Life After DPIR: Carys Roberts
Carys Roberts recently became Executive Director ofthe Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). She tells us about how her time at Oxford still informs her work and gives some advice to young graduates.
Having left the University of Oxford in 2011, Carys Roberts worked in a variety of positions, before rising through the ranks at the IPPR to the top, becoming editor of their journal of politics and ideas, Progressive Review on the way. She described her career path to us.
Can you tell us about your journey to Oxford and what still influences you from your time there?
I only decided I wanted to study PPE at Oxford quite late in the day, and with the encouragement of particularly supportive teacher at my FE college.I applied to St John’s College and was so nervous in the interview that I couldn’t really think or speak. Unsurprisingly I didn’t get in. I knew I hadn’t done myself justice, so reapplied to University College the following year, without telling anyone—even my parents—that I’d done so. I asked the admissions tutor to send all the post to my Saturday job. But I really liked the tutors at University College—I’m still in touch with some of them now—and they put me at ease. I was offered a place.
Where has your career path taken you after your BA?
In the first few years of my career I had various jobs in the charity sector and I also spent a very interesting few months working at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford. But I didn’t feel the roles were a good match for my strengths, and I missed studying, so I went to the London School of Economics to study for a Masters in Social Policy Research. I loved thinking deeply about social structures while also focussing on how change can be achieved. When I saw an internship advertised with the Chief Executive of the RSA(Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), I jumped at the chance. I learned a lot in that role, and it led to a job at IPPRas a junior researcher. I’ve been there since and have worked my way through roles at IPPR to Executive Director.
What does your work as executive director of IPPR involve?
I lead the strategic direction of the think tank, working with an incredible and dedicated team to identify opportunities for progressive change and setting out bold and practical policy ideas to get there. A ‘think tank’ sounds like we sit alone and think—but in fact, it’s a people-based job: we work collaboratively, meet with politicians and journalists to persuade them of our ideas, and coordinate with others seeking similar policy change to us. I believe the UK—like many countries around the world—faces a series of crises: economic, environmental, social and democratic. The next ten years will be critical in determining the resilience of our natural systems including climate, and in either locking in an economic model that isn’t working for most peopleor shifting towards a fairer and more sustainable economy. My hope for IPPR under my leadership is that we can demonstrate there really is an alternative, and work with policymakers at all levels of government and all political colours to begin to put it into practice.
What led you to want to be involved with a think tank?
I loved academic research but for how I wanted to work, it felt too slow and detached from real-world impact. Throughout your career you will spend many thousands of hours at work, and it’s always been important to me to use that time to try to improve people’s lives. But at the same time, you have to enjoy the day-to-day activities as well as caring about the cause, otherwise you won’t make the most of your energy and talents. Working in a think tank offers me both.
Can you tell us about a piece of work that you are most proud of?
I’m extremely proud of the work we did on IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice. This was a two-year programme bringing together people from across the economy and society, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to citizen organisers to business leaders. We were extremely ambitious, seeking to shift the agenda of political debate and the common sense of what good economic policy looked like, including a recognition of the role of power in the economy.Many of the policies in the 2019 party manifestos, and many being discussed today that depart from the consensus of the coalition government’s economic agenda, were proposed in the Commission’s final report. That wasn’t us alone—it never is—but I think we played a very important part.
How is IPPR meeting the challenges of the current political and economic landscape?
COVID-19 has created an extraordinary time for anyone working in politics and policy. Not only is there an urgent need for rigorous policy research to protect people in potentially the worst economic crisis in living memory, but the pandemic also places UK political economy at a crossroads. Many will argue that fiscal restraint, slashed regulation and low taxes are the only way out. We argue that instead, public investment to boost demand, rebuilding dangerously weakened public services and putting the UK on a path to net-zero isessential if we are to build back a better economy and society. As well as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests have rightly caused a lot of reflection and learning in organisations like ours, which are majority white and have the privilege of voice and agency. We’ve been thinking about how we can better use that privilege to be anti-racist in our work.
What do you hope that IPPR will achieve under your leadership?
I believe the UK—and indeed many countries around the world—faces a series of crises: economic, environmental, social and democratic. The next ten years will be critical in determining the resilience of our natural systems including the climate, and in either locking in an economic model that isn’t working for most peopleor shifting towards a fairer and more sustainable economy. My hope for IPPR under my leadership is that we can demonstrate there really is an alternative, and work with policymakers at all levels of government and all political colours to begin to put it into practice.
What still influences you from your years in Oxford?
My years at Oxford taught me how to be intellectually curious, challenge my own thinking, and argue for ideas. I made some very close friends, and was taught by dedicated, brilliant tutors, many of whom still influence my thinking and approach to problems and my work.
As this year is the centenary of women being allowed to matriculate at Oxford and it has also been 100 years since the PPE course was originally founded, what advice would you give to fellow alumni, particularly women who have studied the PPE course?
My advice would be to follow what you care about and work out how you like to spend your days. Lots of people I knew who did PPE went straight to graduate schemes because it seemed like an obvious and safe way to go, but don’t discount other careers, even if they are less lucrative! Politics and economics can be very male-dominated, and its competitive, but things are very different to how they used to be and there are lots of opportunities in these areas if you put yourself forward. Don’t be afraid to try—and leave—different roles in your journey to finding one you enjoy, and speak to people working in your field to get insights and make connections. Never undersell yourself (you’re up against others who are doing the opposite) and if you want to work in policy and politics, let your passion shine through rather than hiding it in formality.
What is a favourite memory from your time at Oxford?
I have a Bodleian card and still go to the libraries when I visit Oxford. I alternate between the modern Social Science Library and the ornate Radcliffe Camera. I didn’t appreciate them as a student and now wish I could go every week. I find the calm, studious atmosphere helps me to focus, be productive, and rediscover a love of reading and learning about ideas.
Read more about our graduates and their journeys after DPIR on our alumni pages.