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Interviewing 'Europe': Bridging the Gap Between Students and Practitioners of EU Policymaking?

European Union
Experimental Design
Higher Education
Mixed Methods
Jamal Shahin
University of Amsterdam
Jamal Shahin
University of Amsterdam
Claske Vos
University of Amsterdam
Mathilde Delabie
University of Amsterdam
Andrei Frank
University of Amsterdam
Chloë Van Hoegaerden
University of Amsterdam
Reowin Renkema
University of Amsterdam
David Tindall
University of Amsterdam

This paper addresses three parallel concerns raised by teaching and studying European Studies at the MA level. First, efforts are increasingly being made to help European Studies students develop transferable skills. Second, the gap between 'Brussels' and those students who have chosen to study it is perceived as unnecessarily large. Third, the complexity of European policymaking is often easier to understand when students get 'hands on' experience.

In order to address these concerns, we identified interview experience as a fundamental skill that students should develop during our MA programme. Our short module "Study Skills: Brussels" helps students overcome the barriers to engaging with practitioners at the EU level. The students are given support in setting up interviews with a variety of different actors in the 'Brussels Bubble' before going there for three days. They are free to select interviewees according to a topic of their own choosing, generally related to their MA thesis. Hence, students gain first-hand experience of talking to people who live and work in the 'heart of Europe', leading to a better understanding of the policymaking process. This helps students develop an awareness of the attitudes of the elites they study. This whole process ensures that students graduate with an MA in European Studies having seen that 'Brussels' is not a million miles away from their own experiences. In terms of reducing the distance between the EU institutions and the citizens, this is a small, but very useful step.

This course has been running for two years now, and we have been collecting data on students' attitudes and experiences, as well as data concerning the organisation and execution of interviews. As part of the course, students have been required to collect data about how they set up their interviews. Several variables have been coded as a result of the 120+ interviews that the students have carried out in the past two years. Our paper focuses on aspects of how accessible the elites are in EU policymaking circles: who responds to requests for interviews, which individuals in the various institutional hierarchies are willing to talk and under what circumstances, is there a distinction between different EU institutions and others in terms of response rates.

The paper has the following structure:

First, we outline the rationale for this course, embedding it in literature on transferable skills in education, and on linking research to policy in the social sciences and humanities. It will also briefly describe the course structure.

Second, we present the dataset (which will also be anonymised and available for download). This contains data produced by students concerning over 645 requests for interview in Brussels over a two year period. We shall explain the categorisation and coding processes here.

The third section of the paper will present our analysis, highlighting differences in response rates amongst institutions, policy field, etc.

Finally, several student co-authors will also reflect on their experiences in the process, highlighting how interviewees reacted to their questions, whether they supported in other ways, etc.
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