and experience of the world of think tanking. This is an objective we have refined throughout our time at the think tank as we’ve met and learned from professionals, self-styled policy wonks, politicians, and academics.

Speaking to students, we realised that many are passionate about contributing and improving their community, but choose to steer clear of politics – wary of hostile discourse. In a world increasingly shaped by partisan politics, we believe that promotes an approach to politics and policymaking that is primarily shaped by facts and evidence. YSTT is committed to non-partisan debate and evidence-based policy.

Other students, we learned, keep away from policy because they don’t believe their degrees are relevant. We hold, however, that challenges facing our societies and the world will only become more complex and that we will need expertise from a variety of fields to overcome them. YSTT is a home for students across all disciplines and beliefs that are committed to improving their communities and immediate surroundings through evidence-based policy solutions.

The think tank is organised as a ‘team of teams’.We have an organising Committee made up of the heads of each team. And each team has a specific role to play:

  • The Chair and Vice-Chair run the policy team which consists of the policy paper group leaders;
  • The Secretary and Director of Communications run internal and external events, workshops, and liaisons with different think tanks;
  • The Director of Publicity runs the marketing team;
  • The Editor-in-Chief is in charge of the editing team;
  • The Director of Cortado runs the Cortado journal;
  • The Treasurer manages the think tank’s funding.

The society’s funding comes mostly from the University of York Student Union and occasionally from direct University grants (these typically given for specific projects or papers), and also looks for more sources of income that maintain our independence and integrity.

Entering the world of policy can be hard work: you need to get your foot in the door. At YSTT we try to give members the opportunity to enter the policy field. Through a series of workshops (and an online course currently under development) we give our members a toolkit to write their own policy papers – introducing them to other students interested in similar topics and providing mentoring and feedback from our network of professionals.

We also host ‘Think Tank Talks’, where guest speakers discuss the latest challenges or future direction of the particular field. Previous speakers include John H. Elliott, Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History, who spoke about the separatist movement in Catalonia. Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar, Executive Director of the Master of Public Policy in Digital Society at McMaster University, who discussed the necessity of digital policy. And Catherine F. Smith, former Associate Professor at Syracuse University, Professor of English at East Carolina University, and author of ‘Writing Public Policy: A practical guide to communicating in the policy making process’, who hosted a workshop on policy writing.

With our guidance, members can write for the weekly ‘Cortado’ journal, inspired by the Economist Espresso, that keeps our members up-to-date; attend weekly discussions at our ‘Socrates Cafe’; and work on policy papers (in teams) throughout the year.

We make sure to take a realistic approach to producing policy papers. We believe in the importance of individual ideas and solutions but want to teach pragmatism above all. It is not always enough to have a firm solution to a problem you are deeply passionate about. Policy making is complex. It requires weighing up different considerations, different evidence, and different interests of different groups. Writing policy recommendations, therefore, may require some compromise. We remind our members to maintain their vision but to do their best to make their papers ‘implementable’.

While the main aim of the member-produced policy papers is to give students practice and preparation for the professional world, we also try to pass them onto relevant people and organisations who could use the findings and/or implement the recommendations. Our papers are done in collaboration with organisations and are therefore handed to them upon completion. There’s never a guarantee that they will follow our advice, but it is nevertheless a thrilling prospect.

It allows members to see for themselves what implementing a piece of policy takes – from translating research findings into actionable policy to the moment it gets handed to a representative that can make it happen. It puts the work of the government in context and reveals the complexity of the processes that shape our lives. Despite their work very likely not being adopted, working on policy issues makes you question the world around you – why things work as they do and what could be done better. The chance to participate in the policy space is not just a formative experience in the professional sense, but it can inspire self-reflection and a different approach to politics.

One of our first guest speakers at Think Tank Talks, Catherine F. Smith, pretty much summed up how we think about our work: It’s not enough to think, to have ideas and to discuss issues, she said. Solutions have to follow. We need more doers!