How an Oxford degree – PPE – created a robotic governing class

Most of our prominent politicians studied the same subject at Oxford. Is it any wonder we’re so badly governed?

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

If graduates from an architecture school designed buildings that were unfit for human habitation or doctors from a university’s medical faculty left death in their wake, their teachers would worry. The graduates of Oxford’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics course form the largest single component of the most despised generation of politicians since the Great Reform Act. Yet their old university does not show a twinge of concern.

Alex Salmond spat out ‘Westminster’ as if he meant ‘Babylon’, and every time he did, thousands of Scots decided to leave Britain. Ukip, a vehicle for another cynical demagogue, convinces its growing band of supporters that all politicians are liars (apart from Mr Farage, of course). Beyond party labels and nationalist sympathies is an ‘anti-politics mood’ that captures citizens of all beliefs and none (although ‘mood’ strikes me as too mild a world for the derision and the fury). Will Jennings of Southampton university pointed me to research which showed 80 per cent agreed with the proposition that ‘politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines’, with just 3 per cent of respondents disagreeing. ‘You never see results like this,’ he said.

A remarkable number of the politicians voters despised for their tricks learnt their politics at Oxford: David Cameron, William Hague, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Ed Davey, Danny Alexander. Matthew Hancock, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Rachel Reeves and Stuart Wood. There are more PPE graduates in the Commons than Old Etonians (35 to 20). Remember I am not talking about Oxbridge-educated politicians, who make up 50 per cent of ministers and 28 per cent of MPs, but the graduates of just one Oxford course.

Ambitious young men and women now believe they must study politics at Oxford if they want to get on in politics. And not only ambitious Brits. Christopher Hood, the editor of the only academic study of PPE, says that at one point in the last decade 5 per cent of the world’s foreign ministers had enrolled at St Antony’s — Oxford’s postgraduate college for political studies. What Oxford teaches ought to be of more than academic interest.

The French keep a jaundiced eye on the énarques, the graduates of de Gaulle’s Ecole nationale d’administration, who always seem to end at the top of business in politics whoever is in power. In Britain, however, there is little beyond protest against the ‘private school Oxbridge elite’, which fails to understand that Oxford and Cambridge are meritocratic institutions, open to all qualified students regardless of parental wealth, while private schools most assuredly are not.

Occasionally, left-wing writers have noticed that the Oxford economics department sent its rosy-cheeked charges into a wicked world without a clue about the risks of a coming crash, but you could say the same about every economics department on the planet. As Oxford is a federal university with independent colleges, I cannot see how an academic or group of politics graduates could impose a party line. That you hear occasional complaints from the right as well convinces me that none exists. (One conservative editor hands PPE graduates a remedial right-wing reading list to bang ‘sound’ thinking into their misguided young minds.)

Oxford’s issue is not what it thinks but how it thinks.

Last week Vernon Bogdanor described his astonishment that the man he called ‘my ablest pupil’ (David Cameron, PPE, Brasenose College) was drawing up a new constitution on scrap paper. You don’t rush fundamental change with barely a moment’s thought, the visibly shaken Bogdanor told the BBC. Cameron’s behaviour was ‘absurd’.

As Professor Bogdanor’s least able pupil, I hate to be the one to break it to him, but banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought is exactly what PPE students do. They study three separate disciplines yoked into one course. In the first year, they must produce essays on John Stuart Mill one minute and parliament the next; on microeconomics, modern French history, Rousseau, Marx, formal logic, the US Congress and whether it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

‘I always invited PPE-ists to my parties,’ said Madeline Grant, who left Oxford last year. ‘They could talk about anything. Whether they knew anything did not bother them in the slightest.’

I don’t dispute that Oxford produces world-class thinkers, but it also churns out world-class bullshitters. Career politicians with no interests outside politics have always existed, as the lives of Pitt the Younger, Lloyd George and Asquith show. More novel, or more common than they once were, are politicians who believe that governing is managing; that the tactics of Peter Mandelson (PPE, St Catherine’s College) are all they need to know: lead the news cycle, write the headlines, buy off Murdoch, offer a concession to anti-immigrant feeling here, a tax-raising power to Scots there, then wait for the next wave to surf.

PPE essay crises are the perfect preparation for politicians who will distil a complicated society down to a few slogans — ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ — and confine their reading to the handful of texts that impress their peers: Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Thaler on nudging. Above all, the flightiness of PPE encourages puppeteer politicians, who stand above their society pulling the strings, rather than men and women who represent solid interests within it.

If Oxford will not split the course into separate subjects to encourage serious study, there is one small reform it could implement in compensation. It offers students the option of producing a 10,000-word dissertation. The study must be original research, and students must have a genuine interest to see them through the hard work ahead. Several told me that they and their contemporaries refused to write dissertations for these very reasons. Could not Oxford make the option compulsory and force students to concentrate on one hard topic, if only for a few months? Would it not then produce politicians who were more likely to root themselves in their country rather than skim its surface like pond-skating insects?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Nick Cohen is a Spectator blogger, Observer columnist and author of several books.

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Show comments
  • Rik

    Anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that almost all Westminster politicians are cynical liars interested only in office and power,and you can stuff your sneering comment about Farage where the sun doesn’t shine

    • carlbennett

      Mayall, presumably.

  • Joe Williams

    This has been going on for decades; Nick just mentions the current crop. Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Tony Benn, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn & Shirley Williams were all recipients of PPE degrees. The media, especially the BBC, has always had a warm welcome for such ‘enlightened’ graduates. Here’s a longer list:

    • anyfool

      Your list is of those who initiated the UKs long descent into self absorption that has made the country an almost ungovernable wreck.
      These people set in motion a chain reaction where every policy a government initiates has to be offering something for nothing.
      This reached its peak with Brown and Blair, they used vast borrowings to pay for this, the current clowns have not slowed this down regardless of their protestations,
      But look at the electorate, the country is to all intents and purposes totally destroyed as a viable entity and they are squabbling about which clowns to elect to continue this disaster.

  • Liz

    Douglas Murray, Mehdi Hassan.

  • Andrew Smith

    Nothing wrong per se with studying PPE. Ideed, the study of no single subject will prepare the graduate for activity in the real (indeed only) world. If we look at the list below provided by Mr Williams, we can see that the more successful / interesting / able of the names were those who went on to do something else in detail before going into Parliament. My gripe is with those who think they have worked out the world just by having studied somthing (anything) for three years. There is no substitute for a bit of practical experience.

    To pluck one obscure name – Heathcoat Amery – from the list, he worked in the real world economy before becoming chancellor. He saw that he didn’t have a cat’s chance in hell of bringing in rational economic thought to the government, so quit to tend his business interests. Others like Foot, Benn or Cameron gathered no useful experience (journalism / television) before entering Parliament.

    • Damaris Tighe

      PPE replaced the classics based ‘mods’ & ‘greats’ as the degree of choice for aspirant politicians & civil servants. Like the classics degree it covers both philosophy & politics but updated from ancient Greece, & replaces classical literature with modern economics.

      I can’t help thinking that our future rulers might not have been better served getting their inspiration from Periclean Athens. At least they had a sense of honour.

      • GUBU

        The fact that the best known Classics graduate in British politics is Mr Boris Johnson may suggest otherwise.

        • Damaris Tighe

          What about Enoch Powell? But I accept the dangers of generalisation!

          • Andrew Smith

            Denis Healey

          • GUBU

            I was thinking of current politicians.

            Mr Powell had been a Fellow, a Professor and a Brigadier before entering politics after the war. Mr Healy (mentioned below) was Major Healy when he made his first speech at a Labour Party conference.

            What has Mr Johnson to show for his time before entering politics? A brief comical interlude as a trainee management consultant, followed by journalism.

            Not necessarily a difference in degree, but clearly a difference in kind, I would suggest.

          • Damaris Tighe

            Cameron’s only ‘real’ job at Carleton Communications was offered to him at the request of his future mother in law*. So not only has this man very little experience outside politics (if PR counts as that), but he’s not even had to compete for a job outside politics.

            * according to his biographers.

          • Fraser Bailey

            Yes, Cameron’s CV is truly reprehensible. A staggering case of contacts over content.

          • SextusEmpiricus

            In Powell’s case there’s also a pretty clear difference in calibre; vis-à-vis not only Johnson but also all the other pretenders.

          • Old Nick

            Powell’s edition of Thucydides is still the Oxford Classical Text

        • little islander

          Mr Johnson wrote a bestseller. I thought it was great. Now I know it’s probably a re-hash of one of his uni essays. And to think how much Clement Attlee got remunerated and for Mr Johnson to think his ‘250,000 pound sterling’ newspaper pop ‘peanuts’ is to despair at the standard politicians have sunk.

    • Teacher

      English is a damn good subject for teaching you about life. Just read the nineteenth century novel canon and you’ll understand human nature and the motivation of others. Shakespeare ditto.

      • Andrew Smith

        Agree. A the study of a range of subjects can give you a theoretical understanding of many aspects of life, including world literature, history, Philosophy, or even Economics.

        The problem is, a theoretical understanding of big questions doesn’t equip people to do things. Like all my friends, I went to university, and took a good degree. Confronted by the demands of the real world, I started learning again and have never really stopped. Everybody I speak to says the same. The experience of succeses, mistakes (especially those) and half-successes represent the other side of a coin of theoretical knowledge.

        I would much prefer that our politicians had a few years making these experiences before inflicting their un-tested beliefs on a weary public.

        • Teacher

          Quite agree.

    • Old Nick

      Amory. He also jumped at Arnhem.

  • anyfool

    You write this as though you are sitting on the sidelines looking into the Westminster tent, your snide comment on Farage shows, you are the pathetic gofer in the tent, you are their slave who cannot see, the chains binding you to your old comrades.

    • Kishan Koria

      Whilst I wouldn’t want to call Mr. Cohen pathetic there is something to remember here which the quick “Prof. Bogdanor’s least able student” glosses over. The author read PPE, at Oxford.

  • dmitri the impostor

    Between 2002 and 2007, all nine members of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee were engineering graduates.

    Go figure, Mr Cohen.

    • Moses

      You mean that the men in charge of a booming, export-led manufacturing economy with a massive trade surplus, were highly numerate engineers? Is that a coincidence?

  • beenzrgud

    I’ve yet to hear a politician who has a coherent vision of where the UK needs to be in the medium to long term, or even a vision of where we should be going in the short term. I don’t really see the country improving at all under the leadership of this Oxford PPE bubble. It appears to be the status quo at all costs, which any fool can see will likely lead to slow decline.
    As previously pointed out, the crack about Farage is a low blow and what’s more misses the point. Farage isn’t a product of Oxford, or even what could be called a professional politician. Maybe this is why his popularity is currently skyrocketing, and more importantly he IS believed by much of the electorate.

    • John Dalton

      The vision is absolutely clear:

      More immigrants, more EU, more I*lam, more political correctness and the relentless promotion of women over men, gays over straights, non-whites over whites.

      While these hyprocites protect their sinecures and their kids’ futures with vicious determination – they are quite happy for the rest of us, who come from humble backgrounds and have struggled our way up through sheer hard work, to be side-lined and prejudiced against in their new multi-culti rainbow world order and to sell our kids’ legacy down the river. It is perverse.

      • beenzrgud

        The intent of our politicians is certainly becoming clearer to a lot of people, hence the backlash.

      • Bonusje

        migrations Never existed but are the old Slave trades under fancy names at global level

      • Ed

        You missed out ‘it’s PC gone mad’ and a reference to ‘the gay brigade’. How are you going to flourish in the UKIP cesspool if you make such trivial errors?

        • Christian

          He can but hope to attain your levels of nobility……..

        • Paul Hughes

          I intend to vote UKIP because I’m a better-off-outer libertarian. People like John Dalton cause me to think twice.

          • UKSteve

            So-o-o-o-o-o, you allow other people’s motivations to dictate how you vote?


          • Paul Hughes

            If you read my comment again you’ll learn that I said nothing of the sort. I do, however, consider the nature of the party for which I intend to vote and its members’ views are important. Don’t you think so?

            reflect upon

            Which of the above would most closely match that part of my previous comment to which you objected?

          • UKSteve

            I didn’t object, I simply drew an inference. Any political party is a broad church due to the collection of people in it, and you’re going to get some whose views you don’t like. Whether inside or outside the party.

            I would never allow the ravings of one person affect me either way.

        • ProphetZero

          No, he got the `gay brigade` bit with the `relentless promotion of gays over straights` nugget.
          Don’t know how that works actually & why he feels so left out there.
          But he certainly could have done with a sprinkling of Muslims to really spice it up however

    • why is it so important to you to pretend Nigel Farage isn’t a professional politician? He’s a man leading a party at a party conference right at this moment. He’s a professional politician! And he’s so popular that he has never yet joined the 650 other politicians voted into parliament. Maybe next year!

      • beenzrgud

        I’m not trying to pretend anything. I think Farage is what would be called a conviction politician. He entered politics in order to promote his own ideas. It wasn’t a career choice, as seems to be the case with so many other politicians who have little previous employment history before entering politics. I believe most people can recognise the difference.

  • flippit

    Seemed to me that a lot of Scots MSPs went to Glasgow University, you could say the same about that place, that it’s a sort of incubator for manipulation. They’re all learning the political process but you can’t blame the seat of learning for the lack of moral imperative. I suppose the question is are these people just learning to propagate their own traditions through PPE or is it actually teaching them to think?

  • HJ777

    George Osborne studied History, not PPE.

    The problem with a course such as PPE is that unlike degrees such as (say) physics or engineering, or maths, or languages where you are equipped with real (and largely undisputed) technical knowledge, it covers things that are controversial and are better understood through the osmosis of time, experience and reflection after you have had life experience in other areas. It is simply a fraud on the students who study PPE to lead them to believe that they have acquired useful wisdom and real knowledge as a result of their studies – they have not.

    • Err… Having just graduated with an Oxford PPE degree, it teaches you, first and foremost, how to think.

      Being able to understand frameworks and think quickly is an incredibly valuable skill. I am under no illusion that what I have learned is ‘fact’. That is why I focused less on economics, as it gives the appearance of being fact but it isn’t. I focused on the philosophy because I understood the value of being able to communicate effectively and development an analytic tool with which I can solve problems.

      I have no intention of being a politician, so perhaps that is why I don’t fit your assessment.

      • HJ777

        If you have just graduated, how do you know that you have acquired “an incredibly valuable skill”?

        Are you suggesting that graduates in science and engineering subjects, for example, haven’t learned “how to think”? How do you know that they haven’t learned “how to think” rather better than you have? Have you developed “an analytic tool” that they haven’t? If you have just graduated, how do you know that this “analytic tool” will make you better at “solving problems” outside academia?

        Where is your evidence that focusing on philosophy makes you more able to communicate effectively?

        You clearly have a very high opinion of yourself but you haven’t actually tested whether your confidence is well founded yet, have you?

        • Nick Bryars

          He didn’t say other degrees lacked value. That’s your interpretation of his post.

          • HJ777

            No that’s not my interpretation.

            He’s saying that it is a specific attribute of PPE. I merely pointed out that he has no evidence that graduates in other subjects develop any lesser ability whilst also gaining technical knowledge.

        • No Man’s Land

          Well the point is all degrees (well most of them..) ‘teach you how to think’. But do a Chemistry degree you’ll learn ‘how to think’ and how to do chemistry, do a PPE and you’ll only learn ‘how to think’.

          • Fraser Bailey

            The idea that PPE teaches you how to ‘think’ is clearly absurd.

            Not a single politician possessed of this wretched degree seems to capable of ‘thinking’ through the consequences of their actions.

            I believe this is because none of them has ever lived a day in the real world, where actions really do have consequences.

          • Ed

            ‘Is clearly absurd’. Really? Ever studied any philosophy?

            This is an idiotic comment, based on a clear lack of knowledge of the degree.

          • Peter Gardner

            That’s because however intelligent and skilled as thinkers they don’t have the raw material about which to think: a thorough factual knowledge of their electorates.

        • Michael Barnes

          Me thinks that you are attacking the wrong person!? The point of the article is not that the PPE course is total rubbish. To conclude that someone who has studied PPE deserves vitriol is more than a little infantile…. It is more the attitude of some privileged individuals towards politics itself and society in general that is worrying. Our political system allows inexperienced ‘children’ to be put into positions of great influence without any deep knowledge of life or any particular field of expertise. This is the main issue. A more simple solution would be to mandate that only ‘mature’ adults with considerable experience can stand for election to the Commons…

      • Widggget

        Not sure that Oxford did you a lot of good, Jamie – can you explain what the ‘it’ is that graduated?

      • little islander

        Be careful when you communicate. Weren’t the Stoics wary of people with oratorial or communication skills? After all the prime minister voted the best in the last century, Mr Clement Attlee, is known to be rather laconic. I rather liked Mr Blair when he first got elected, and then I heard his ‘people’s princess’ speech on the radio.

        • commenteer

          It was Mrs Thatcher who has won every poll I’ve seen on best post-war prime ministers.

          • red2black

            Surely you mean best female post-war prime ministers? (tee hee)

          • little islander

            I remember it was the first one ever done in the UK (after US fashion) and with votes cast by historians and politicians.

        • pearlsandoysters

          Good point! Rhetoric is a means to persuade not to deliberate. The modern media actually renders deliberation pretty obsolete. Too much communication becomes non-communication, once it takes time to think & deliberate, which is almost unaffordable luxury nowadays.

      • Guest with a PPE thinks he is a jolly clever chap, but drops a clanger in the most embarrassing manner. Quote: ” I understood the value of being able to communicate effectively and development an analytic tool with which I can solve problems.”

        You might wish to develop a grammatical tool as well old chap, that way you might be able communicate in a better fashion. What on earth to do you mean?

        Also, as I am feeling a tad pedantic, your first sentence is awful as well. Quote: “Having just graduated with an Oxford PPE degree, it teaches you, first and foremost, how to think.”

        A grammatical cock-up old chap, worthy only of pre-Secondary School ability.

        Seriously, if you want to boast about your wonderful communicative skills, you need to master some basics of the English language. Otherwise people will think Mr Cohen has got you PPE bods bang to rights. Too much ego, too little knowledge.

        • Michael Barnes

          In the young man/woman’s defence – Baron Young, Anthony Crossland, Margaret Thatcher and their ‘friends’ started the rot by aiming to do away with grammar schools….. Younger people do not possess the grammatical skills of their elders; that is ultimately the fault of their superiors and elders. All of you angry ‘pedants’ failed to pass on the privilege that you so benefited from. We should collectively by ashamed of the poor quality of communication. DOI – I am also still ‘young’.

          • I wouldn’t disagree with you. I also wouldn’t boast of my communication skills in a semi-literate fashion though….

            I was never taught grammar, but I have read enough good books to know when something sounds/looks right, and when it does not.

          • RobertC

            Margaret Thatcher did not do away with grammar schools. It was the previous government that passed the legislation that rumbled on into the following government’s period of office.

        • Alex Dunlop

          You sound very chippy, Paul.

          • I have every sympathy for council estate children unable to string a coherent sentence together, having been betrayed by progressive education. I have no sympathy whatsoever for an Oxbridge PPE braggart when he brags about his communication skills in an illiterate manner.

            Hardly chippy, old chap. Quite chirpy as a rule!

        • Absolutely brilliant response, Mr Weston. No one seems to appreciate the value of well-written and grammatically correct English; in my day, we had to pass an exam called “Use of English” before we were allowed to sit our elective subjects at “A” level. It has always stood me in good stead.

      • global city

        wot werr yerlike befor yoo lernd to fink?

        • If this half-wit is able to communicate anything at all, it is only to show how far Britain has slumped in the world of education.

          My GCSE English teacher would have had a field day explaining just why his comment is so appallingly constructed, yet this chap has been to Oxford!

          Read it and weep.

      • Kohagen

        Quick, employ a PPE graduate while they still know everything.

      • bobmattfran

        Please don’t apply for a job with my company then. Should be under the serious misapprehension that you have been taught to think, then you have one hell of a lot to learn. Most people with half a brain cell learn how to think very early on, and make decisons based on experience, something that you still have not learned. I personally interview about 6 graduates a month some likje you with similar concepts of how the world operates. They are sadly shallow, arrogant and clueless regarding the basics of logic. Very few graduates realise that a degree is not the be all and end all of learning and in no way makes them fully acceptable to industry. As a consequence they don’t have will, stamina or application to integrate as part of a process.

        • Brian

          Wow, you must be one of the most open minded people, who’s thoughts I have had the privilege of reading. In fact, I must sit down with my son to see if he falls into any of your categories.

      • Hegelguy

        I am very happy you do not intend to be a politician because you sound like a pompous clown. How pitiful that you are so impressed with what they taught you. You should think for yourself.

        Someone below notes your lousy grammar.

      • Iain Paton

        I – I -I – I -I -I – I …. look at me!

        John F Kennedy is probably to blame. He was photogenic and made some very nice speeches, studied to the utmost degree, but was assassinated before he could be blamed for the Vietnam war.

      • ADW

        Some random examples of why your degree isn’t so incredibly valuable:

        In order properly to assess wind farms, you need a science degree. That would tell you they are worthless, but unfortunately our PPE class don’t seem to be able to understand the numbers involved.

        In order to design a car, you need to know know about energy, mass, carbon, etc. Not philosophy

        In order to assess a drug, you need to conduct randomised, double-blind tests with a large control group, and demonstrate that the results can be repeated across different sample groups. Not wishy-washy theories about ontology.

        In order to understand a statute or a case, you need a legal degree which has explained the technical terms, the legal principles involved, etc.

        I’m sure if I keep going I’ll eventually find a use for PPE, but you can see a lot of situations where it is utterly worthless.

      • justejudexultionis

        I’m looking forward to seeing the damage you are going to cause our country.

    • beenzrgud

      As an engineer I sometimes discuss with my fellow engineers, scientists, mathematicians, etc, whether it would be a good time to build a ‘B’ ark ( one of Douglas Adams’s better musings ), and who should be put aboard. On a more serious note, it really is terrifying that even with the best “thinkers” on the job we have still ended up in our current mess. I doesn’t take a genius to see that there is significant room for improvement.

      • HJ777

        I am a physicist and an electronics engineer by training but later moved into the commercial side of business.

        When I first started working in industry, I quickly realised just how complicated and difficult to understand businesses often are – from the factory floor to the marketing sales and finance sides. I came to understand that various people – often lacking much education – knew much more than I did about aspects of the business and how to do things through their experience. What is true in business is generally true in the economy – and country – as a whole.

        This ‘learning how to think’ stuff is all very well but knowledge is dispersed and just putting people who have ‘learned how to think’ in charge is a recipe for disaster. They tend to think that their supposedly superior “thinking” means that they are better placed to make decisions – they are not.

        • beenzrgud

          I’ve found that if you pay a moron £100k+ then they automatically think all their ideas are gold. I suspect it’s the same with people who are awarded a PPE degree from Oxford. I’ve known plenty of people who are highly qualified, but have next to nothing to offer in the way of ideas. Like you say, I’ve also known plenty of people with barely an O level who are bursting with creativity.

          • HJ777

            “I’ve known plenty of people who are highly qualified, but have next to nothing to offer in the way of ideas.”

            Ed Miliband being a very good example.

            I know people who are much less bright and much less qualified than I am who have done extremely well in their line because they have the experience in the relevant area and have spotted an opportunity and had/have the knowledge to exploit it. So there is much more to it than academic ability or “ability to think” – relevant experience and knowledge is extremely important. And that is where PPE graduates in politics tend to fall down – their experience is in politics, not in understanding anything outside the political sphere nor the limits of their understanding.

          • beenzrgud

            I’ve seen what you describe several times in my career. Someone with a good knowledge of an industry builds up a very successful business based on that knowledge. In many cases the business is then sold, for £millions, when they retire. ‘Professional’ management is then brought in and the business goes belly up within 5 years. Usually near the end much use is also made of ‘expert’ business consultants to try and turn the business around. All the time the company cars are getting flashier and the profits are getting smaller. Bottom line is that there is no substitute for experience.

          • Suzy61

            This is exactly what happened with my husband’s business. He was raised on a council estate and left school with no notable qualifications. He served his time as a plumber during which he learned every aspect of how to run a small business…actually how to run a small business better. He had business acumen and I don’t think you can be taught that – either you have it or you don’t. On his retirement he sold out to a large multi-national but within a few years the business was no more.

            I would rather be led by an unqualified genius than an over-qualified fool.

          • beenzrgud

            “I would rather be led by an unqualified genius than an over-qualified fool.”
            Me too, no doubt about it.

          • fatslaphead

            Or an unqualified fool.

          • Suzy61


          • fatslaphead

            have you noticed that in governmentthat there are a lot of very clever people.

            All very well qualified.

            i see no geniuses at all. I am not aware of anyone who is an unqualifiedied genius.

            What I am aware of is how people who haveno qualifications in education, health, the military or anything else running such departments.

            this means they are unqualifed and arrogant fools.

            Some of them are crooks like Jeremy hunt.

          • Suzy61

            I apologise to you, my inference was that my husband was the ‘unqualified genius’ (which he was)..I thought you were demeaning his efforts, I misunderstood and I’m sorry for that.
            I agree with your comment… I don’t know of any genius, qualified or otherwise, in our current crop of slippery politicians. Save from a very few – who are side-lined because of it.

          • fatslaphead


          • Chi Pham

            Yeah sure he had a plumbing business…loser

          • Suzy61

            What’s your point, idiot?

          • Brendon Casey

            So if there is no substitute for experience are you suggesting that career politicians are a good thing? As they will end up with the most experience making these sorts of decisions.

          • Pufferfish

            Is it true that you just buy a PPE Masters Degree at Oxford once you have the Bachelor degree?

          • NJH

            I think you have to wait 4 years. Same is true for all subjects.

          • beenzrgud

            I don’t know, I’ve never had anything to do with Oxford university..

          • Roger Hudson

            All Bachelors can wait a year, pay a fee and get MA without further study, also at Cambridge (MA Cantab).
            Those of us with an MSc look down on them.
            Who was it who said ” a PPE degree is like Media Studies for toffs”.

          • SextusEmpiricus

            I dunno. You?

          • Old Nick

            Actually you wait 3 or 4 years. The MA is what makes you a senior member of the University (so is also given to those appointed to permanent posts). There is no need for the original English-speaking universities to conform to what Americans think of as normal. If you know what the system is, it is no more an abuse than the MAs which Scotch universities give out as first degrees.

          • Nick Bryars

            Yes. That’s true of any Oxbridge degree. You buy it 7 years after graduation.

          • Old Nick

            7 years after matriculation. You should spread your venom more accurately.

          • Kenneth O’Keeffe

            Really? Is that true? That makes Oxbridge into something of a whore, does it not?

          • ADW

            Plus if they don’t stand to lose their money from crud decisions, then they’ll keep making them, eg the bankers gambling with other people’s money, then running to the government for a handout when it goes wrong.

        • Lorenzo

          “I learned how to think” is a common excuse by the so-called educated for never bothering to learn anything else.

        • Medved

          In my experience all the foregoing remarks about politicians – “rather an unqualified genius than an over-qualified fool” – apply equally well to schoolteachers.

          • fatslaphead

            thus, from your definition you must be a teacher.

        • R. LEE

          So what are you suggesting? place an experienced Engineer to run the country, or making political decisions?

          • paul

            He could not do worse.

          • irvken

            That’s what the Chinese do, works for them

        • Old Nick

          The central fallacy about the ‘learning to think’ theory of what education is about is that it fails to recognise that thinking involves thinking ABOUT SOMETHING – what the promoters of the fallacy speak of disdainfully as ‘content’.

      • ADW

        Public choice theory explains why, as I’ve mentioned in another post. As an engineer you would appreciate the example I gave about NASA too. The theory shows how a group of people might all have the same goal, but will sacrifice it if it conflicts with their career aspirations or other personal interest. Eg a civil servant might investigate a disaster of some sort, but find that the cause was because of some failure by managers up the chain. He will then have to decide whether to make his managers look bad – and hence potentially damage his career – or fudge it so they all get off.

        Or a politician might decide that some infrastructure programme will be of benefit to the country, but realise that that short term tax hike to pay for it will lose him an election. Or he will realise that a plant supplying equipment eg to defence is useless and unproductive, but it’s closure will mean short term job losses and hence an electoral liability. Or, eg Rover, a big company might be going bust but a short term loan/hand out will tide it over till after the election.

        Or in the NASA example, re-engineering the shuttle to eliminate the o-ring failure might be thought too expensive and likely to lead to the programme being shut down, so they just winged it in the hope the problem would never become catastrophic, and convinced themselves that the risk was actually much more remote than in reality.

        And so it goes on.

    • Fergus Pickering

      They all did Politics an Economics. Philosophy didn’t figure.

    • Gweedo

      The problem with PPE (or SPS as it’s known at Cambridge) is that it teaches fertile young minds to play games, but not believe in anything especially. This is why our politicians lack vision: they don’t understand the difference between tactics and strategy.

      • Harry

        I agree with your point entirely, but PPE and HSPS are far from the same course. See my other comment below.

    • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

      I cant disagree with those who think that the UK is in terminal decline but on the science v PPE debate I have to point that the blessed Margaret graduated in chemistry and was party to a blunder of major proportions.

      She correctly recognised that throwing more, basically ‘funny’, money at non competitive manufacturing was not producing useful results.
      That bit was blinding obvious I should think.
      it was to me speaking as an ‘umble technician.

      But..along with Lawson she abandoned industry all together and put her faith in finance, privatisation coupled with a belief in the intrinsic ‘brains’ of the UK population..

      We all know where that led to.

      Blair then decided we needed to import some ‘brains’ from Bangladesh Somalia Pakistan and Rumania
      That appears not to have worked very well.

      if the publicity is true…why have the Indians made a success of Jaguar ?

      • HJ777

        You are repeating a common myth about Margaret Thatcher’s government.

        The fact is that after an initial clearout of uncompetitive industries, her government went to great trouble to attract new industrial investment. Nissan, Honda, Komatsu and the huge growth of the electronics industry in Scotland are good examples.

        Overall, and even including the initial downturn, manufacturing output grew by nearly 20% under the Thatcher/Major governments. Indeed, from the trough in the early 1980s until the Tories left power in 1997, it grew by over 35%.

        It only stagnated, and then fell, after 2001.

        You can see the official statistics (in graphical form) here:


        • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

          I haven’t googled a thing so as of now i have not read your link.

          I will tho’
          Here I think is the unspoken error that it will contain.

          It probably fails to distinguish between UK manufacture where the benefits of design expertise, managerial and entrepreneurial energy/skill, profits and jobs for the workers all accrue to the UK
          foreign owned ASSEMBLY plants where such is not the case.

          The two are quite different.

          I have lived in close proximity to the consequences of the de industrialisation of the UK.
          I have seen Chrysler, given grants, selling out to Peugot who then eventually closed 2 massive plants.
          Of course any foreign investor will choose to do this when circumstances dictate.
          See Ford at Dagenham.

          All the automobile, armament ,machine tool, tractor, aerospace, telecomms manufacture ….GONE
          I am a total loss as to understand why.

          When the rot started, which was accelerated by Margaret/Nigel whatever you say, I assume those in positions of influence were the beneficeries of an education system that tried to inculcate knowledge and did not view it as essential that no one should fail.

          At least that applies to the technical/ engineering side of things.

          How can we explain the economic disaster that has befallen the UK
          I blame the public school ethos…Am i wrong ?

          • grimm

            I did notice, starting in the 1970’s, a growing attitude of sneering contempt toward the technically minded “boffins” among our educated classes. It is an attitude that persists to this day with the scientist or computer expert routinely caricatured in the media as a sexually inadequate nerd or geek. We denigrate technicians then are shocked to find that we must look to other countries for technical expertise.

          • ADW

            it certainly didn’t start in the 1970s, as Corelli Barnett’s work makes clear. Back in the heyday of the British jet industry, the managers, all drawn from the elite of the day and educated in classics, not engineering, sat behind closed doors and made uneducated guesses about what should be done, largely ignoring the engineers who actually designed the things and the test pilots who flew them.

            Going back slightly from that, British tanks up till 1945 were almost uniformly rubbish, badly put together by union-dominated workshops and wholly inferior to their German counterparts.

          • Tom Allalone

            Very true. The thread runs through – when I was at university it was quite common for arts students to be proud of their scientific ignorance. IN the BBC – I observed just out of 3 months post grad training ‘journalists’ sneering at technicians with years of proper training and on the job expertise and at a university where I occasionally lectured, it was seriously suggested that theory lecturers in some technical departments like theatre were told not to touch equipment as this detracted from their academic status. And these are all people who would automatically call themselves left wing

        • Michael Barnes

          To be fair manufacturing trends tend to follow economic boom & bust cycles. So Thatcher & Major should neither take the credit for the upturns nor be criticised for the ravages of globalisation….

          • HJ777

            That isn’t correct.

            Economic cycles clearly affect manufacturing output but there are long term underlying trends. Output was growing strongly after the early 90s recession but stopped growing and was pretty flat from 2001 onwards, despite a huge boom. This was in marked contrast to other G8 countries (with the likely exception of Italy, although Italian figures are not considered very reliable)

          • Michael Barnes

            I accept this point but surely the events after 2001 need to be taken in context. The economy had already been built on inflated and perpetually rising house prices. The resultant expansion of credit even to those on low incomes was fuelling a ‘fake boom’. Brown and Nu Labor then decided to chuck in billions to the public services and burn billions on their pet projects. All this was occurring with no significant upswing in manufacturing… The official opposition and HMG enjoyed this so called heyday and Brown went almost untouched by the media. By 2005 many were silently predicting trouble but Blair was returned for a 3rd term.

    • Ed

      No. This *may* be the case, but it isn’t necessarily so – the sooner (for example) students start thinking seriously about what ‘liberty’ is the better. PPE may be studied superficially – but equally it may be studied highly productively, just as many other subjects may be. News to me, too, that studying history is about acquiring ‘real… technical knowledge’ which doesn’t examine subjects that are profoundly ‘controversial’. If you think that is what the study of history consists of, you have very profoundly missed the point. Oh, and PPE includes the study of some very concrete subjects (political science, economic history, history of philosophy), which may (or may not) be taken. There actually isn’t any *one* PPE degree, there are a variety.

      You’ve swallowed whole the superficial premise of what is, in fact, a very poor article.

      (And no, I didn’t study PPE).

  • David_Boothroyd

    It’s odd that there’s no such equivalent problem with Cambridge University’s much less well known Social and Political Sciences tripos. Which is one reason why I get annoyed whenever people refer to “Oxbridge PPE graduates” – including Cambridge History graduate Diane Abbott.

    • Harry

      The HSPS Tripos covers a broad range of topics but students generally start out knowing, or at least with a good idea of what they want their degree to specialise in. Students never have to combine modules from across the spectrum, though in first year it is possible, and by third year a single (or pair of closely related) subjects must be chosen, and a research project or dissertation completed. This means that students must have a focused interest and be able to know and study it deeply, the opposite of the PPE final year where there is no dissertation and at least two subjects must be continued. This, as the author says, leads to graduates able to churn out a few substantial-sounding words on any topic flung their way without necessarily knowing all that much.

      It is also worth remembering that only one of the final year tracks for HSPS is Politics and International Relations, and that neither Philosophy nor Economics are available in that Tripos as they are offered in their own single subject degrees. Many HSPS graduates are Archaeology specialists, for example, and the degree has much more in common with Oxford’s Arch & Anth, Human Sciences or even Oriental Studies for its Egyptology component; than with the PPE course.

      • Gweedo

        Yes, it’s a long time since I was there, but the International Relations people at Oxford all seemed to be North Americans, while the PPE crowd were a bit more parochial and spent most of their time in fruitless manoevring at the Oxford Union. You can argue the toss about whether Cambridge HSPS or Oxford PPE produces the more rounded individual, but I’d say that Oxford attracts high-stakes gamblers and short-term thinkers – because your degree depends solely on how you perform in finals, not over a three year course as in Cambridge, which has (had?) the tripos system.

        • Harry

          Did you mean ‘International Relations people at Cambridge’ or did Oxford previously offer a purely IR based degree? Genuine question, as I’m only familiar with the current situation.

          Not sure I agree with your idea about high-stakes gamblers – most people choose whatever degree course because of how closely the topics covered match up with their interests, rather than for its examination system. Of course, aspiring politicians choose PPE because ‘it’s what you do’ but they are the exception rather than the rule.

          As for ’rounded individuals’ – I’m not sure any degree course alone can produce those. Arguably PPE instils more ’roundedness’ in its graduates than HSPS by simply forcing them to study so many different topics. Even so, at the end of the day you’re equipped with some facts, some opinions and the ability to research and present information. This is the same whether you study PPE, HSPS, Medicine or Materials Science at

          • Harry

            Sorry, my iPad is messing about and won’t allow me to edit my post to finish it after I misclicked and posted it early.

            This is the same whether you study PPE, HSPS, Medicine or Materials Science at Oxford or Cambridge or Keele. To be ’rounded’ surely means you need to be able to do things outside whatever academic sphere you have chosen.

            I’m not arguing in favour of either institution or any specific degree. I personally think that original research on a topic you are passionate about should be a compulsory part of any degree. But others are of course free to disagree.

          • Ron Todd

            Am I the only person here who does not have an oxbridge degree?

          • Gweedo

            In the late 1990s, the IR course was strictly Yanks Only if I recall; the credits counted towards their US degrees.

            My point about the Oxford system encouraging a high-stakes gambler type attitude is not so much to do with what is studied, or even the formal methods by which knowledge (superficial or otherwise) is imparted. It’s more to do with the incentives that the exam system – not the course itself – creates. If you have an exam system which rewards last-minute learning (allowing you to basically bunk off work for the first two years), I believe you’ll find that the winners from that system aren’t really that interested in their courses but are very good at absorbing information under time pressure. Such quick-witted people tend to do well in careers such as, say, investment banking or politics, but are hardly going to provide the new ideas or deep critical thinking that the world actually needs.

          • Harry

            PPE has exams in first and final year, the same as all (most?) degrees there, so it’s only the second year in which you can bunk off. While that system may well reward last minute learning, my point was in response to your earlier statement that such high stakes thinkers are attracted to PPE by the exam system alone.

            However, other Oxford degrees such as Biochemistry have the same exams system, but with a research requirement. I don’t think those graduates are as you describe.

          • Gweedo

            I didn’t say that PPEists were attracted by the exam system alone; that would be nonsensical. But I do believe the experience of all-or-nothing shapes them (and most other Oxford grads) very deeply.

            As for the first year exams…they’re only meant to weed out the no-hopers and they don’t count towards the final degree.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Another less well known (postgraduate) degree was the LSE’s (yes, LSE) History of Political Thought. When I studied it the subject was taught by well known conservatives including the philosopher of conservatism Michael Oakeshott. It seemed to attract budding American politicians.

  • Kishan Koria

    Speaking as a recent PPE graduate I think it is best to see the course as a world class INTRODUCTION to the three key things in how the modern social, political and economic world works at present and how it should be.

    Moreover there is a real reason why the three are studied together. Focusing on just one prevents young students from appreciating how intertwined the disciplines are, and they can be introduced to views and thought that challenges the way they predominantly see the world which might otherwise be glossed over.

    Politics alone gives a good understanding of the manner in which political power is exercised but lacks a grounding in whether that, philosophically, is just or correct and in the economic forces whose organisation underpins what states are trying to do.

    Philosophy alone trains critical thinkers and students comfortable considering big theories and ideas but has no grounding in how said ideas can be implemented politically, or how they translate into a system greatly dominated by our modern economic framework.

    Economics alone tends to lose the ability to step back and consider how (through politics) and why (normatively) we want to do things in economic policy and sometimes operates in a narrow consensus where key assumptions to models are not challenged in the manner a good philosopher would.

    If anything, I’d say the problem we have is too few politicians have a developed understanding of all three of the disciplines, rather than because they do three disciplines. PPE lays the groundwork for strong thinkers, but if anybody comes out of Oxford arrogantly thinking they have mastery of those things they have been introduced to they will of course fall short of our expectations in public life.

    It also does not surprise me one bit that people with such characteristics would be disproportionately attracted to front line politics.

    A little caution would be nice before we just blame PPE though, unsavoury characters or chancers will always be attracted to politics, that they see my course as the route to it says little about the course. If another route becomes prominent the same problem will just relocate. I think the problem lies in people’s motivation to become a politician rather than their education.

    • HJ777

      My view is that PPE could be a worthwhile subject (or rather combination of subjects), but not to people just out of school, who inevitably lack the perspective of experience.

      I will give you an example from another area. I worked in industry for several decades. During that time I observed three types of people choosing to do MBAs. Firstly, people with no experience or aptitude for commercial roles (who had been denied such opportunities within business due to their obvious unsuitability), who saw an MBA as a way of getting into the commercial side of business. Such people were disaster areas. Secondly, people who had only just done their first degree and who thought that an MBA would fast-track them into senior commercial roles – these were similarly disastrous as they lacked the perspective of experience in understanding the relevance and importance of what they were being taught and they simply acquired an unwarranted confidence in their abilities. Thirdly, people with a number of years of good commercial experience who then decided that they wanted to add extra technical and analytical capability and structure to their business understanding. These people were the right people – because they then understood the relevance to situations that they had already experienced – and they benefitted greatly as a result.

      • Kishan Koria

        Ah see I think the exact opposite, PPE is a good launching ground to introduce students to the three areas before they go and develop a particular focus in a specific subject, field, or industry of interest. I never really saw it as akin to an MBA as it isn’t focused or specific. What matters, particularly for those heading towards politics (and the rest of us who then depend on their aptitude) is what students do post PPE so I agree with your point on real world experience, all be it in a different way.

        • HJ777

          I think you have it the wrong way around.

          As a recent PPE graduate, you will not have the perspective of experience – which is precisely my point. You cannot know, yet you are rejecting what I say.

          My MBA analogy is correct. Only once you have experienced how things actually work in business can you really understand – and question and see the relevance of – what you are being taught and have some idea about whether and how such principles can be applied.

          • Kishan Koria

            I never said you were wrong! Look at my post I said I never saw it in such a way. That doesn’t mean I might not come to see this from your perspective on reflection. I just thought my experience of the course was that it makes sense as an introduction to the fields, and hence wasn’t so much of a specific finishing school. But perhaps more talented individuals from various fields in the world taking it later would be a very positive thing. I am definitely open to such a suggestion!

    • Pufferfish

      ‘..how the modern social, political and economic world works at present and how it SHOULD be…’ (my emphasis)
      What appalling arrogance – but it helps explain the appalling impact of PPE

      • Kishan Koria

        That is a very uncharitable interpretation of what I said and borders on the disingenuous.

        The point was that the course encourages students to consider the merits of various ideas from a normative perspective (thus where the “should” figures). I have said absolutely nothing about being able to know how the world should be from my own inexperienced perspective, but hearing what some of the greatest thinkers throughout history suggest, is of value and prevents a nonchalant acceptance of the status quo.

  • Blindsideflanker

    The result of this superficial PPE political class who are ruling our country can be seen in recent events.

    Rotherham, where they are pouring political prozac over the issue to cover over the fractures in our society that they have masterminded. A few weeks on its almost a case of Rotherham? What Rotherham?

    Then the Scottish referendum, where the public’s contempt for their Westminster world broke to the surface, where some more political prozac was poured over the problem in the form of constitutional and fiscal bribes.

    The English votes for English laws, another political eruption that could have led to a massive political engagement that the political class claim to want with the public, but run a mile from as soon as public show some interest.

  • Damaris Tighe

    If the dissertation option is made compulsory expect large chunks to be lifted off the internet – or are you expecting integrity from our budding politicians Nick?

  • sarahsmith232

    Cohen dear, i’d say, good shot, def’ getting at a problem in society but, hmmm, I don’t know, can the content of a course taught to teenagers really still be so greatly relevant by the time they are in ministerial positions 20/25yrs later? I’m afraid i’d have to go with a not really, on that one.
    – For me, there was a really very good e.g of the reasons why allowing this one set to, irrespective of political allegiances, to dominate politics has been so destructive. I wonder whether Cohen, the PPE grad’ himself, was noticing. It all was leaping out at this really very stupid and uneducated sort, i’m going to guess that it might all have been passing straight over the heads of . . .er. . . my ‘superiors’ though.
    – Around 8months, maybe a year or so ago, there was lots of this lot constantly popping up to put their two peneths in about research that showed that white people that lived in white areas were more likely to be anti-immigration/multiculturalism. White people living in more mixed areas were less so. The explanation for this would require intelligent and thoughtful analysis. So, how did that work out when out the mouths of this lot? ‘It’s ’cause they’re all thick, it’s ’cause they’re all racist, it’s ’cause they all read Daily Mail’. The ‘init init’, like brov’ they at least leave off.
    – Now, I know nothing about the ‘elite’ uni’s but i’m going to guess that if your average 18yr old sitting in a seminar class in one of these places was asked ‘the research shows, let’s discuss the reasons why’ if one of these kids then piped up with ‘oh, I know, I know, it’s ’cause they’re all really thick, isn’t it’ they’d be very quickly shown the route to their real level in Oxford Brooks. ‘Course they wouldn’t be that dumbly narrow minded and ignorant at 18, so why at 45/55/65?
    – No space but for me, the issue isn’t the uni’, it’s their lack of a connection and respect for average Joe.

  • thomasaikenhead

    What do you advocate as an alternative Nick, a return to the Cabinet dominated by ‘Old Estonians’ under Thatcher?

    • TJ1

      I’m pretty sure Thatcher dominated the Thatcher cabinet…

    • David Atkinson

      Bloody foreigners.

  • Azita

    Just a note on the dissertation idea – another reason that students don’t tend to do it is that they’re disincentivised to. The dissertation is a substitute for one of nine final exams, and a lot of students feel (rightly) that a 10,000 word dissertation is harder than revising for one module. I think changing the course structure would probably encourage more people to take up the dissertation option.

    (Not a PPE graduate, just happen to know some).

  • Fraser Bailey

    Well, yes, but we’ve known this for years.

    Do keep up, Nick.

    I would suggest that one module of this wretched PPE nonsense should involve working in a proper, low paid job. And having to live off nothing more than the proceeds of that job. Not for a couple of weeks, but for a year.

    I write as one who attained all As and Bs at A level 30 years ago, but who refused to go Oxbridge on the grounds that it is full of people like Miliiband, Cameron and all the rest of them.

    • David S

      I think you may have missed out Fraser. Even Oxford was not full of those people; while irritating, they were and are thin on the ground and tended to congregate in the Oxford Union, so it was easy to avoid them. I never met my contemporaries Tony Blair, Theresa May, Benazir Bhutto and Alan Duncan. There were plenty of other highly intelligent and well grounded people there, who had worked hard at school for the opportunity and who had no intention of making a career in politics, so the budding politicos stuck out like sore thumbs.

  • misomiso

    +1 Nick Cohen

  • Michael H Kenyon

    With all the rhetorical flim-flam of an Oxbridge PPE (or Cambridge equivalent) course, no wonder we are in a mess, and like others, I also point to China’s progress and their engineers in the Party. It would be nice to see some people with a scientific training (i.e., worked in the field also) making decisions about the UK, as at least they may favour facts a bit more. Mrs Thatcher’s chemistry background used to be sneered at, but at least her knowledge base was built on rigour and evidence rather than whosoever appeals in the canon for their clever-silly ideas.

    • HJ777

      I don’t recall anyone sneering at Margaret Thatcher’s chemistry background.

      Quite a few sneered at her, but not at her chemistry degree.

      • Damaris Tighe

        They sneered at her because her father was a grocer – too middle class for many Tories & too bourgeois for socialists.

      • Michael H Kenyon

        Swanky Oxford types used to talk disparaging about “northern chemists”. I’m sure they still do.

      • Andrew Smith

        She studied law after Chemistry so that she would have a better chance in politics.

  • Fraser Bailey

    I added a comment to the effect that this has been common knowledge for years.

    And that despite getting the grades I refused to countenance Oxbridge largely because it’s full of people like Cameron and Miliband.

    I used no swear words or litigious comments. Why wasn’t my comment added?

    • The Procrastinator

      It’s there, further up the thread 🙂 And I agree – PPE students should at the very least do work placements stacking shelves/ working in a job centre/etc…

  • John Hawkins Totnes

    There is not an ‘anti-politics mood’ in the country but an anti politicians mood.

    • little islander

      Is this then not our fault for tarring all and sundry? Is this mood fair to each and everyone of them?

  • The Procrastinator

    I think perhaps the problem in not the course per se, which
    (apart from anything else) will have changed over the years, but more the place
    it has come to have in a particular systemic route for personal advancement.
    You need to look at who has applied to PPE in the past and been successful:
    their school background and culture, personal characteristics and interests
    selected for at interview, modes of teaching, which colleges they attended and the
    college cultures and the values/personalities which tended to be rewarded at
    that time (which can differ greatly from one college to another, and over time
    as well), and informal networks of alumni plus routes into Westminster via internships.

    Just as in many universities some courses are in part a
    vehicle for sports scholarships, Oxford PPE seems to have become, in some
    cases, a vehicle for personal political ambition: a hoop to be jumped through
    to join the gang, rather than something to be studied in its own right. I
    imagine these students stand out a mile from those whose interest is perhaps more real, and certainly more academic. They did In My Day….

    Although introducing features to the course which encourage
    greater depth of thought could well be of benefit, this does not solve the more
    important question of how this one single course has come to play such a role.
    The article seems to assume that PPE’s place in the system will remain, and so
    the remedy is in tweaking PPE itself. To me it seems the remedy needs to begin
    with a more thorough understanding of the system it feeds, and which feeds it
    in return, plus an assumption that it does *not* have to be this way, as well as positive steps to mitigate the ambition superhighway which in the past it seems to have represented.

    • Simon Fay

      “The article seems to assume that PPE’s place in the system will remain, and so the remedy is in tweaking PPE itself.”

      Thank you for plucking this out from the thickets of obfuscation in the article (and much of the commentary) and presenting it so clearly.

      That NC’s proposals can be made in all apparent seriousness is a demonstration of the very failings with “the system” he professes to be appalled by. Fake Fly in a bottle telling the real flies to concern themselves with the details of glassmaking.

  • Bonusje

    universities are biggest suppliers atrocities wars genocides pedofilerings frauds deseases epidemics&reccesions

  • Bonusje

    12th century thomas aquino – Aquino and his war on the Mind http://airvd.wordpress.com/201… jezuits

    Extreme Oath of the Jesuits http://www.reformation.org/oath.html

    That hatred toward God will express itself in the victim’s system’s willingness to do any sin, without conscience. http://t.co/xMjF9vq7Mz http://t.co/3oGS1voYAE

    Dark Side of Einstein Emerges in His Letters http://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/06/arts/dark-side-of-einstein-emerges-in-his-letters.html

    Onlinebook: The Manufacture and Sale of Saint Einstein – The Propaganda of Supremacy https://archive.org/details/TheManufactureAndSaleOfSaintEinstein-ThePropagandaOfSupremacy

    Pdf Version: The Manufacture and Sale of Saint Einstein – The Propaganda of Supremacy https://ia700708.us.archive.org/32/items/TheManufactureAndSaleOfSaintEinstein-ThePropagandaOfSupremacy/TheManufactureAndSaleOfSaintEinstein.pdf

    So it is not Allowed to Be Sane

  • rtj1211

    Perhaps the question is more what they do in the 15 years after graduation before they take junior office?

    After all, if all you do is watch people doing what you want to do, you’re totally dependent on them being good at it or you’ll simply learn from them how to be bad at it.

  • Sean L

    *In the first year, they must produce essays on John Stuart Mill one minute and parliament the next; on microeconomics, modern French history, Rousseau, Marx, formal logic, the US Congress and whether it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.*

    I really can’t see what your point is here – they’re all perfectly valid subjects, as well as thematically related. If you can’t recognise that, it’s you that needs the education. Anway surely that’s why there’s such a course as PPE in the first place. But it’s not as if there’s a superior university elsewhere. Now if you were asking about the general calibre of men in public life . . . how forty years ago you had MPs like Roy Mason who was down the pit at fourteen and went on to become one of the soundest ever Ministers for Northern Ireland on one side of the House, and Enoch Powell, a university professor at twenty five who ended up a Brigadier after joining up as a Private, on the other, you might be on to something. But if you think it’s got much to do with the content of a university degree course, then I’d suggest it’s you that’s in want of political and philosophical instruction.

  • Carter Lee

    What a pointless and vacuous article by Nick Cohen. Of all the subjects he could
    scribble about (and he is a very good writer) he chooses one like this?

    Put your talents to work on something meaningful. How about addressing the UK’s slavish submission to the wilder notions in America’s militarized foreign policy?

  • commenteer

    I’m puzzled as to why you imagine a 10,000 word dissertation would improve matters. I went back to Oxford for fun a decade ago and had to write just such a dissertation as part of the modern history course. A number of fellow students had significant parental help, others had sympathetic tutors who gave considerable guidance, and no doubt some resorted to the internet with a bit of re-writing to get past the plagiarism police. Anyway, 10,000 words is little more than a very extended essay and can be written at great speed, I promise you.
    The only reliable way to test the ability of students is written exams properly invigilated. Anything else is wide open to fraud.

  • Chris Bristol

    This article would actually mean something if it were spotlighting a problem that was unique to the UK. Sadly, the same opprobrium is focused on EVERY political class in every corner of the world. Why? Just cause. It’s just fashionable to hate politicians. This is because an otherwise uneducated and ignorant voting public are now able, with the rise of the internet, to fool themselves into thinking they know better than people who are actually in the hot seat because they read about it on their favorite left/right leaning website.

    The problem isn’t the politicians. It’s the tremendously naive voting public. The rise of Ukip could not be a more perfect manifestation of said naivety.

    Also, if we could just expand on your opening analogy just a bit- wouldn’t it be fair to take doctors to task for never having worked in the real world before taking a job as a doctor, since that’s the standard we have now apparently foisted on politicians?

    “He’ll never know how to perform heart surgery because he never delivered mail or picked up trash for a living, god damn it!”

    How idiotic does that sound?

    • red2black

      The decisions politicians take affect the lives of us all. It’s a bit more personal with heart surgery. There’s a lack of understanding among politicians about what the majority of people’s everyday lives are like, and the further you get down the pecking-order, the less understanding there is.

      • Chris Bristol

        I’m still trying to figure out how a politician who has picked up trash or who has delivered mail or scrubbed toilets or (insert whatever blue collar job you want to insert here) is somehow more capable of diplomacy or crafting and passing legislation?

        It’s all BS. This whole article is nothing but a testimonial of someone who would never be able to succeed in politics and who is therefore jealous of those who are.

        • red2black

          As far as passing legislation goes, I’d suggest that any politician from any party who claims to be able to live on £53
          a week really needs to take a reality check.
          Either that, or prove it.

          • Ron Todd

            That would be £53 a week plus expenses.

          • red2black

            Sooner you than me.

        • Ron Todd

          For diplomacy having the same sort of background as all the other politicians might actually be useful.

  • Ben Zurawel
    • David S

      Great spot, Ben. So do tell us Nick, have you been paid four times for the same article? When and where will we see it again?

    • well that’s between spectator and nick cohen – it doesn’t stop being original research if you publish something 4 times, does it.

  • Nick Bryars

    One oddity about Oxford is that it doesn’t have a single honours Economics degree. It’s either PPE or Economics and Management. This is another obvious area for reform.

    • zugzwang

      On the contrary, it is an immense strength. Theoretical economics on its own, especially at an undergraduate level, is a discipline that encourages sterile simplifications, as well as unsupported complexities. It is sensible to dilute it by forcing it to be read in conjunction with something that contains some elements of the real world (management) or a real science (engineering) or philosophy or indeed politics.

      • Nick Bryars

        You misunderstand me. I mean oddity in the sense of unusual. I’ve nothing against PPE. I would like to see Oxford offer single honours Economics along with PPE and Economics with Management. Undergraduates should have as much choice as possible. Your criticisms are better directed against Cambridge. It’s also possible to design an Economics curriculum which is broader as the Rethinking Economics movement is trying to do. Oxford’s lack of a single honours degree in Economics also disadvantages state school applicants as they are much less likely to have had the opportunity to study Politics or even Economics at A level.

        • zugzwang

          Actually, I was dissenting from your last sentence, as I don’t think it an obvious area for reform for the reason given. In that sense oddity is a strength. I didn’t take you to mean that it was strange, only unusual.

          You have made another interesting point though. If an A level in politics or economics adds to the credentials of one candidate over another, it would be surprising, given the historical disdain of Oxford PPE tutors for those A levels (I can remember the days when economics A level was almost a disqualification). But if the stats support your point, I should have thought the remedy would be a fairer entrance policy, rather than dismantling the PPE school.

          • Nick Bryars

            As I said I’ve nothing against PPE. I can’t claim to have studied the statistics for the A levels that undergraduates take before starting PPE, but it’s well known that Oxbridge across all disciplines has a disproportionate intake from the independent sector. Anecdotally, however my own experience in preparing pupils for Oxbridge entrance suggests studying Economics and Politics before entry assists candidates. As for the traditional disdain that dons might have had for the subjects at school level, I’m sure that’s out of date now. Everyone wants a fairer entrance policy to all universities , although what that might mean is anybody’s guess these days as the controversy over Les Ebdon and the office for fair access a few years ago attests.

  • AR317

    Which UKIP Politician is park of the Oxford PPE mafia you so despise Nick? Surely Farage is an unqualified or amateur demagogue by your standards?

  • Sam_Beresford

    I actually dont think it matters what they study* – after all it is just university. What bothers me far more is that they all do the same thing, at the same place, and they all follow almost exactly the same trajectory – Oxford, Research Office or token private sector experience, Special Advisor, MP. If you look at the real game changers or totemic political figures in history they were all outsiders, and they all came to their view on their own – Burke, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, McDonald, Attlee, Churchill, Powell, Foot, Thatcher – but aspiring politicians seem to forget this.

    What is also galling is how little life experience any of them have. Because our great leaders have spent so little time meeting real people, they have precious little understanding of what real people are like, and what matters to them. Attlee used to travel round the country in a little car with his wife – just the two of them. Churchill used the perambulate round the East End. Can you imagine our senior politicians just going out and meeting people, no stagecraft or carefully scripted events? I think this is why they often sound so patronising – they do look down on the little people who live ordinary lives.

    Its no accident that the two politicians who are really making the weather in Britain now are not like this – Salmond and Farage. They don’t come from the background; they’ve made different choices, but they have a different set of attitudes as well – as a result, the electorate are more interested in them.

    *There is a qualification to this comment. A good chunk of our batch of MPs are lawyers – if that isn’t a reason for violent revolution I don’t know what is…

  • NickCohenSucks

    One thing PPE teaches you (and not only PPE at that) is that correlation does not equal causation. The writer’s message is a little difficult to see given the absurd rhetoric, but it seems to be that those who rule the UK, that study PPE, are ‘world class bullshitters’ ‘career politicians with no interest outside of politics’ who ‘skim the surface [of the UK] ‘ like pond-skaters. There’s a lot wrong here.

    I have to wonder whether the author has even asked the question “Why are there so many Oxford PPEists in Westminster”. For someone to become a politician it takes a certain set of motivations and characteristics. It is clear that those sorts of people attracted to politics are the same ones that are attracted to PPE, but not vice versa. I don’t think there is anything more to it than that. A politician has to deal with politics, people, and higher up, the economy. You would think therefore, that if you wanted to be a politician then you would study something similar to this. I see no reason why it should be unacceptable for prospective politicians to enjoy PPE.

    The second part of the author’s assertion is particularly odd. Usually PPE takes a lot of public school/privileged/ unrepresentative non working class stick in this matter, but the author seems to suggest that the reason PPE –> Politicians govern badly is because the course is not narrow enough, or is not deep enough.

    First things first. The University of Oxford offers PPE for people wanting to study PPE – it does not offer a course called ‘fast track to politician’. Why PPE should be under any obligation to be a course best suited to politicians simply because a lot of politicians do it, as the author suggests, is beyond me.

    Second. The author seems to think that if PPE was more streamlined, and was say, PE or PP, that politicians would be more likely to be ‘deeply rooted’ in the country. This is because, it would force politicians to have a genuine interest. Therefore the author asserts that politicians who study PPE do not actually have a genuine interest in the course, and are only taking it in order to further the likelihood of making it as a politician. I struggle to see why people who have no genuine interest in PPE would be bad politicians. The upshot of the author’s argument is that a genuine interest in one of the P P and E is required for someone to become a good political leader. If this is the case then it should be very, very apparent as to why there are so many PPEists in Westminster, so the author’s argument is a little confusing and I am not sure what this amounts to.

    In addition, the author cannot assert that all PPE politicians have no genuine interest in PPE. David Cameron got a first with honours, and I am certainly not his biggest fan but that is difficult to do without having a “genuine interest”.

    Third. The course over the three years does go into a lot of depth. As an Oxford course it goes into at least the same amount of depth as any other course offered, apart from higher study e.g masters. In addition, the majority of students drop one subject after their first year, and then can specialise modules in a 4/4 or 5/3 split. For example, someone might study 5 econ modules and 3 politics. Within the modules themselves you can go into as much depth as you bloody well like. Point is – the course definitely covers depth. even if someone takes on all three subjects to finals, and chooses say a political philosophy module, they are going to be reading a lot of political philosophy.

    My fourth and final point. Journalists like the author are extremely good at being critical, but not at offering solutions. Making the dissertation a compulsory module is an unattractive proposition because, in general, it takes a lot of time and Oxford students mostly have interests outside of work – even the ones who want to go into politics. (How can they hack into the union if they are busy with their dissertation?). If we accept what the author says, that we are governed badly because there are so many PPEists in Westminster, and that PPE is the reason why, then the solution, fellow voters, is simple.
    Step 1: Did you local MP study PPE?
    Step 2: Don’t vote for them.

    Voters dont do this, and the author implies they should. I hope that the absurdity of the author’s argument is now clear. Although there are many PPEists in Westminster, they are obviously not the reason Britain is badly governed (Which, is to be honest, a very contentious statement anyway).

    But, to the author, Bravo! You have captured my attention and taken up twenty minutes of my day! I think your article is factually utter rubbish, but as a piece of journalism it isn’t bad at all. Nice of you to include references to Bogdanor and Salmond, two leading figures on the Scottish Independence debate theme, in an article that was completely unrelated. Nothing like a break from tradition, is there?

    Keep up the good work Lol

  • cambridgeelephant

    It’s not ‘the economy stupid’.

    It’s the stupidity of the miniaturisation of all political discourse. That’s what this generation of ‘politicians’ are really guilty of.

  • UKSteve

    I’ve been saying this for 20 years. It’s a bit dismaying to see it in print, remuneratively, and after the aloofness and detachment of our political and media classes have achieved planetary elevation, after all this time.

  • The Masked Marvel

    I agree with Nick. The problem is exacerbated by people going into politics at far too young an age.

    That’s twice in one month I’ve agreed with him. Need to lie down in a dark room for a while.

  • Harry Granqvist

    It’s 15,000 words, not 10,000.

  • Fergus Pickering

    How dare you call the great Nige a cynical demagogue.I dont really know what demagogue is and I don’t suppose you do either but cynical?.He is transparently sincere. He loves his country as it used to be. Is that OK with you. He thinks immigration is ruining the place. Is that OK with you?.

  • Boniface Eighth

    As a former PPE-ist myself, I have to say the most valuable thing I learnt in my three years was how to produce 1500 words of BS in three hours or less. The work level was insane (minimum 16 essays per 8 week term) with significant mental gear changes more-or-less exactly as the author describes (although at St Anne’s I had the misfortune of THREE TERMS of Descartes – no one needs that). This meant one could only skim the absolute surface of any given subject.

    I have just finished an MSc at a different university not without its problems, however, the sheer JOY of being able to just sit and THINK about what I really understand and believe has been incredible. It’s the difference between learning and understanding. NEVER experienced that at Oxford. The teaching was pretty shocking too with tutors barely two years ahead of you in their learning, who read their emails whilst you dutifully read out your essay.

    Any future children of mine will be heartily advised never to darken its pompous doors. I am surprised that the senior academics do not all have piles from all those laurels they’ve been resting on.

  • Jonathan

    “banging out ideas with barely a moment’s thought is exactly what PPE students do”

    Nonsense – taught well, PPE is as intellectually rigorous as any other Oxford degree.

  • marcdraco

    This is simple: the people best equipped to BE politicians are the ones least likely to BECOME politicians (and vice-versa).

    I don’t have any colour in mind – we can bash all of them with this stick and it’s why I want (no, demand) to have the right to vote:


    Because only then will the majority have the ability to actually put these people out in the street where they left many of us. As it is, we either don’t vote (bad), vote for the people who will best meet our needs (understandable but also bad) or vote for the people who might keep out the people who will work against us (worse).

    These factors are why we have labour heartlands, conservative heartlands and seats so safe you could put a baboon there and people would still vote for it based on its colour.

    Today’s democracy (largely worldwide) is no longer fit for purpose.

  • michael.ellison

    Here is a quote from the now sadly defunct blog called ‘The Devils Kitchen’.

    “One of the reasons why normal people are so disengaged from politics is that the whole charade is one bunch of highly privileged people disagreeing with another bunch of highly privileged people over rarefied philosphies, the outcomes of which always screw the hardworking people of this country- treating them all, rich or poor – as nothing more than cash-cows for the expensive experiments of the pusillanimous, disconnected bigots that inhabit Whitehall, Westminster, and Fleet Street.”
    That says it all.
    The House of Commons is sadly little more than a second site for the Oxford Debating Society. Oxford does not produce world-class thinkers. It produces self-satisfied smug posers who think they are world-class thinkers and are supported in their view of themselves by sham thinkers who tell them they are world-class thinkers.

    • Lovely analysis and very succinctly put, Sir.

  • Paddy Kilshamus

    I would like to do a course in Political Thought. I would like to trace the development and triumph of the Left and the subsequent marginalization of the Right Traditional Conservative thought. It would be good to deconstruct the Left paradigms in the same way they have deconstructed the Right. Not being interested in a career would allow me to confront these lecturers on the assumptions they hold without ever being challenged as the students are only there to pass the course and mouth back the ideas delivered to them without ever considering or contextualising them. I suspect the teachers would rather enjoy a challenge to their world-view. Democracy and Equality are two sacred cows that need slaying.

    • Joel Durston

      ‘Democracy and Equality are two sacred cows that need slaying’… and replacing with what, fascism?!

      • Paddy Kilshamus

        That is exactly the sort of hysterical response I would be examining. You are a good example of the knee-jerk reaction the left has induced in otherwise intelligent people.

        • Joel Durston

          Call me a Guardian-reading leftie if you will (I read it, along with The Spectator and others), but I don’t consider supporting democracy ‘a knee-jerk reaction’.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Well you have to see how it developed and how it never works in business or the the military and how it it is a charade. I think George Carling, the comedian, pointed out that we have a hundred choices of soup and only two choices of political parties. Plato rated democracy just above anarchy. In reality we have a plutocracy.

          • Joel Durston

            You say that all as fact. It’s not – it’s your opinion. And we have more than two choices of political party – two which are are/have been significant players in UK politics – UKIP and Lib Dems.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            They are just offshoots of the Left/Right paradigm. UKIP are just somewhat old school Conservative and Lib Dems are pretty much defunct. Liberal Democracy is the default position of the West today. There is little difference between them in that they all bleat about Equality and Democracy without ever examining the notions. They are just buzz words, feel good slogans for the mass consumption. Democracy LEVELS it doesn’t work for anyone outside the average.

    • beenzrgud

      In my experience most lecturers don’t like to be challenged. They’re there to deliver information and that’s pretty much all they see as being their responsibility. The rest of the time they like to put their feet up in their offices and pretend they’re doing really important cutting edge research. They also like moaning about how they could be earning three times as much in the private sector.

      • Paddy Kilshamus

        Quite! But it would be worth picking their brains and learning the vocabulary to express a dissenting view.

        • beenzrgud

          As far as I can see you already express yourself better than most lecturers I’ve ever met. The intelligentsia is overrated, take my word for it !

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Thanks for the compliment. There is a guy called Matthew Raphael Johnson who was a lecturer in a US university. He was sacked because he was too confrontational with his views on the contextualisation of historical figures and movements. His lectures are archived on Voice of Reason radio. Absolutely packed with information and articulated in the terminology of academia. Like Jonathan Bowden he is well worth listening to. The intelligentsia is just constrained at the moment because of the domination of the Liberal Democracy ideology. I think there is a sea change coming and it will be articulated there just as the Frankfurt School academics set the left wing agenda in play right now.

          • beenzrgud

            By the sound of it you may as well skip the undergraduate degree and just go straight to postgrad. As for your observations regarding a sea change I’d have to agree, I certainly feel like change is in the air. It’s not exactly scientific, but there you go !
            I suppose I have to ask, but are you currently on the Oxford PPE course, or have recently graduated?
            Since I’m from a technical background, even though I have a Ph.D, I’m certainly not immune to the kind of BS that seems to be a feature of that course, nor beyond being duped. Believable BS in less than 10000 words and all that crap.
            As for the unfortunate Mr Johnson, he wouldn’t be the first person to suffer from daring to go against the grain. It’s often the price you pay for simply speaking your mind. Like I’ve already stated, challenging the status quo isn’t always a wise move.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            I will be 50 years old in a few months, so I would only be doing it for the mental stimulation. i think the technical courses are pretty immune from all the propaganda because they are based on real world empirical evidence. The Humanities, where I got my degree are, absolutely permeated by leftist ideas which are never interrogated even as they pretend to be an interrogation and critical analysis of cultural and political domains. It was only some years after leaving that I understood the agenda behind the ‘critical theory’ we were given as a tool of examination. I see the results in the unraveling of society, the breakdown, disintegration, however one describes it. The operation is fairly disguised and it needs to brought into the light. In order to do that one needs to communicate at a higher level than presently allowed. It is difficult to make people aware of the trick being played when the magicians are disguised

          • beenzrgud

            Strangely I still remember as a schoolboy choosing science as a career simply on the basis that my answers were beyond interpretation. Humanities were too much of a gamble.
            I wholeheartedly agree with your aims and wish you every success in your endeavours. Maybe it really would be a good idea for you to try and get into the establishment and shake things up from the inside. I can’t readily think of any other way you would garner sufficient credibility and be in a position to put forward such challenging ideas. Even so, you would still have to tread lightly, and in all likelihood see your efforts thwarted by vested interests. The remote consolation is that sometimes work is recognised as being true long after its creator has passed away. Give it a go, and best of luck. : )

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Thanks. I don’t want to get inside but I would like to contribute something to the change I see coming. I know how closed the academic and media worlds are. As you say many works are against their time and unrecognised until later. I am just keen to learn and articulate to the best of my abilities a dissenting opinion. ‘A voice in the wilderness’ is fine by me. Thanks for the chat. Best wishes.

          • Damaris Tighe

            You’re absolutely right. The one thing that ‘critical theory’ isn’t is critical.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Paddy, once upon a time the LSE’s MSc in the History of Political Thought was taught by conservatives. I don’t know whether it’s still the tradition but might be worth looking at.

  • davidofkent

    An understanding of the social science (?) of power is useful, but it ought to be an addendum to real life experience (preferably tough real life experience). People educated beyond their true intellectual capabilities cannot be trusted to run anything more important than a local club.

  • Pufferfish

    Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is one of the PPE crowd, which explains a lot, although he is too inarticulate to qualify as a world class bullshitter.

  • Having studied alongside these arseholes I am 100% certain that it isn’t the “flightiness” of the degree that causes them to be such wankers. It’s the fact that they’re pretty much all up themselves already. I’m not sure whether Oxford even deserves the blame for this, or if its just a result of the vast inequality of this country’s education system being sold to the highest bidder.

  • Gerschwin

    Starter for ten – which Tory is the odd one out and studied Greats?

    • Old Nick

      Boris Johnson. And Mr. Osborne read History.

  • Scott Clifford

    A lecturer in early American history I once knew at Oxford told me how appalled he was on speaking to PPE-ists about how little they studied theories of state and the sorts of philosophical questions about what a government ought to be for, which was very much a part of of the course for his students. Everyone at Oxford knows PPE is a lightweight degree for opportunists.

  • Steven Whalley

    PPE used to be called ‘General Studies’, which aptly describes the abilities of the people taking it. Good at a smattering of topics and able to survive on the minimum knowledge, but master in detail of none. The person in government who most fits the profile is Ed Davey, the head of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Where the very name of his department is like the PPE, an unfortunate lumping together of incompatible ideals.

    The latest DECC funding commitment is the UK’s International Climate Fund (ICF), which has set aside £3.87bn over five years for overseas projects to tackle climate change. On the surface this sounds very noble, but it does not take much to delve into the details for the futility and sheer waste of this to emerge. However, practical considerations and critical thinking are alien to DECC and the PPE blinkered Davey.

  • evad666

    The media is also awash with these people isn’t it Nick


  • Teacher

    My son has a friend who studied PPE at Oxford. Lovely lad who can spell, write long complicated sentences which are grammatically correct, and is as leftward leaning as the day is long. As far as living in the real world which he thinks himself equipped to rule and direct, goes, I don’t suppose he’s ever picked a pair of his own socks off the floor once in his life. God save us from such overeducated nincompoops.

  • Sleepy Koala

    Firstly, you make a false analogy between PPE graduates and graduates from architecture schools and medical faculties. The key difference is that unlike doctors and architects, PPE students aren’t meant to be qualified to do a particular technical thing after they graduate; in this case, run the country. Why should one expect them to be able to?

    I’m a current PPE student at Oxford, and I would argue that the breadth of the course isn’t the problem – in fact, it’s the main attraction for those who want to study all 3 subjects in context. I concede that the course probably does turn you into a world-class bullshitter, but because of the sheer volume of work you have to get done in a short space of time rather than because of the fact that there are multiple disciplines (any other arts student at Oxford would say the same). Anyway, it isn’t as if Oxford PPEists are destined to become the nation’s future leaders…rather than there being a problem with the PPE course at Oxford, surely the real problem is with people’s perceptions about the degree as a good way to prepare you for getting into politics? Why is it that a disproportionate number of Oxford PPE grads are being voted in in the first place? What can we do to actually get the representation that people want in parliament?

    In any case, I don’t think forcing 20 year old undergrads to do dissertations instead of a written paper is the solution to the problem of rubbish politicians.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Gossip from around the parish pump.

  • vvspaxman

    It would be a mistake to think that for example a maths graduate would be any better. In maths theories are largely proven. You just need to know maths notation and follow the logic and you should get the right answer.

    The real world is not like that, the causes of any event is not provan or obvious or may be misleading. The world is much more ‘chaotic’, cause and effect is not linear. Other factors like ethics and psychology influence the decision as well as millions of unknown factors. There is no right answer. People who don’t understand maths give it powers which it doesn’t have, a maths graduate is no more “intelligent” than say a philosophy graduate.

  • ManOfKent

    PPE aka A Degree In Stupidity

  • sheridan porter

    PPE was always a nice-but-dim degree for the scions of good families and alumni of grand public schools. My medical undergraduate colleagues had reached the dreaming spires on merit and hence displayed a variety of accents, with pie-eaters and scousers cheek by jowl with Ulstermen and wurzels.Most decent provincial state schools can prepare students for science degrees, but few have significant resources devoted to PPE entrance requirements. Thus in my era there was a definite sloaney monoculture of the rugger-shirted and floppy-haired or Alice-band with pearls. If you want to perpetuate a talentless “elite”, simply organise your top university to devote huge resources to courses which are simply not taught outside exclusive expensive public schools. This country will never escape its downward spiral as long as Greats and PPE remain the dominant undergraduate humanity departments in Oxford, excluding a vast talent pool from upward mobility.

  • thesooterkin .

    Four points:

    1) There may be 35 PPE graduates in the Commons and you may deem their performance in government to be poor but they were all elected. In each of their 35 constituencies the voting populace had more faith in their ability (or to be fair that of their party, which they contribute to) than in any other candidate.

    2) You failed to mention in your article that the 2nd and 3rd years of PPE allow significant specialisation, perhaps not as much as a thesis but these papers, may well yield more usable information than a thesis if useful information or fact is what you value.

    3) You have not considered whether it might be the case that the many and varied degrees held by the other members of the Commons are not the flaw in the governments education. If PPE is such an inappropriate degree for a politician what would you suggest is more appropriate?

    4) Correlation does not imply causation, even if we concede that the weakest MP’s are those who studied PPE I would prompt you to direct your criticism to their lack of experience outside of the political bubble and not at the degree itself.

    • Roger Hudson

      You have a naive lack of understanding of how people are selected, promoted and elected to seats in the commons. The electors are encouraged to see ‘Oxford’ and go ‘wow,super’.

      • thesooterkin .

        I think you’re the one being naive if you think that these MP’s advertised the fact that they were Oxbridge PPEists at the last general election. The comments below this article are evidence of a general dislike of “elitist institutions”. Of all the criterion by which electors decide who they will vote for, the university they attended is pretty low down the list. You cannot possibly be so supercilious as to assume that you are in the minority of people who are not dazzled by the word “Oxford”, the amalgamated wisdom of the hundreds or thousands of voters who elected these MP’s is undoubtedly greater than yours or mine.

    • Ron Todd

      The skills required to get selected basically knowing the right people the skills to win a seat being a member of the right party, are not necessarily the skills required to run a country.

      • thesooterkin .

        But wouldn’t you agree that this fact demonstrates the weakness of our political system rather than of PPE as a degree. With my comments I don’t deny that the performance of today’s politicians is poor (although they are probably due more credit than we give them) but that it is not down to the fact that many have studied PPE. Instead the lack of experience and incentive incompatibility within our political system is to blame.

  • Roger Hudson

    Politics from an elite standpoint.
    Philosophy without the Germans.
    Economics without the Maths.
    Almost as bad as Media Studies.

    • Damaris Tighe

      I don’t know, philosophy without Husserl & Heidegger might be a bonus.

  • G Thomps9

    It’s “St. AnTony’s.”

  • Alistair Kerr

    I would not disagree with a word of Nick Cohen’s article, but the problem is wider and bigger. We now have a political class, which was not the case before the 1980s. That is to say, a class of people who, whether they went to Oxford or Cambridge and read PPE, or to the LSE or anywhere else, have never done a real job. They have been focused on politics from a tender age; have worked as interns, assistants, researchers and special advisers to other politicians and in think-tanks. They see society as a politics machine that literally owes them a living; whose function is to provide jobs for people like them, in which they can meddle, muddle and interfere in the lives of others to their hearts’ content. In the past politics was usually a second career, which aspirant MPs embraced after making a success at something else, like one of the learned professions, business, local government (which was supposed to be apolitical before the 1970s), the Army, Navy or RAF… The new MP would bring useful specialist knowledge with him or her and be able to speak with authority on some subjects and issues. A very few still can: Rory Stewart, for instance.This former soldier and diplomat speaks with considerable authority on the Middle East and actually speaks some oriental languages. Mr Stewart is however an exception. Apart from politics, the new political class knows damn-all. They are a disaster. A special guillotine should be erected in Parliament Street for them.

  • nwilson101

    Having had a number of Oxford grads working for me, all I will say is that they are the most shonky and unreliable employees I have had the misfortune to employ. They talk the talk (and are strangers to the truth in what they often say) but actually working is simply seen as something to be avoided and beneath them.

    My experience of Cambridge and LSE grads is luckily one of hard workers.

    When you realise the complete lack of any job experience of Cameron, Osborne and Miliband, is it any surprise their sense of entltlement greatly exceeds their alleged ‘talent’.

    Boris Johnson is yet another of those Oxford graduates who has a personal record no normal employer would ever employ…(Think of his actions with Mr Guppy and his sacking from The Times for making up false quotes, and friends then getting him re-employed at the Telegraph. Lying is as far as I am concerned an absolute no-no in ANY employee, let alone a newspaper, I’d have thought?).

    They are only all good for minor light entertainment and should never ever be let loose on the levers of power.

  • JerryJJ

    Sacrifice breadth for depth? Become more and more expert at more and more obscure topics? Then get appointed minister in charge of something not even remotely connected with your narrow field of expertise? Is that your solution?

  • Sumit Rahman

    Sounds like PPE is perfect training for columnists.

  • little islander

    It is my wish that Professor Bogdanor comes to his senses and thinks he might have been too hasty in jumping to conclusion and then congratulates himself after reading this of his wise judgment of you as his ‘least able pupil.’ When I started work in the late ’70s, jotting down stuff in and out of office is regarded as good work practice. Many think their memory’s reliable. It is not. Pen and paper don’t come in handy anymore these days. It’s not difficult to see why it has become so.

  • JiongWei Lua

    As pointed out astutely in the comment by Mr Andrew Smith, it’s probably not PPE per se that has lead to the dysfunctional state of British politics. In my mind, the main issues are probably 1) how entrance to politics is structured (the prioritisation of academic qualifications or affiliations over experience, for instance), and 2) how political culture, for the lack of a better term, has been shaped in Britian (lack of engagement over solid tangible issues, excessive mudslinging, no demands for coherent visions).

    I’d also point out that even if PPE encourages being receptive to a diversity of ideas, that in no way precludes PPEists developing their own convictions of how Britain ought to be developed. Also, if you look at the numbers, there are probably a much larger number of PPEists who’ve went on to do great things for their country or the industries they’ve chosen to enter, with strong principles and strategic visions. I’m thus a bit skeptical about dismissing the pedagogy of the course simply based on the behaviours of a handful of present British politicians.

    That said, I do think that there might be space for the course to remind aspiring politicians amongst its students about the necessity of having convictions and visions as a politicians. I cannot claim to have an excellent understanding of the way the course is conducted, not having graduated from it.

    Lastly, I’d qualify my above opinions by pointing out that I’m not British, and therefore may not have a perfect understanding of how British politics and PPE function. As an aspiring student of PPE, one who currently does study a bit of philosophy and economics in school, I must also confess that I may be biased towards the relevance of these disciplines. I hope I don’t offend anyone in my opinions above.

  • zugzwang

    Hard to know which fallacies are the most glaring. Obviously, it is not a consequence of reading PPE that politicians the world over are addicted to short-termism and soundbites. Nor is it the case that everyone who read PPE is a short-termist politician. Whilst it is not the case that three years of PPE lays down very much in the way of knowledge (or even nous, creativity or smarts) it is very good indeed at sharpening the mind to detect twaddle.

    • Ron Todd

      Probably very good at creating opportunity to meet the right people that can help their political ambitions.

  • Latimer Alder

    Mrs Thatcher was pretty much alone among recent PMs in having studied a science subject – Chemistry. Its a tough 4 year course..combining theory and practice. By comparison, PPE is a doddle.

  • perdix

    Nick Cohen, Observer columnist. Another useless occupation.

  • Scheveningen

    Surely PPE should be seen as a ‘liberal arts’ degree in the American sense of that phrase. It is not meant to encourage specialisation but rather a broad-based, albeit superficial, knowledge of several subjects. The French ENA or aggregation tradition also encourages this approach. But I agree that a compulsory 10,000 word dissertation would remedy some of the superficiality. Incidentally, St Antony’s has no undergraduates and so is not really involved in PPE.

  • Sarka

    It seems to me that as regards clever young establishment persons with political ambitions, PPE is the new Classics, only not as intellectually difficult…(whoops, here comes Boris the notorious classicist!)

    But maybe the problem is not so much the degree, or its equivalents, as the development of such a career-track in active politics – a pseudo-professionalisation of what is not, in fact, a profession, with PPE (or something similar), then leading straight into political PR, party affiliated think-tanks etc etc… with party politicians emerging in leadership roles in their thirties, all looking alike, like shiny-suited managerial sausages.

    That said, no one should put his faith in other forms of degree as a political cure-all.

    I live in the Czech Republic, and medics and technical/scientific readers will be delighted to hear that the CR has the highest proportion of medical doctors in parliament of any EU state, and also a very high proportion of the technically/scientifically educated (the other significant group is – predictably – lawyers).

    It would be nice to report that this very un-British composition of parliament and senate results in a refreshingly practical or otherwise impressive kind of political leadership…
    Since the Revolution, our PMs have included one lawyer, several economists, two non-graduates (one with catering, one with engine driving competences – both incredibly corrupt), a statistician originally in genetics, a plasma physicist (went down in flames in sex scandal)….and not a politics or philosophy graduate in sight.

    Meanwhile, none of the many medics have managed to get the top job, but have mainly performed miserably – or in cataclysmically corrupt ways – in second-rank ministries.
    People here seldom discuss the failures of politicians with regard to educational qualification, except when – as quite often happens, they are found to have faked one, but when they do, comments tend to include, “Jesus, can’t we forbid doctors from politics?” and “God aren’t Czech politicians embarassing…small town people with no class…why can’t we be like France or England, where politicians have to be properly educated???”

    So there you go, Nick, the grass is always greener…

    • Old Nick

      If you think that Classics is anything like as easy as PPE, I suggest you try learning to write Latin prose in the manner of, say, Seneca. Classics has all the virtues of ‘teaching you to think’, while also giving you something to think about, in particular the nuts and bolts of language (learning Latin in particular is an obstacle race in basic linguistics) and genuinely strange civilisations which cannot be assimilated to the modern Anglo-American norm, so give one a strong sense that the world need not be the same as the way that it happens to be now.

      • Sarka

        I said I thought Classics more difficult than PPE, so you are preaching to the converted.

        • Old Nick

          Oh goodee

  • Ron Todd

    Two many smug rich boys; should have to work in private sector, in a job they get and keep on merit always being one pay packet away from being broke before being allowed in the commons.

  • hdb

    Generally good article but Nick’s first paragraph draws a comparison that is just not valid. Architecture and medicine are what the Greeks called ‘techne’, they are application of agreed principles to a situation. Politics (and arguably economics) is a question of arguing about what the correct principles are. It is inherently confrontational. Indeed, in suggesting that it could be like medicine or architecture Nick is ironically thinking of politics in exactly the same way as those he opposes: as a question of management.

  • Lukas

    are quite a number of things wrong with how PPE is taught (two of
    whichh, the lack of anything close to research/dissertation and the
    crowding of topics, are mentioned in the article, another one being the
    ridiculous exam system), but let me make three comments

    First, simply blaming the behaviour of
    PPE-graduated politicians on their degree is an utterly simplistic
    explanation for a complex problem. That seems to be exactly the kind of approach of ‘[distilling] a complicated [problem] down to a few slogans’ which the article – not without justification – accuses PPEists of presenting.

    Second, I also wonder what Mr. Cohen (and many of those commenting on the article) actually would be happy
    with- I reckon that if everyone studied straight economists many would complain
    about narrow-minded economists which cannot put things into (a political
    and philosophical, in particular ethical, context); straight political
    science probably can’t produce anything which works in a real economy,
    and philosophy, well that’s the privilige of the well-off, who don’t
    know how to work properly.

    Third, I know quite a number of PPEists whom I’d trust to do a better job than
    the currently reigning ones. However, most of them don’t want to go
    into politics – which raises another question: does PPE produce bad
    politicians or are only bad PPEists attracted by the political business?

    To sum up, I approve of attempts to question the educational background of
    the governing elite, but I’d prefer a bit more balance.

  • souptonuts

    Guess what Mr Reckless read at Uni? Gordon Bennett.

  • Retired Nurse

    Hitler and the 3rd Reich were obviously a feature of the syllabus when the current crop were studying ….either that or Prince Charles really has taken over at Cabinet Office..

  • Retired Nurse
  • Jeremy Fletcher

    Back in the early 70s when I was at Oxford, PPE was generally considered to be the ‘duffers’ degree’ – not a subject that anyone with a serious intellect would consider reading

  • Ron Todd

    I work in a factory I would consider myself a professional factory worker. The factory depends on professional engineers to design and problem solve. We have professional accountants to add up the money. And they depend on professional managers to do what ever they do. If the managers accountants and Engineers were people with no training or background in their fields we would be stuffed and I would need to go look for another job. So why do we not want our politicians to be professional politicians and not random people doing a bit of politics on the side?

  • Medved

    The problem is that there are no more grammar schools to produce real human beings to govern. Thank the Labour party and Bliar for that.

  • Dave

    Philosophy is a toilet paper subject.

  • Dave

    I did a degree and then Masters in medicine at a well known college at Oxford University. I now manage a medical products company that my Father owns. My father is an Orthopaedic Surgeon. People who do economics etc at Oxford are regarded generally as being the less able. It is a pity that they go on to be politicians.

  • Michael Y

    Highly educated people are so because they come from privileged back grounds which cocoons them life in the street this makes them unqualified to Govern the man in the street. judging by the terrible infrastructure we have now Britain has lost it’s credibility it once had over the planet as world traveller I can assure you all we looked upon as a joke even in the third world.

  • Oops! Mark Reckless read PPE! Spin my kipper pretties, spin!

  • Tom

    Two points:

    1. Our politicians are clearly qualified to rule a country, but are also voluntary participants in a system that prevents them from ruling correctly and seem unwilling to oppose the system in a sensible way. They should suspend elections and deal with all the issues that threaten the stability of society (sustainability, the environment, the economy, overpopulation).

    2. This article written by Nick Cohen seems intended to inspire fear into the Oxford academics to try to persuade them to persuade the politicians who they trained to do suspend elections and rule correctly. Rather than doing this, I would like to see Nick Cohen show direct support for a competent government.

  • callipygan alumnus

    Well no surprise here, English higher education is a sham all around, especially at the “top” in terms of rankings. Whether undergraduate or postgraduate, Oxbridge and LSE are piss poor in quality of academics.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    Most of our prominent politicians studied the same subject at Oxford. Is it any wonder we’re so badly governed?

    Of course, the same question could be asked about the politicians, bureaucrats, and media professionals who all seem to hail from the same sort of tribal demographic as Mr Cohen himself. But we’re not allowed to notice these things.

  • paul

    It just does not make sense that there a thousands of economic degrees about, and yet we cannot find one that can make 1+1=2. With a country with a £1.4 Trillion debt

  • ADW

    There is endless evidence to support Cohen’s basic proposition, that a PPE followed by a lifetime making speeches and writing press releases gives one no insight or ability to run any large organisation, let alone government.

    Corelli Barnett’s decline of British power series sets it out in brutal detail; even if he does over egg the pudding from time to time (trying to fit every last piece of evidence into his theory) there’s no arguing with his basic thesis.

    It is much the same with the managerial class who destroyed the banking system. Drawn from a narrow elite and totally insulated personally from the effects of their decisions – they were millionaires anyway. This is the opposite of capitalism, incidentally, which is supposed to be about those taking the risk getting the reward or incurring the costs. Goodwin and his fellow trash took a personal reward either way and told everyone it was necessary to ‘retain talent’.

    Not that it’s different in many other countries. Maybe it’s inherently how organisations end up, thanks to public choice theory in action – people make decisions that will further their short term gains, not advance the interests of the organisation. A random example can be found from NASA in the 1980s. You would have thought that all the rocket scientists striving to achieve manned space flight might have always acted in the best interests of that goal, but it turned out that the managers had chosen to act in the way that would achieve more funding, regardless of reality. As Prof Feynman showed in his personal report on the Challenger disaster, this meant that they ignored engineers’ warnings about risk and made up their own PR fantasy. Then, when the explosion happened, no-one wanted to say why, because it would threaten careers all up and down the chain. Instead, some engineers quietly tipped off Feynman about where to look and he did the rest.

  • E Hart

    It’s ideologies, ideologues and the wankers who follow them that create this mess. All ideologies distort or destroy truth and reality to fit the frame. Therein lies the problem. It is not the course but the students. If you draw from the same conventional elements, don’t be surprised if they turn out to be utterly conventional. Grandiose idiocies always have their slavish devotees, who won’t hear a world said against them. Political discourse is not limited by the available knowledge, it’s limited by the desire of some not to explore anything that contradicts them or calls their ideas into question: Thatcher (Hayek), architectural modernism (Le Corbusier); Pol Pot (glasses); state penal colonies loosely disguised as workers’ paradises (various); Tom Driberg (anything in trousers); Nazism (unnatural selection); neo-liberalism (90%); shit (Shinola)… Among humankind’s biggest achievements are to conflate heresy with truth and to value obedience and conformity as validation.

    As a result we are basking in a “successful” economy built on property speculation, market bingo, credit, working-tax credits, shitty jobs (which’ll go the moment interest rates rise) and are led by a prime minister who wants to spread privilege and to create a federalised United Kingdom. Need I say more.

  • pattif

    The problem isn’t PPE; it’s the lack of any serious experience of life or work in the real world, coupled with the complete disappearance of any concept of public service.

  • Kin62

    I went to an excellent private school and studied law at a prestigious university. Other than having a very good English teacher who taught me how to understand language- which taught me how to read well, which allowed me to ingest knowledge and apply it- I can honestly say that being an oldest sibling and working in pubs as a student were of far more use to me than formal education, about which I am extremely sceptical.

  • grammarschoolman

    I met Ed Balls when I went up for my Oxford interview (I was applying for English, not PPE, I hasten to add).

    Even then, he was arrogant, charmless and believed he knew it all; the PPE faculty did not change him one little bit.

  • justejudexultionis

    It is hardly surprising that Hitler wanted to make Oxford his headquarters in England.

  • Bridau

    I am afraid that making students write dissertations would only encourage them to pay anonymous scholars to write them to order which is already a common practice that is already rife in our university system.

  • styants64

    Lions led by donkeys it’s been going on since the 19th century Read Correlli Barnett’s classic First World War book the SwordBearers.

  • HamtunscireKippa

    It doesnt teach them about real life though, hence they sound like aliens when they try to talk to ordinary voters.

  • popcmc

    I think this feature dramatically over estimates the importance of degrees. I studied politics and economics at LSE and Warwick before starting my career in politics as a policy adviser to a politician. However, after one year I left to join a consulting firm as I wanted to avoid becoming a product of the Westminster bubble with no real life experiences. Since then I have worked on IT projects, helped design and create a new bank, negotiated multi-million pound procurements and now work in internal audit. My degrees are largely irrelevant to how I function as a professional. Almost all the skills and knowledge I apply daily were learnt on the job. The problem is not the degrees that our politicians studied but what they did with their careers afterwards. A lifetime working on policy research and media relations does not equip you to run a country. Instead it teaches how to manage the news cycle and dream up grand ideas on the back of an envelope without any understanding of the complexities of actually making things happen.

  • Peter Cooper

    Yes Oxford attracts those who want to be politicians because it has the best reputation and track record for producing politicians. It’s the people on the PPE course that are the problem, not the course itself. And they are not really to blame either if the times they live in do not deliver the same kind of kudos for politicians as in the past! PPE is the modern greats and I am honored to have studied it alongside William Hague…

  • Marketthinker

    Today we just redressed the balance a little…especially ones called Ed 🙂

  • Heather Schoeman

    Bit harsh.

    Are you still a horrible person if your PPE degree comes from Stirling rather than Oxford?

  • trobrianders

    PPE does what it says on the tin – Pretend Political Elite

  • Jason Palmer

    A ppe is required for well informed decision making.

    • Mr TaxPayer

      A PPE degree is the closest thing it’s possible to get to a degree in off-the-cuff bullshit.

  • Ozzy Guy

    PPE…sounds like nonsense to me. How about a PhD as a minimum requirement.

    It’s sad that most politicians are graduates of the bullshit disciplines…bogus theories and untestable dogma. Sadly, not many graduates who have actually been taught to use their brains at University would go anywhere near the intellectual cesspool of politics…

    Consequently, these arrogant politically correct buffoons are steering Europe into oblivion.