In the midst of 2010’s student protests, which saw activists take to the streets, anarchists vandalise buildings, and left students feeling disconnected from the political process, Sebastiaan Debrouwere thought of another way for students to express themselves.
The problem during the tuition fee fallout, Sebastiaan says, was that “students were too reactive. Instead of actively participating in shaping the world they’ll inherit, students were just having to choose camps.”
These thoughts were the seeds that grew into the KCL Think Tank Society, now one of the biggest societies at the university and, with over 1,000 members, the largest student-led think tank in Europe. And Sebastiaan’s society is making strides towards establishing students as a legitimate part of the policy-making process. The think tank organises around 30 speaker events per year, at which students come face-to-face with real-world experts and discuss their opinions and ideas on policy issues with them. It also publishes policy journal The Spectrum,which brings together policy recommendations written by student attendees.
“The idea behind the KCL Think Tank Society is to get students involved in policy-making and to enable them to use their skills, insight and innovation to deliver new solutions,” says Sebastiaan. “The key to finding these solutions,” he insists, “doesn’t lie in shouting louder and taking rather extreme stances, as traditional student politics believed, but in introducing the building blocks with which policymakers can work.” The society has begun assembling these building blocks across five policy centres: energy and environment, economics and business, defence and diplomacy, healthcare, and current affairs.
Policy for everyone
But the think tank isn’t just for the would-be politicos of the student body. Sebastiaan is convinced that all students have something to offer the society, as well as something to learn from participating.
“Whatever students are studying, whether it’s a very political subject or something more scientific such as medicine or engineering, the idea is that they can both practise their existing skills and develop new ones,” he says. The society also offers skills-based mentoring to its members. “We have about 15 masters and PhD students in public policy who mentor people in writing concisely and effectively.”
The whole project stems from what Sebastiaan considers a sea-change in public policy-making. “I think politics and policy-making are going to have to evolve to be more inclusive, with students ultimately taking a more prominent role in the process.” He believes that university is a place where students not only have spare time to engage in policy-making initiatives, but also a stage when people are developing their opinions and have the drive to share and discuss them. “Many people don’t realise it, but there’s great use in thinking about public policy issues and by doing so students can make a positive difference.”
And it’s a positive difference that more and more students are getting the chance to contribute to. Student think tanks are being established at several other universities under the auspices of CampusPolicy, an offshoot of the KCL branch dedicated to spreading its work elsewhere.
“It’s a step-by-step process,” says Sebastiaan. “The project is still quite young but in the long term it will offer alternatives to what has been done, quite ineffectively, since the protest movements of 1968.”
As well as engaging students across the board, Sebastiaan has big ambitions for the think tank’s recommendations to be taken seriously in actual public policy-making, and he hopes that student think tanks could become a recognisable force in generations to come. “Student think tanks are beginning to reach a critical mass. In five to ten years’ time I think they’ll be a universally accepted activity in universities and I’m cherishing the hope that when my kids go to university it will be normal for them to think about public policy and what their opinions bear for the rest of society.”
Sebastiaan also hopes that student policy recommendations will soon reach the mainstream. “If our policy recommendations are used in a public debate or quoted in newspaper articles, referenced by politicians in their speeches or considered when an alternative proposal is needed, I think at that point in time I will be very, very satisfied.”