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PPE: The Oxford Degree deciding the fate of Great Britain

The upcoming Conservative leadership election hails two very different candidates. Rishi Sunak seeks to keep taxes high to stem inflation, whilst Liz Truss campaigns on a utopian promise of low taxes and economic freedom. These two candidates have, however, one thing in common. Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduates from Oxford, known as students of PPE, permeate the UK political and media landscape. From Robert Peston at ITV to Ed Balls, PPE graduates are almost ubiquitous, encompassing political viewpoints from the centre-left to the centre-right and have filled key positions in parliament in the recent past. David Cameron graduated in 1988 before becoming one of modern history's most controversial British Prime Ministers. So, why has this degree churned out statesman after statesman, decade after decade?


Why Oxford Produces Leaders


Since Oxford University's inception, it has been regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet. Established in 1921, after the horrors of The First World War, British academia realised that a change was necessary. Typically, a prospective statesman in the Empire would have been expected to study Classics (Latin and Ancient Greek), or Divinity, to reach the higher echelons of service. The Dons at Oxford saw that those degrees were becoming increasingly out-of-touch, and the need for a re-designed course on statecraft was apparent. Dropping the requirement of Ancient Greek in the admissions process opened up the degree to many state-school students, augmenting the talent -pool.


Initially sceptical, the academic elite were surprised to see how beneficial the degree became in enhancing the education of future leaders. The degree's popularity increased, and many of its early graduates, such as Hugh Gaitskell, who enrolled in 1924, became influential members of The Labour Party. The degree was described as 'confident' and 'internationalist' and much more suited to the changing geopolitical structure after the Second World War and moving into the Cold War. The degree, within fifty years, had become the most prestigious and highly revered course for a future statesman in the world.


So, why has public trust in politics never been lower? Why has this supposed 'dream course' for the politicians of tomorrow led to growing discontent in our politics? The devil is in the details.


PPE and its Parameters


Significantly, PPE is unlike traditional British higher education. Encompassing three rather distinct subjects, the degree draws influence from European and American programs of study. More generalist and multidisciplinary, the course encourages students to draw on outside knowledge and further reading. A former education minister, David Willets, describes it as "a problem of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available."


But what do they actually study? The Economics aspect is highly mathematical, with many prospective students needing maths A-Level for entry. The course offers few modules on behavioural and environmental economics, instead focussing on rigid mathematical theories and concepts. Similarly, the philosophy modules are heavily influenced by mathematical logic. While significantly more diverse nowadays, politics modules are also often based on historical data and methods.


The course, while offering breadth, also has depth. The students are expected to write 16 essays a term, almost five times as many as politics students at other Russell Group universities. The workload distribution is perfect for the generalist. One reads many books and studies encompassing all three disciplines, allowing students to retain a broad range of knowledge, without specialising in one specific area, in too much detail, too soon. Conversely, Dominic Cummings, a notorious former advisor of Boris Johnson, recommends, "if you are young, smart, and interested in politics, think very hard before studying PPE. It causes huge problems by encouraging people like Cameron and Ed Balls to spread bad ideas with lots of confidence and bluffing." Cummings argues that the degree is too broad and allows graduates to choose which information to present without specialising in specific areas. Labour peer, Stephen Wood, adds, "It does still feel like a course for people who are going to run the Raj in 1936. Extensive reading every week; writing essays that synthesise and summarise – are the skills of a civil servant in the late British Empire. In the politics part of PPE, you can go three years without discussing a single contemporary public policy issue."


These criticisms are widespread, with many lamenting the structure and workload of the course. Andrew Beckett, a dropout in the 1960s, said, "The course tended to repress anything to do with emotion." In addition, the didactic nature of the course has been heavily scrutinised. Complaints include that there is too much history and historical analysis when times have changed.

However, PPE remains one of the most popular courses at Oxford. Daniel, who graduated from the course in 2020, tells me, "the degree was pretty much all positive and very broad. I am now a civil servant, so it has served me well." However, he disagreed with me when asked whether the three subjects were too disconnected. "Although some papers had significant overlap, for example, ethics and political philosophy, the course taught me different ways to look at the same issues and topics."


The course's interdisciplinary nature, whilst seen by some as a criticism, is seen as an asset by others. Encouraging the construction and deconstruction of arguments allows students to think quickly on their feet and to exhibit their vast array of knowledge from many areas. However, is the information these graduates can so expertly relay, digest and deconstruct, outdated and ineffective for 21st-century governance?


From a status symbol to a slur


Due to the current state of British politics, PPE at Oxford is in the firing line. Many bemoan its centrist, statist bias. Far-right politicians such as Nigel Farage decry complex political ideas as "PPE bollocks." Does this show that, in fact, PPE prevents future politicians from the extremes of politics and encourages them to take a moderate viewpoint?


Perhaps partially. However, a moderate viewpoint can vary and change. For example, Liz Truss graduated from Oxford and joined the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party, before embracing far-right politics. The emotionless, technocratic nature of the degree views politics through a dense, theoretical lens, often avoiding modern politics and people like the plague. This could perhaps explain why politicians were so eager to bail out the banks following the 2008 crash. Would a more natural and less technocratic viewpoint have produced a more critical outlook on the sleaze on Wall Street and the City? Perhaps, PPE graduates, ever the statists, re-read their textbooks instead of pursuing fraudulent bankers.


Students have even tested the validity of the degree. In the 1960s, Tariq Ali bet a friend he could mention the Vietnam War in every one of his papers. The question posed, which is the cheapest form of subsidised transport in the world?' He answered, 'The American helicopter service from Saigon to the jungle, which is totally free. The only problem is that occasionally it's a one-way trip!'"


He hoped he would fail, thus exposing the course's rigidity. But the dons were too canny and he received a Third.


So are PPE graduates now 'elite students in bullshitting?' Does the course stymie understanding of modern politics and sociology? What is clear is that PPE remains the most highly sought degree for aspiring leaders, justifiably or not.

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