The problem with PPE: Is it the subject, or the students?
When you tell someone you study PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics – or posh, prattish, and egotistical, depending on your perspective) there’s an expectation of a groan or some sigh of dismay. In Oxford this expectation is rarely disappointed. The reasoning behind this, of course, is that both the subject and its students have a notoriously bad reputation. The expectation when you meet someone studying PPE is that they’re an aspiring politician, someone who’s out to make a name for themselves by ruining (sorry, I meant running) the country. And as such, PPEists are often seen to be miniature versions of the Machiavellian backstabbers they will no doubt one day become.
This reputation is unfortunately well founded. Within the university PPE students can be found occupying positions on the committees of many of the societies and clubs to a much higher degree than any other subject. This presence is felt nowhere more strongly than in those societies that attract the most scandal, rumours, and derision from the rest of the student body – the politically oriented ones. Of the last 16 Oxford Union Presidents, 10 studied or study PPE; of the last 20 Oxford University Labour Club Co-chairs (10 terms worth) this rises to 11. Bizarrely the degree of PPE representation is lowest in the Oxford University Conservative Association, in which only one President since 2020 has been a PPE student (out of a possible eight). When researching these stats I considered trying to find out the PPE representation for the Lib Dems at Oxford, but alas, I couldn’t find anyone who would admit to being one.
What this demonstrates is that already within Oxford, PPE students are demonstrating a desire to climb the political and societal ladders in order to occupy positions of power, in a way that often results in evoking controversy and ill will towards those involved. Whether that’s rumours of the weaponization of complaints within OULC in order to oust ‘political’ opponents, or accusations of bullying or nepotism within the Union; PPE students are invariably in the middle of it.
But of course, this heavy involvement of PPE students isn’t just restricted to university life. PPE graduates have become commonplace across the political scene in multiple countries. Within the UK, three of the last five prime ministers studied PPE – in the 2014 General Election your choice of PM was effectively a PPE graduate from Brasenose, or a PPE graduate from Corpus Christi – multiple figures within both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet studied PPE, from Oxford East MP Anneliese Dodds to Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, and PPEists occupy high up positions across the media world, as BBC presenters, newspaper columnists, and political pundits.
This perversive presence of PPEists in the apparatuses of state control is not just restricted to the UK. PPE graduates have gone on to rule countries across the globe; four Pakistani PMs and one President, three PMs of Australia, and leaders of Myanmar, Ghana, Peru, and Thailand have all studied PPE at Oxford. As such, both PPE graduates and students participate in society in a way that leads to them embarking on ambitious avenues towards the corridors of power.
PPEists are often seen to be miniature versions of the Machiavellian backstabbers they will no doubt one day become.
The issue with this is that it results in political leaders who all come from distinctly similar backgrounds, and have their viewpoints shaped in broadly the same ways. Additionally, flaws with the teaching of the PPE course result in leaders who do not have the insight, experience, or awareness required to truly handle these roles in a responsible way.
The result is a world and country run and formed by Oxford educated PPEists who far too often lead us towards economic crash, social malaise, and political disenfranchisement – to the extent that Spectator columnist Nick Cohen wrote in 2014 that PPE grads “form the largest single component of the most despised governing class since the Great Reform Act” (ironically Nick Cohen also studied PPE). The crashing of the pound under PPE graduate Liz Truss and the welcoming of Brexit and the ensuing racism and xenophobia this enabled under PPE graduate David Cameron with the formulative media influence of PPE graduate Rupert Murdoch are just a few examples of such failure.
But why is it that PPE grads play such a formative (often for the worst) role in the UK and across the world? Why are PPE students so involved in Oxford political and debating societies and why does the degree have such a bad reputation with other students? What’s to blame – the subject or the students?
PPE was first established as an Oxford subject in the 1920’s on the belief that an understanding of philosophy, politics, and economics was vital in aiding the understanding of social phenomena, as such students had to originally study all three subjects for the entirety of their degree. The degree quickly became the ideal training ground for individuals looking to pursue a career in politics or government.
In the modern era PPE students must study all three subjects for their first year. After that point they can – and the vast majority do – drop down to just studying two. Due to this, the founding tenet of all three being required to understand social phenomena is lost. This is only compounded by the fact that philosophy, politics, and economics are all taught separately. There is no encouragement for philosophical musings or political ideologies to be applied to the study of the economy, and as such the teaching remains formulaic, with few students exploring original ideas or applications of theory.
It is currently compulsory for students who continue with philosophy after first year to study ethics. The departure of the tripartite model of study has resulted in those students who pursue just politics and economics to lack a grounding in various moral perspectives. One can only wonder how the UK would differ if individuals such as Liz Truss, David Cameron, or Rishi Sunak had had some ethical backing for their political and economical thoughts.
The way the degree is structured not only trains students for political life, but it trains them for it poorly…
Throughout their degree most PPE students have to complete two essays, or one essay and a problem sheet, per week. As such, many of the topics they explore don’t have the required time to be studied in depth, and students instead emerge with a surface-level awareness of the issues. Not only does this give students a false sense of academic superiority, but it also prepares them for the life of a modern-day politician – constantly skimming over briefs and reports just enough so that one can appear to know what they’re talking about when speaking in parliament or to the media.
The way the degree is structured not only trains students for political life, but it trains them for it poorly, such that they can easily appear to have a firm grasp and understanding of the issues at hand, but in reality, lack the insight and depth of knowledge to help resolve the problems that arise.
Before addressing the students, it needs to be noted that despite PPE grads’ high presence in the world of politics and the media, most PPE students do not end up looking for careers in politics. Only a few want to run the country. However, PPE still attracts far more students interested in a political career than other subjects – partly because one of the subjects is politics, but also because PPE has a reputation for aiding someone who wants to stalk the halls of power. The extreme popularity of PPE is evidence of this. With around 250 students per year, it’s one of the largest single degrees. What’s more, applications for the course rose by 28% from 2007-2015 as awareness of the degrees’ heavy presence in UK political life rose, suggesting that this was what drove applications.
Furthermore, PPE students are not empty vessels who arrive at Oxford and are transformed by their degree into power hungry, ladder climbing egoists. Instead, they apply and arrive with their own aspirations, and the heavy presence of PPE students in the Union and the political societies demonstrates this. As such, it seems that the students themselves play a key role in the formulation of both the degree’s negative reputation within the university, and its negative impacts upon society and politics outside of university.
Ultimately, enough PPE students arrive at Oxford with intentions of assuming positions of power that their presence can be noticed in both university life and out in the wide world. The subject itself then confers upon them the confidence and slight skill needed to give these aspirations a chance at fruition. However, this ‘training’ for political life fails to impart the true skills and awareness that are needed to do a good job of running the country. This all gets us to where we are now and likely will be for some time. Screwed.