What is the Changing Perceptions Challenge and where did the idea come from?

Ben BrindleThe UK Data Service has recently launched the Changing Perceptions Challenge, a competition that encourages sixth form and college students to engage with data-driven research and think creatively about changing public perceptions of immigration and the economy. The competition was dreamt up by Data Impact Fellow, Ben Brindle, and here he explains where the idea came from and how students will benefit from taking part.


A bit of background: my PhD research

In recent years, immigration has risen to the top of the political agenda: the UK public has consistently named it as one of the most important issues facing the country over the past decade, in part due to a concern that it harms the wages and employment of workers. In turn, these concerns have led to far-reaching social and economic changes, including the Conservative Party pledge to reduce migration to the tens-of-thousands; the rise of the UK Independence Party; and the decision to leave the European Union in 2016.

As an economics student, it was the latter change that piqued my interest in the question of how immigration affects workers and led me to write about how wages are impacted in my undergraduate and masters dissertations. But I quickly found that while sections of the UK public believe immigration is bad for workers’ wages and employment, the academic research I read – and indeed the results I produced – consistently showed this not to be the case.

It’s for this reason that I’m using UK Data Service data in my PhD to study alternative explanations of how the labour market responds to immigration, if not through wages and employment. In particular, I study three mechanisms that academic research has found to be important:

  • Occupational specialisation: native workers don’t stay in their jobs, but instead they move into those jobs which benefit from immigrant inflows.
  • Capital investment: firms will change the way they produce goods or services following immigration, including changing the amount of capital (machinery and equipment) they use.
  • Offshoring: if the labour firms require isn’t available in the domestic economy, then they may simply move overseas to the workers instead.

Where did the idea for the competition come from?

Given this gap between the public and academic conversations around immigration, I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between the two. This is something that’s incredibly important for academia to do: research shouldn’t just exist within a bubble, but should be able to inform and influence public and political debates.

I came up with the idea to run a competition aimed at sixth form and college students, as this would be a good way to engage young people and encourage them to get involved in the debate, whilst also raising their awareness and understanding of the topic. As a Data Impact Fellow, I have the support of the UK Data Service Impact team when it comes to thinking about how to develop impact from my research, so with their help I was able to refine the competition brief and draw on fellowship funding to offer prizes.

The competition itself consists of two parts. The first part asks students to write a short piece of analysis that compares public and media attitudes to immigration with the latest findings of data-driven academic research. The aim here is to improve students’ understanding of the topic and prepare them for the second part of the competition, which asks students to design a campaign to communicate the research findings and improve public understanding of the economic impact of immigration. This campaign element is a great chance for students to get creative and think about how research could make a real difference in the world!

The pressure the Covid-19 pandemic has placed on schools and students was also a motivating factor to run the competition. As someone who is interested in education and educational inequality, I wanted to provide schools with a valuable extracurricular activity that teachers could use to engage their students, and to offer students an opportunity to develop their research skills and have their ideas heard in a key contemporary debate.

I’ve put a resource pack together to make it easier for teachers to encourage their students to take part, and to give students a helping hand with their entries. The resources will make it easier for students from a range of backgrounds to gain a good understanding of what the data-driven research shows, and will allow them to focus on the key question of how these findings can be communicated to a non-specialist audience in order to influence public opinion.

What impact do I hope to generate with the competition?

The competition has the potential to generate impact in a number of ways. First, it will get students to think about how research can be effectively communicated to non-specialist audiences so that it does inform and influence attitudes and policy. Even though students don’t have to actually produce the campaign, they’ll be coming up with valuable ideas to answer an important question being asked today by academics, think tanks, and news outlets alike.

But there’s also a second key layer of impact: students will find out about the topic! For me, this is the aim of the competition; for there to be an increased understanding around the topic and, more broadly, an awareness of the fact that debates in the public eye are often more complicated than they’re presented as being.

What will students gain through taking part?

As I’ve already mentioned, the competition will help to improve students’ awareness and understanding of key debates surrounding immigration and the economy. It’s also a good opportunity for students to gain skills that will look great on their CV or UCAS form, including the ability to think critically about the relevance and credibility of different sources of information. But it also offers a chance for them to engage with key debates surrounding immigration, diversity, and inclusion that are shaping politics and society today, and to get creative and design a campaign in a way that means something to them.

And, of course, there are prizes!

Looking ahead

I can’t wait to see what students have to say on the topic and what creative ideas they have to enhance the debate around immigration. I’m hoping to see a lot of variety in the entries, from the message students communicate to their audience to the approaches and mediums they use to communicate it. I wonder if anybody will be able to turn my idea of a dance show campaign into a reality?!

Competition details

The competition is open to sixth form and college students (aged 16-19) in the UK. The deadline for entries is 23:59 on Sunday 3 April 2022. Full details on how to enter are available on the UK Data Service website.


About the author

Ben Brindle is one of the UK Data Service Data Impact Fellows 2019 and is in the final year of his economics PhD at the University of Brighton.

His research, which is funded by the ESRC’s South Coast DTP, examines how the labour market responds to immigration-induced supply shocks; through either technology mix changes, where firms alter their production techniques, or output mix changes, where firms that use the abundant labour type intensively grow in size. To do this, he uses the Quarterly Labour Force Survey and the Annual Respondent’s Database.


Featured image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

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