Local partnerships and policy internships: Exploring how Camden Council and UCL can collaborate to deliver results across the borough

By Dr Olivia Stevenson, Amy Lightstone and Yelena Bide

UCL and Camden Council have a rich history of working together, with both organisations anchor institutions in the borough. The strategic partnership between us strives to enhance our collaboration and close working aligned to our shared goals and priorities.

This type of partnership working is core to UCL — and developing the way we work with our partners in London helps to enable greater opportunities for our students. Camden Council, as a leader of change within the borough with a clear vision for the future, is a fantastic partner to enable such opportunities.

Creating opportunities

Alongside research and teaching, Knowledge Exchange (KE) is a significant part of universities’ work. Whilst many schemes exist that connect businesses, charities and policy professionals with PhD students, researchers and academics alike, undergraduate and Master’s students have been largely left out of the picture.

UCL has been responding to this through a range of activities and experiments. In the academic-policy engagement space, we have adopted a ‘learning by doing’ approach to deliver a student-focused Policy Summer School project.

A multidisciplinary ‘Policy Bootcamp’ in summer 2020 prepared students for their experience of working in policy organisations, with talks by different policy experts and government officials. The students learned key policy terms, concepts and methodologies, and took part in practical modules where they worked in teams to develop their own proposals before being able to apply for paid internships with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Camden Council.

This summer, Camden is hosting a diverse cohort of students from across UCL’s disciplines, including History, Physics, Education, and Arts and Sciences. They are working across the Council portfolio in five different services, including: Tenant Participation and Sheltered Housing; Equalities; Environment Services; Sports and Physical Activity; and Children’s Integrated Commissioning, on a range of exciting projects. This includes exploring how COVID-19 has influenced physical activity levels in Camden, tackling holiday hunger and redesigning Camden’s public toilet provision.

Five UCL Undergraduate students are currently halfway through a 10-week internship with Camden Council, and so we caught up with some of them — Farida Ahmed, Georgia Box, Inés Buetow and Louis ​Velati — and their Camden managers, to find out about their internship experience so far.

Why this internship, why this intern?

“Camden really appealed to me as an organisation because of their resident centric approach, and their willingness to use fresh and radical approaches to policy design.” - Louis ​Velati, a Physics undergraduate student.

There are numerous reasons why students engage in summer internships — whether it’s gaining new skills, earning money or building knowledge of different organisations. In the case of UCL students, it was a chance to explore a career in policy whilst being part of a borough they lived and studied in.

The contribution of fresh ideas and innovation was also picked up by Camden staff manging the interns. Hugh Boatswain, from the Tenant Participation team, mentions that Louis brought: “fresh, unbiased perspective to a long-standing issue or problem. [He] also has very useful research skills…[and] has brought a fresh dynamism to the team.”

Alongside the innovation, it has also been noted how adaptable and professional the students have been. BA History and Politics student Georgia Box has been working primarily with one of Camden’s partner organisations, Young Camden Foundation.

They noted how prepared she was to “hit the ground running. As a small organisation we really needed someone who would demonstrate initiative and personal responsibility for their area of work — we are surprised at the speed and consistency with which [she] is demonstrating these qualities.” - Keith Morgan, Young Camden Foundation

Working in partnership to future-proof employability skills

Interns are also developing the practical skills they need to work in a virtual office environment. As Farida Ahmed, an Education student said:

“I have been learning how to work on [Microsoft] Teams, and how to work remotely in a small group to meet deadlines, while managing my workload’.

Even though still on-going, the students are already focused on what they hope they will do next with the policy skills picked up during their time with Camden Council.

These range from taking more policy focused modules when returning to UCL and developing more democratic know how, to wanting a future career in policy, as Inés Buetow, an undergraduate BASc (Arts and Sciences) student, reflected:

[I] took many urban sustainability related courses at university and wanted to experience how large global cities such as London tackle environmental issues and public services first-hand. I am really enjoying working with the Environmental Services team and I hope to be able to work in a similar setting one day!”

Looking forward

It’s clear that these paid internships are providing students with opportunities to explore the policy questions devised in the summer school and to try out their newly acquired knowledge and skills. They’re able to gain valuable work experience and insights working in local government, whilst exposing their managers within Camden to fresh thinking and research-driven knowledge.

The value that UCL interns can bring to any of our partner organisations in London is extraordinary, and when asking managers at Camden if they would work with UCL interns again they said: ‘Absolutely, the support team and their interns are highly skilled and able to really make a difference to public services’ and ‘without a shadow of doubt. I think it is a great learning experience for both parties.’

As we are only halfway through the programme, we don’t yet know the full impact of these internships — but we hope more support is made available to students to help them get involved with academic-policy engagement and adopt this ‘learning by doing’ approach. Recognising that COVID-19 is likely to impact on graduate recruitment, supporting undergraduates now to gain practical experience for the future is vital.

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More about the authors

Dr Olivia Stevenson is Deputy Director of UCL Public Policy, UCL

Amy Lightstone is Head of Engagement and Operations (London), Pro-Vice-Provost (London) Office, UCL

Yelena Bide is Policy Designer at Camden Council

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The Policy Summer School project is a two-year collaboration between UCL, the University of Manchester, and Northumbria University, funded through a HEFCE Catalyst award.

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