Politics on the march again

Academics are amazed by the sudden rise in applications for politics degrees. Is this the effect of September 11, or is there something more profound at work? Lucy Hodges reports
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It could be the effect of September 11, 2001, it could be growing interest in globalisation, Third World debt and the environment. But the fact is that politics is suddenly undergoing a boom in university applications as students sign up for courses that will give them an insight into the world in which we live.

It could be the effect of September 11, 2001, it could be growing interest in globalisation, Third World debt and the environment. But the fact is that politics is suddenly undergoing a boom in university applications as students sign up for courses that will give them an insight into the world in which we live.

Last year, applications were up by 15.4 per cent for degrees in politics; this year they are up by 6.6 per cent. That compares with an average rise in applications for all subjects of 2.6 per cent this year. At a time when membership of political parties and voter turnout are at historic lows, one can be forgiven for asking what is going on.

The answer may lie in new research published this week showing that, far from being dead, political activity is alive and well. People may not be engaging in traditional party politics but they are doing other things – signing petitions, raising funds for organisations and going on demonstrations against war in Iraq and in defence of the countryside.

"The events of September 11 had an effect," says Professor Wyn Grant, who teaches at Warwick University and is chairman of the Political Studies Association. "They heightened interest in events in the external world." Applications to courses in politics and international studies at Warwick have leapt by 40 per cent this year. Much of the new demand for politics can be attributed to interest in international relations and international political economy, according to Nicola Phillips, Hallsworth research fellow in international political economy at Manchester University. Numbers applying to study the MA in international relations and international political economy at Manchester have doubled this year.

"What is going on reflects a general decline in political parties as the main vehicle for political activity and an increase in transnational political activity through co-ordination between different groups in different parts of the world," she says.

In other words, students are reflecting a trend that is being seen around the world: people are becoming turned off by the actions of grey-suited men in smoke-filled rooms in Westminster and are captivated instead by social movements that transcend national boundaries. And the trend goes back to before September 11, according to Professor John Benyon at Leicester University. "The debate about Islam vs Christianity, West vs East, North vs South, has been around for a long time," he thinks.

Today's students are internationalists. They travel widely, not just to Europe like their parents did, but to Australia, South America and South-east Asia. They travel in their gap year before university, in the vacations while at university and many also take time off after graduating to see the world. "They have a very developed interest that is based on having been to these places," says Professor Duncan McCargo, head of politics at Leeds University. "They're much more internationalist in their outlook than we were 20 years ago."

Applications for degree subjects go in cycles. In the Sixties, the cool degree was sociology; in the Seventies it was English; and in the Eighties it was economics. However, in the late Thatcher era, there was an upturn of interest in politics precisely because Mrs Thatcher was such a strong politician, says Professor Stephen Wilks, of Exeter University. Perhaps that is happening again. "There does seem to be a reaction to the leading personalities in the field. Just as Mrs Thatcher generated more interest in politics and therefore more interest in studying the subject so perhaps there is a Blair effect too. It may be that the more controversial he is, the more interested people become."

According to the academics, the politics students of the 21st century are not the stone-throwing protesters of old. "They are not as partisan or biased as they used to be," says Nicola Phillips. "Rather they are interested in issues for their own sake such as trade, finance and negotiations between governments."

If they are studying at an old university, politics students tend to have high grades at A level as befits such a popular subject. And when they leave they go into a range of jobs – public administration, the voluntary sector, pressure groups, banking and the media. Politics professors like to emphasise the transferable skills of their students.

They learn how to analyse issues, to sift complicated data and come to a view, to make presentations and arguments – just the skills that employers say they want in graduates.

Such skills are also taught in other social studies subjects, but some of these subject are not enjoying the same popularity. This year's figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that economics, like politics, has seen a 6.6 per cent increase in applications for the autumn of 2003. But human and social geography have a rise of only 1.6 per cent and sociology has declined 4.8 per cent.

If the academics' analysis is correct and students are responding to a changing global environment, we should see applications for politics rise further in the future. "Suddenly politics really matters," says Professor Andrew Oswald who teaches economics at Warwick University.

"We're talking about going to war because of politics. A few years ago there was a period when politics didn't seem to matter. It was all consensus and the Third Way. Now all that has gone up in smoke."

'Studying political ideas has made me think'

Daniel Brittain, 20, switched to politics at Leeds University because he was disenchanted with studying law. He has three As and a B at A-level and hopes to join the police when he graduates. "I have always enjoyed politics since I took it in the sixth form. I joined the Labour party and it was natural for me to go back to it. It is a subject which is relevant to my everyday life, and it helps to inform issues such as poverty, unemployment and housing. This semester we have been learning about Thatcherism and the third Way. Last semester we covered political ideas – freedom, power and democracy – and looked at how far the state should intervene, and at issues such as equality. It made me think."