Why does PPE rule Britain?

Danny Alexander and Davuid Cameron; the Bodleian library; Ed and David Miliband; an Oxford student; Harold Wilson; a student on exam day

It is the degree of choice for the Westminster elite, claiming six cabinet members and three Labour leadership contenders among its alumni. Why does Oxford's politics, philosophy and economics course dominate public life?

In the corridors of power, at the very highest reaches of government, a form of educational freemasonry holds sway.

It has nothing to do with Eton College, nor even the Bullingdon Club - both far more commonly-cited lightning rods for resentments about class, privilege and the fast track to power.

Instead, the surest ticket to the top - for Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem politicians alike - is surely a degree in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford.

No fewer than six members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, foreign secretary and chief secretary to the treasury, are Oxford PPE graduates, as are an additional two ministers who attend their meetings.

Where an Oxford PPE gets you

  • Conservative: David Cameron (prime minister), William Hague (foreign secretary), Jeremy Hunt (culture secretary), Philip Hammond (transport secretary), David Willetts (universities minister), Sir George Young (leader of the Commons)
  • Lib Dem: Danny Alexander (chief secretary to the Treasury), Chris Huhne (energy and climate change secretary)
  • Labour: Ed Balls, David Miliband, Ed Miliband (leadership candidates), Lord Mandelson (former business secretary), Jacqui Smith (former home secretary), Ruth Kelly (former transport secretary), James Purnell (former work and pensions secretary)

Labour, for all its egalitarian rhetoric, can hardly claim an advantage. As ballot papers go out to the party's members for the leadership contest, three of the contenders for that crown - David and Ed Miliband, plus Ed Balls - are alumni, as are such big names from Gordon Brown's government as Lord Mandelson, Jacqui Smith, Ruth Kelly and James Purnell.

Indeed, in the present House of Commons there are believed to be some 35 Oxford PPE-ists, compared with 20 Old Etonians.

It is a tradition that stretches back decades. Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Shirley Williams, Edwina Currie, Barbara Castle - all left their mark on politics in different ways, but all started out with an Oxford PPE.

That Oxbridge graduates in general make up a disproportionate number of the nation's elite is, of course, hardly news, as is the fact that UK politicians of all parties are drawn from a narrow educational base compared with the rest of society.

But what is it about this one course in particular that it holds such an apparently indomitable grip on the highest echelons of power?

A degree defined by breadth rather than depth seems tailor-made for the Westminster system and its regular reshuffles, in which front-line politicians can be running the prison service one day and attempting to steer the economy the next while aspiring to the grand diplomacy of the Foreign Office.

The very title of the course itself conjures up an image of each student as some kind of civic ubermensch, a combination of Machiavelli, Mary Wollstonecraft and David Ricardo.

The politician's view

David Heathcoat Amory

David Heathcoat Amory, former Foreign Office minister and MP for Wells from 1983 to 2010

"I got into Oxford to read sciences, but I changed after a year. I liked the mix between the academic and the practical.

"For me, the most useful thing was the philosophy. It turned me into a sceptic and changed my thinking for ever.

"We should be pleased that our leaders are well educated.

"I think it's something we should celebrate - there are worse alumni to be governed by."

But Observer columnist Nick Cohen, an Oxford PPE graduate, says he now regrets switching to this "silly degree" from history while an undergraduate.

He notes that, while the influence of the École Nationale d'Administration on producing public servants is a subject of regular controversy in France, the scope of Oxford's PPE department receives relatively little scrutiny.

"It's a degree for generalists, and British society has always loved generalists," he says. "But I think we'd certainly benefit from more scientists and engineers at the top.

"It's far easier to condemn Eton or the failure of the comprehensive system. But I went to Oxford, Christopher Hitchens went to Oxford, Ian Hislop went to Oxford - who are the people who are going to eviscerate the phenomenon?"

Indeed, journalists are almost as well-represented as statesmen and women among well-known PPE alumni, not least at the BBC. Political editor Nick Robinson, economics editor Stephanie Flanders and the Today programme's Evan Davis are all graduates (full disclosure: the present author studied politics at Edinburgh).

Nonetheless, few would deny that competition for a PPE place is fierce, and that the course itself imposes a rigorous workload.

Students typically must endure two tutorials a week, in which they present a paper and are grilled on it intensively - such sessions having a ratio of just one or two undergraduates for each academic.

The student's view

Tabassum Rasheed

Tabassum Rasheed, 19, has just completed the second year of her PPE degree at Oxford.

"I can see why so many people who want to get into politics do this course. It teaches you how to argue properly, especially through philosophy options such as rhetoric.

"The tutorials really sharpen up your thinking - you're arguing your point of view with the person who wrote the books you're studying.

"You can do what you want with it, too - personally I dropped the economics after second year and specialised in political theory, the politics of the middle east and so on. But I have friends who specialise in social policy, others in economics.

"I wouldn't say it's dominated by people who want to be politicians. I'd like to travel and work for something like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, and a lot of PPEs go into the City or do law conversions."

Professor Iain McLean, who taught the course from 1978 to 1991 and counts Nick Robinson among his former charges, says the breadth of the subject matter covered and the fact that students are constantly challenged to justify themselves prevents any danger of "group think".

"It's fundamental to the teaching method to be Socratic - it's our job to ask questions and encourage analytical thinking," he says.

"It was designed to be deliberately broad. Because it's interdisciplinary, we can speak across subject boundaries."

Indeed, PPE's introduction in the 1920 - initially under the title "modern greats" - was designed to offer an alternative to classics for scholars hoping to enter the civil service.

From their second year onwards students are offered a greater degree of specialisation and the opportunity to focus their interests.

The journalist Toby Young, who read PPE at Brasenose College two years ahead of David Cameron, is a defender of the course and believes it offers a firm intellectual grounding for would-be leaders across the political spectrum.

"Among the 10 people reading PPE at the same time as me at Brasenose, you had everything from Monday Club fascists to revolutionary Marxists, plus every shade of opinion in between," he says.

"But when I went on to study at post-graduate level at Harvard, everybody was a liberal. One of the hallmarks of PPE graduates is that they are quite independently minded."

But the question remains: why does this course in particular dominate cabinet tables, rather than similar programmes at Cambridge - or, for that matter, the PPE degrees offered by the universities of Durham, Lancaster and York?

Geoffrey Evans, a fellow in politics and a senior tutor at Nuffield College, Oxford, acknowledges that the course's reputation for producing top-rank politicians is self-perpetuating, with the "the elite frog pond of Oxford" proving a strong lure for students with the means and wit to get through the door in the first place.

"They are pretty bright too, it is fair to say - though they will in the main have had advantageous circumstances in which to cultivate that brightness," he adds. "And ambitious - many no doubt see such positions as a natural outcome of their social and educational opportunities, and the circles in which they mix will in general hold lofty expectations as to what constitutes a suitable occupational outcome.

"All in all, it's how the class system works."

Maybe so. Either way, the political battles of the future seem at least as likely to be fought first in the Oxford quads where PPE is taught as the playing fields of Eton.

Below are a selection of your comments

I don't think it's at all surprising that so many politicians should have a degree in a subject, two of whose core subjects - politics and philosophy - are all about hot air, debate and persuasion. Even the other subject - economics - has more to do with psychology and persuasion than hard fact. Politicians are, after all, people who deal primarily with persuasion and debate. As long as they can get those things right, they don't need to do much else. But it is a shame that knowledge of factually rigorous subjects, such as sciences and mathematics, is not as equally highly-valued among our leaders.

David Hazel, Birmingham, UK

One thing that always terrified me, as a history undergrad at Oxford ten years ago, was that my PPE contemporaries would more than likely be running the country one day. No sign of them yet, but it can't be long - I know of at least one who's a special adviser to a current minister...

Abi, Oxford

Diversity isn't just about gender or skin colour - it's also about mindset, experience and background. The whole country has misunderstood diversity, and it seems the House of Commons is no different.

Roy,

All I can say is that these must truly be, for want of a better word, rubbish courses froma rubbish university. Any university that turns out, in large numbers, the kind of incompetent politicians that come from Oxford should think seriously about a revamp of its entry requirements.

Rob Smith, Edinburgh, Scotland

Why is an Oxbridge degree always conflated with "privilege" and "class"? It is possible to obtain one without wealth and a private education you know - I managed it myself as it happens. Admittedly there is an unfortunate over-representation of some of the upper echelons of society at Oxbridge, but in my experience this is generally exaggerated - I was actually struck by how normal my three years were. Crucially, distinction is rarely drawn between Oxbridge and institutions such as the Bullingdon Club and Eton - whereas the latter require wealth and/or breeding as a prerequisite to acceptance, the former only asks for academic talent.

Owen, UK

PPE should be a fundamental requirement for anyone in senior public positions. Without an understanding of the way philosophy has developed we can make no progress. The politics bit is interesting from a historical point of view and economics is interesting in showing us that money and our perception of it are contantly changing. Elitism - yes of course! We need the best minds leading us. It's just the surrounding primitive cultural restrictions (party politics, religion, class and financial power lust) that hold us back.

Derek Ruskin, Worcestershire

Even more astounding is the number of Magdalen College Oxford alumni in the cabinet - five. There are more Magdalen men in the cabinet than there are Lib Dems or women (and by my count three of them were Magdalen PPEists). PPE does teach you lots of things one should have a knowledge of if one is to run the country - for example philosophy gives you a grounding in ethics and makes you analytically rigorous in your arguments while economics teaches you a lot about unforeseen consequences of government intervention. In my view the problem is not necessarily the number of PPEists in power, the problem is earlier- that you are less likely to get into Oxford if you are from an underprivileged background. Disclaimer: I too am a Magdalen PPEist...

Henry, Salisbury, UK

Finally, someone mentions the people who are really running this country: the Oxbridge Mafia. Nevermind Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge graduates also represent a certain elite. Yes you could argue it's "academic" talent, but you can't claim that every single person who is talented and capable of running this country went to those two universities. We have other great institutions that have amongst them alumna who could run things very well, but unfortunately the "where did you go to university?" "oh, really I was at Balliol... did you know so and so!" seems to be a new prejudice that has replaced "where did you go to school".

OB, London

Although it is undoubtedly an issue that our politicians are drawn from a narrow social pool and range of disciplines, it is undeniable that PPE in particular is essentially a degree in government. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of the course are ideal training for political work - with students developing a strong sense of the interplay between different components of a society, e.g. economics and ethics. Plus you are surrounded by politically active (and generally academic) individuals from day one. It's infectious. Disclosure: I'm a Keele PPEist.

Phil, UK

I don't see the problem. Oxford PPE graduates are very well placed to go into politics. This course perhaps more than other prepares them for life as a politician. I don't think that in the interests of diversity we should get some media graduates from Manchester just for the sake of it.

Andrew, London

Just goes to prove the old adage that those that want to be politicians are actually the very last people that should be allowed to be politicians.

D Dortman, Durham

We had a joke when I was a student at Oxford. Q: Why don't PPE students stare out of the window in the morning? A: It gives them something to do in the afternoon.

Mal, Durham

Is it supposed to come as some sort of startling revelation that people wanting to work in politics study politics at one of the countries top universities with a reputation for producing precisely that. If the article had been "Doctors studied Medicine at University", just how many people would be outraged?

Jon, London

Good politics need people whose central pursuit is truth and making things work like science, engineering and mathematics. These disciplines propelled our world into unimaginable heights. It is through these disciplines that the world can be simpified again into a manageable world.

Edwina Lee, High Wycombe

Politics, philosophy and economics: Lies, damn lies and statistics?

Ed Neal, Southampton, UK

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