Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

PPE – the degree that runs Britain

If I mentioned the abbreviation ‘PPE’, you may think that I’m talking about ‘personal protective equipment’ – equipment that you wear when working in environments with potential health and safety risks.

But PPE can also mean ‘Philosophy, Politics and Economics‘, and specifically a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Oxford. Oxford’s PPE course is notable because a significant number of British politicians, journalists and experts studied the course. Prospective students see it as a major stepping stone into a career in politics.

Last month, The Guardian’s Long Read featured PPE. It starts by naming many of its alumni, which included the then leaders of Britain’s two largest political parties along with MPs from others. The course has strong heritage, having run at Oxford for almost 100 years and with a glittering list of well-known graduates. As well as British politicians, it has attracted those from other countries and former US president Bill Clinton, former Pakistani president Benazir Bhutto, and Burmese political campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi are among its many international graduates.

Getting into the course, like any degree at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is an achievement in itself. (Note: I work in admissions at a rival UK university). Applicants are expected to achieve at least three straight A grades in their A-levels, though this can be from any three subjects and doesn’t need to include Philosophy, Economics or Politics. There’s also an admissions test called the Thinking Skills Assessment, and an interview, so academic ability alone is not enough to get admitted.

With so many of our politicians having graduated from a single course at a single university – and one that is attended by a large proportion of privately-educated students – it’s easy to see why there are accusations that Britain is ruled by an ‘elite’. I agree that it attracts those who plan to be career politicians, although I’m conflicted about whether that’s necessarily a bad thing. Certainly, you have to be intelligent and articulate to pass an interview and get a place on the course. Michael Gove claimed last year that we’ve had enough of experts; Gove is not a PPE graduate but studied English at Oxford. But personally, I’d rather have experts running the country, in the same way that you wouldn’t want your mate Dave from down the pub performing your keyhole surgery. Unless Dave was a qualified surgeon.

Which brings me to the point I’m trying to make. PPE at Oxford has become a de facto qualification for a high-level political qualification in Britain. We don’t have a kind-of ‘General Political Council’ to regulate politicians and ensure that our MPs and councillors are sufficiently qualified to stand for office. Nor do we have a ‘Chartered Institute’ that accredits degree courses. Whether we should is another matter – there have been many perfectly good MPs who are not career politicians, and who have switched to politics following careers in other industries. But it’s an interesting idea, and perhaps the reason why there are so many successful politicians who are PPE graduates, is because it’s such a good preparation for a political career.

Finally, you may enjoy the PPE in PPE Twitter account, which combines both definitions and shows PPE graduates posing for photographs whilst wearing PPE.

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