How Tony Blair made politics degrees glamorous again

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The notion that young people of today are disillusioned with politics is a myth. For the past seven years there has been a year-on-year increase in students applying to study politics, says Jon Tonge, head of the Political Studies Association and chair of Gordon Brown's new Youth Citizen Commission. "The numbers are soaring," he says.

Since 200, the number of undergraduates studying politics at degree level has more than doubled. There are now more than 23,000 politics students in the UK, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

It is easy to pin this surge in interest on the dramatic impact of 9/11. There is, however, more to it than that. Round-the-world gap years are common, and 18-year-olds have visited the developing world and seen the glaring inequities. In addition, the public's awareness of climate change, the G8 and globalisation has moved politics' centre of gravity away from parochial old Westminster to a new international setting.

Andrew Geddes, head of politics at Sheffield, believes that students' views of what counts as politics has changed. "When I studied politics as an undergrad, it was about local authority finance," he says. "But universities have changed. Students are more demanding now and they have the right to expect a good range of choice."

Unsurprisingly then, undergraduate and graduate students are flocking to courses about the Middle East, international security and China. Traditional British politics has become less popular.

"The Nineties were the dull, grey John Major years," says Tonge. "In many ways politics departments struggled during this era."

The Noughties brought with them Tony Blair and an international focus. With the Northern Ireland peace process and devolution, Blair made even domestic politics seem glamorous.

"As yet, there is no sign of this, but Brown brings a potential return to dull domestic politics," says Tonge. And although students are not keen on learning about the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system, courses in the British political system remain a core component of any politics degree.

Anyone thinking about taking a degree in this discipline should be prepared to spend the first year immersed in British politics, the European Union and comparative politics. At some point, undergraduates have to study Hobbes as part of the political theory module. The LSE is the only institution that does not force Westminster politics on students, but it is included in a general module on European politics.

Students need to cover traditional politics in their first year, Tonge believes, but most don't continue with it. "They want to do dissertations in political terrorism – but it can be difficult to get an interview with al-Qa'ida," he quips.

Lawrence Saez, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, explains the rise in demand for courses on the Middle East: "The greater interest in the Middle East is inevitably motivated by events in Iraq and Afghanistan. I teach a course about Pakistan and numbers have notably increased. Iraq is in the students' minds, but there are few specialists on Iraq and almost no courses on it."

China is another popular field of study, however, few institutions have specialists in this area. Students who are particularly keen to study these regions should check whether institutions do in fact offer it.

Although the core topics in a politics degree do not differ much between universities, the more specialist courses do. Essex, for example, is famous for its world-class international relations teaching, especially in Latin American politics. Warwick offers a module entitled Britain and the Iraq War, as well as Sport, Politics and Society.

At Leicester, students can choose to specialise in American or South African foreign policy, or take the Conservatives in Crisis option. Those who wish to learn about Afghanistan and study Farsi at the same time, while being surrounded by a radical student body, might find SOAS suits them. Durham offers the chance to analyse the Israel- Palestine Question and delve into modern China.

For those interested in British politics, Liverpool has a popular new parliamentary-placement scheme, which means they get an insider's view of an MP's office. A degree in politics means that graduates are highly sought-after by employers and many opt for work in the voluntary sector, publishing, accountancy, the law, education or the media, to name a few.

The discipline hones students' skills in analysis and research, because they learn how to sift through large quantities of data and produce succinct arguments. And, one of the most important benefits of the subject is that students learn to read and understand newspapers.

Young people today are more interested in single-issue causes, such as Stop the War and climate change, than traditional party politics – but perhaps this is the way of the future.

Comments