Welcome to Wonklife – a series celebrating different wonks in higher education, sharing their story and looking to the future.
The human side of policy
Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Joy Elliott-Bowman’s journey to a policy and public affairs brief at Independent HE may seem unlikely. Used to living in sparsely populated areas with limited public transport, when Joy first arrived in Aberdeen to start her PhD she confesses it took her over a year to go to the city centre as there were too many people. Yet with time, she’s found herself in one of the busiest cities in the world influencing policy from an unlikely stance, and all on behalf of students.
Reluctant student politics
Like many in the sector, Joy started her wonking life in student politics. She was a student officer for both her undergraduate and master’s degree at Prince Edwards Island University, representing all the HE providers on the island to the Canadian Federation of Students. When she began her doctorate at the University of Aberdeen she vowed that she was done with student politics but was quickly sucked back in by a campaign on membership to NUS. Joy said that with such a overwhelming assumption of all involved that national student body membership would make significant change that it was impossible not to be drawn back in.
Eventually, with the comparatively large budgets managed by students’ unions in the UK compared to her experience in Canada, there was too much temptation. Joy remembers thinking: “Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity to direct that funding in a way that they think can make a difference.” The unique ability to make the changes she wanted, and a chance to have a “welcome break” from her PhD, meant Joy ran for and was elected as Vice-President (Education and Employability) at the students’ association.
After her PhD, Joy had a short stint at Kingston University’s students’ union before starting a new national role at NUS as policy officer for immigration (and later international). It was here that she fought to help students who were facing deportation after their institutions lost their tier 4 licences, including the infamous cases at London Metropolitan University and Barking and Dagenham College.
However, it was the 106 private providers which lost their licences as part of a big scandal on English language fraud that took up most of her time. Over 15,000 students were given just sixty days to find alternative place to study or leave the country and 48,000 students were targeted for direct deportation as a result of this scandal. Joy’s job was to fight for those students and help them navigate through the policy mess that ensued.
Turning to the dark side?
So the question arises – why did Joy move to Independent HE? It seems an odd move to go from a strong advocacy role on behalf of students facing deportation to one which represents alternative providers. Joy argues, it’s not black and white: “For me, the Home Office was the real dark side but the private providers brought in a new shade of dark. During the English language scandal, I’d encountered these private institutions, some where genuinely trying to make things works but others were not acting in the best interest of students”
It was during a working group meeting with BIS where Joy caught the attention of Alex Proudfoot, CEO of Independent HE (then called Study UK). In her frustration at BIS’s lack of action, where they argued that they didn’t hold responsibility for private education she reportedly shouted across the room, “The lack of legislation doesn’t make you any less responsible”. With rumours of an upcoming bill that would regulate independent providers and ongoing scandals undermining their work to legitimise independent providers, Alex saw an opportunity and offered Joy a job.
For many it would be seen as turning to the dark side but for Joy it provided a chance to shape that legislation in a real way to solve this problem and get the regulation right.
With the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 passed and the Office for Students almost up and running, it would be easy to say job done. But for Joy, although she achieved the original thing she wanted, she fears that the system is still too exclusive. Now, if you want to be an independent provider with a tier 4 licence you now have to be regulated by government but there is still no licence to operate. There are many other providers, delivering HE to a domestic students, including many from migrant backgrounds, which don’t need regulation under the new system. The recent decision to drop the Basic category from the new register altogether adds to Joy’s fears. Joy says: “I dream of a system where no one is stuck outside and everybody has a place within the regulated system and we can genuinely say we know what’s going on in higher education.”
Wonks for people
Joy has a relentless drive in everything she does. When I ask her how she keeps going, particularly at a time when it can seem almost impossible – huge consultations closing on Christmas Eve that you feel are there to break you – how do you not give up?
Joy tells me an emotional story about a time at NUS when a student, who was at one of these colleges that had lost their tier 4 licence, stood up in front of everyone and in floods of tears explained how they’d lost everything. This student explained that they would have to go home and tell their ailing mother, who’d sold everything to invest in their education, that there was nothing they could do and they couldn’t provide for her. They would have to tell their mother that they couldn’t get her the treatment she needed, that the last few years of her life weren’t going to be good and there was nothing this student could do to fix it. And it’s that moment that underpins everything Joy does. She tells me: “We talk about privilege a lot in the UK but it isn’t until you meet some of the people in other parts of the world that you understand what privilege really is and I think to myself – I can’t stop fighting.”
I wonder whether it’s too easy to get absorbed into the geeky side of policy – debating incredibly niche data and arguing over the wording of a sentence in some regulation. Does being a wonk separate you from the human side of policy? Not for Joy. She argues that it’s in those debates over a single word in a regulatory document that can change a life – it can mean the difference between deportation or a future. And it’s in the hands of wonks.