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What’s the real deal with Oxford PPE?

Freya Jones interviews three PPE students to find out what the degree is really about.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics is one of the most renowned degrees on offer at Oxford University. Not only does it boast a long list of powerful alumni, including both contestants in the recent Tory leadership race, but it also continues to attract one of the highest numbers of undergraduate applications per year. Why? The numerous political blunders of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak made me curious about this, as did the stereotype of the bluffing, blustering PPE student. To what extent does this stereotype hold true? What does the programme actually teach you? Does the tuition meet expectations? I spoke to three current PPE students from different backgrounds to try and find out.

Sharon Chau – 3rd Year, University College. Treasurer-elect of the Oxford Union

Freya Jones: Sharon, thank you for talking to me. Why did you choose PPE when you were applying to Oxford?

Sharon Chau: Well, I think I probably have quite a clichéd answer to this, which is that I couldn’t really decide on one specific subject that I wanted to study. It was more a failure to eliminate things than actually liking all three disciplines, but I did like that I’d have the ability to drop one of the subjects in second year. I was personally a bit iffy about philosophy, but I looked into a lot of the politics options before coming to Oxford and thought they were really interesting.

FJ: The modules for politics, philosophy and economics are taught separately. What’s it like to keep track of such a wide range of topics?

SC: It feels more like doing A Levels than a university degree, because jumping between subjects means you’re not always exploring in as much depth as you’d like. But the upside of that is that you don’t really get bored of your degree, because there’s always something else for you to do. Like, if you can’t be arsed to do your politics essay then you can always do an economics problem sheet, so it’s very good for people with short attention spans!

FJ: Do you think the breadth of PPE allows some students to make less effort with certain parts of their degree and waffle in tutorials?

SC: I think waffling in tutorials is actually more of a problem with Oxford in general than with PPE in particular, but it’s true that tutors expect a bit less depth from you than someone who does their whole degree on one subject. You’re spending less time on each discipline, so expectations are probably slightly lowered.

FJ: Looking beyond university, how well do you think the Oxford PPE degree prepares you for a job in politics or any other field?

SC: I’m actually doing a summer internship at the moment and what I’ve realised is that PPE teaches you very little about what the world of work is really like. For example, I’m doing a tech-consulting job and most of my colleagues know lots of coding and did Computer Science or Maths, but PPE doesn’t really give you any of that quantitative stuff. It prepares you for a range of fields because it teaches you to explain your ideas and argue against people, but you don’t get very specific skills.

FJ: You’re Treasurer-Elect of the Oxford Union and have held various positions in student politics. Would you say you’ve gained more knowledge from your extracurriculars or your study itself?

SC: That’s a good question. I think the involvement in student politics has been more useful because a lot of the skills you learn, like talking to people and forming alliances, are more similar to what you have to do in the real world. The degree is useful too, because you have to synthesise information quickly and read a lot, but the extracurriculars have been more impactful on me.

FJ: Are your tutors supportive of your involvement in student politics?

SC: Yeah, I think so. I’ve only ever mentioned it to them in passing, but one of my tutors said he’d vote for me! I do know one friend whose tutor hates the Union though, so it was difficult when one of his committee meetings clashed with a tutorial, but most tutors are quite understanding.

Nidhi Madhani – 2nd Year, University College . President-elect of PPE Society

Freya Jones: Thanks for speaking with me, Nidhi. Why did you choose to study PPE at Oxford University?

Nidhi Madhani: I’ve always found it really difficult to pick subjects, so it was really important for me to choose a degree where I could pursue lots of interests at the same time. Initially I was leaning more towards History and Economics but in the end I preferred the structure of PPE and the wide range of career pathways that alumni have gone into, like NGOs, politics and journalism. 

FJ: Has the standard of teaching been consistent across the course and to what extent has it met your expectations?

NM: Well, I think expectations are quite subjective. I wasn’t really aware of PPE’s reputation before I came to Oxford so I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. But yeah, I do personally think my politics tutorials have been the most engaging and I’ve taken a lot from them. On the other hand, some aspects of the course feel very outdated, like studying logic. I could have put a lot more effort into logic if I actually cared, but right now I think it’s natural for us to be pulled towards topics we like and not really focus on the ones we don’t.

FJ: There’s a stereotype about PPE students who purposefully disengage from certain aspects of their course and consequently “wing it” in tutorials. Is this something you’ve noticed within your cohort?

NM: Yes. To be honest, there’s probably been a point when every single PPE student has had to waffle. In fact, PPE tutorials genuinely teach you to be a really good waffler, because you have to pick up distinct concepts very quickly. Tutors often notice when you get onto a waffling path, so you shouldn’t do it, but sometimes you manage to find a loophole and stray from the question. It almost becomes a skill to disguise when you’re doing it, in a way that’s quite subtle.

FJ: You’re President-Elect of Oxford PPE Society and you’ve been a member of Union committee in the past. How much knowledge have you gained from your extracurriculars in comparison to your actual degree?

NM: It’s actually quite difficult to separate the extracurriculars from my degree because PPEists are literally everywhere! I mean, if you look at the PPE personalities around Oxford, they’re always at the heart of student life and the course is what brings us together. In terms of political experience, though, I do think I learnt most about the election process at the Oxford Union. PPE Soc and Bottles & Banter have been really helpful too, and I’ve probably gained more from them than either Philosophy or Economics. However, the Practical Politics module of my course was really interesting and also a highlight for me.

FJ: Many of Britain’s current politicians studied PPE at Oxford and the degree’s been described as a “passport to power”. How do you feel about that, especially with regard to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak?

NM: I definitely think they give the degree a bad name, because they embody the stereotype of not really caring about the people and pursuing politics for your own personal interest. And I know that’s what the typical PPE degree is associated with now, although I think that’s very wrong, because a lot of current students are genuinely more invested in issues affecting the public than in themselves. So it’s disappointing to see politicians who go out there and give this very wrong idea of a subject which is supposed to teach you about morals.

Justas Petrauskas – 2nd Year, Oriel College. Editor at The Oxford Political Review

Freya Jones: Justas, thank you for talking to me. You applied to UK universities as an international student. What made you choose PPE at Oxford?

Justas Petrauskas: Interestingly my path here was rather unorthodox, because I actually applied for Biochemistry at some other UK universities, but I chose PPE at Oxford because the course covers a lot of things I’m interested in. That answer might be a bit different to the responses of people from the UK, for whom the degree is very entrenched in the country’s social history, but the degree’s reputation within Britain didn’t inform my decision.

FJ: What’s it been like to study the PPE course with a non-UK perspective?

JP: During applications I think it’s easier to stand out, because the background you bring with you is likely very different to that of students from the UK. In terms of studying, sometimes it’s harder and sometimes it’s easier, because you’ve read different things and come from a different cultural environment, but mostly it’s just different.

FJ: How have you found your tuition in terms of quality and consistency?

JP: Well, in terms of consistency it’s not consistent at all. I’ve had some fantastic tutors, with whom tutorials can be quite magical, and others who were really quite underwhelming. To be honest I think that’s a trade-off in the system on which the university runs. You have a lot of freedom in your course, but there’s also a lot of freedom to underdeliver which comes with that.

FJ: How do students in your cohort deal with the breadth of the course? Have you been aware of people in your cohort deliberately choosing make less effort in certain disciplines?

JP: Yes, I’ve been aware of these situations. It’s a very personal thing and I’m not going to judge whether those decisions are right or wrong, but I’ve known people decide that one subject wasn’t for them, or that they were going to do the minimum they needed to get through. In the end though, the options within the programme mean you can make it what you want you want it to be. For example, if you want to engage in other activities, like the Union or student journalism, then you can definitely make time for that, and say, concentrate less on economics, but it really depends on each individual.

FJ: How have you found the Oxford PPE stereotype?

JP: Well, the number of Boris Johnsons I’ve met on my course is probably less than what I expected, because the number of different people who study the course is increasing. Equally, the ugly thing about stereotypes is that they’re partially true. A lot of people who do PPE are a lot like the stereotypical PPE student, and that just comes from the incentives that you have in applying to the programme. Sometimes I feel slightly sad about just how much people’s perceptions of PPE students are influenced by the running stereotype of current politicians in the UK, but I’m also glad that I can approach the course from a background where people don’t have those particular views.

So there you have it. When reflecting on these conversations, it was interesting to see how PPE’s breadth and flexibility can be a curse as well as a blessing. A feature of the course which attracts so many applicants but often leads them to disengage with large components later on should surely be food for contemplation. Irrespective of whether PPE’s emphasis on soft-skills is seen in a positive or negative light, however, one wonders how much this A-Level mentality might endure into graduates’ working lives. I’d be curious to see how Truss and Sunak might respond if they were asked the same questions.

Note: the text of the interviewees’ responses has been lightly edited for clarity.

Image credit: Ray Harrington

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