Some thoughts on PPE and its role in UK politics and society

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“What I’ve never really understood,” a philosophy lecturer at Merton College who hadn’t taught me asked me at a leaving reception upon graduating in 2001, “was why you actually wanted to study PPE?” My answer then, and as true for me now as then, was short and simple: “Because I am fascinated by politics”.

But the very question is itself revealing, and the lecturer was surprised by my answer, because I was not using the course just as a means to an end. The others graduating with me in Merton were set for typical post-PPE careers – with large companies on their graduate recruitment schemes. Other PPEists I knew elsewhere in Oxford were thinking about political careers (I knew Rachel Reeves, Kirsty McNeill, Stephen Doughty and Will Straw during my time there, and am still sporadically in contact with the latter two).

It strikes me that a certain type of person is attracted to PPE, people very driven to succeed at whatever it is they aim to do in life. These are the people that would be pushing to run companies and the administration whether PPE existed or not.

The course itself is broad and shallow, and in years two and three it is possible to drop one of the three disciplines (I dropped philosophy). The pace is relentless, and the topics change quickly. Covering France, Germany, Italy and the European Union in one term in West European Politics was probably the most absurd I encountered, but there may be worse.

Hence a critique like this, that studying PPE means a person knows about economics is wide of the mark. The course does nothing in enough depth for all the people studying it to mean the knowledge they have gained will be useful later. Taking specialist papers in the second and third year might mean an individual can develop some in depth knowledge, but not much. Conversely, who uses the knowledge from their undergraduate degree on an everyday basis 10 or 20 years later anyway? Yes, people who work on the same field in their career may do, but if David Cameron wanted to understand Keynesianism now, he is not going to reach for his undergraduate macro notes.

The real problem, or the real advantage, is when you start to look at the skills gained from PPE. Over three years you begin to be able to pick up more or less anything very quickly, and to pull together a semi-coherent, or at least defensible, argument on the basis of relatively little research. That is the sort of skill that works well in the British politics. Put under pressure in a media interview? No problem. If you can defend an essay in a tutorial written with a sketchy grasp of the facts, then no problem to bat off an interviewer on TV. The question then is whether these are the sorts of skills we actively want in our political system (a question raised in Neil Schofield’s excellent post).

Put all of this together and you have a heady brew of prejudice: a narrow, motivated elite, with a sketchy level of knowledge, and an excellent ability to bullshit, who use these skills to run the country badly. And they all studied PPE! It’s the sort of thing that ends up in one-liners like this from Faisal Islam.

There is of course a lot more to it than that, but such nuance is often lost. 37% of graduates are doing post-graduate study (up from 30% in little over a decade) – I don’t know how many PPEists do that, nor the relative percentage of those with further qualifications that then enter politics. But it was clear to me that PPE did not give me the knowledge necessary to work in EU politics, and hence the choice to do a MA in European Politics and Administration in Bruges in 2003-04. The vast range of different things that people do with PPE degrees, and the diversity of people studying it (most of whom do not end up in the public spotlight) is also completely lost, a point highlighted by current PPEist JP Spencer. There are all kinds of things – from 24/7 media, to social media, to the first past the post election system, to the UK’s unequal society – that contribute to the deficiencies of the UK’s political system at least as much as PPE does. But hell, this is Britain, where the tribe you belong to – being a PPEist – matters more than the quality of your character.

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6 comments

  1. D Hutchison

    PPE. Is’nt this simply Oxbridges equivalent of Media Studies?

  2. Jon

    @Martin – I think it fits the UK tradition of multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees, and it’s the only option you have if you want to study politics at Oxford (there is some more flexibility if you want to study economics or philosophy). My own calculation was quite simple: I want to study politics, I want to do it at either Oxford or Cambridge (and not in London because I can’t afford it), so what options have I got?

  3. Martin Holterman

    @Jon: I meant “profitable” as in: attracts loads of students, which presumably benefits the university somehow. I was just wondering whether the pitch they give to prospective students involves something more than ” this is what you study if you want to rule the world”.

  4. Jon

    @Joseph – yes, broadly. Although any other arts degree might allow deeper specialisation than PPE does.

    @Martin – it’s not profitable because the vast majority of the people studying it are British. Oxford has offered it for ages, it became popular, and hence others offered it.

  5. Martin Holterman

    Just a quick question: Is there any reason why universities in Britain offer this programme other than that it is profitable?

  6. Joseph Adams

    “The real problem, or the real advantage, is when you start to look at the skills gained from PPE. Over three years you begin to be able to pick up more or less anything very quickly, and to pull together a semi-coherent, or at least defensible, argument on the basis of relatively little research. That is the sort of skill that works well in the British politics. Put under pressure in a media interview? No problem. If you can defend an essay in a tutorial written with a sketchy grasp of the facts, then no problem to bat off an interviewer on TV.”

    These, surely, are skills imparted by any arts degree at Oxbridge, wouldn’t you agree?