What degree do you really need to make it to the top of the civil service?

As the civil service vows to improve the diversity of its graduate intake, former senior official Andrew Greenway asks whether Oxford's famed PPE degree is really a golden ticket to the top of the political and administrative elite 

By Andrew Greenway

11 Feb 2016

Take a look at this table:

Here are the undergraduate degree choices of two of the UK’s most powerful positions in post-war times. The prime minister chooses the route. The cabinet secretary drives the car. There are lots of stories buried in this table. You might marvel that there has been just three years in British history where neither role has been filled by Oxbridge. You might note the paucity of women and science. You might spot the lack of difference across party lines.

You might also be surprised by the fact that PPE takes only three of the spots on offer. Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford has become fixed in the mind as the golden ticket to the highest political circles. This reached its peak during the 2010 coalition government, when a BBC News article pointed out that a third of those attending cabinet were PPE graduates, and described the course as a kind of “educational freemasonery”. Gordon Brown’s Cabinet had a similar proportion. The 2015 Conservative cabinet has since reined in the secret handshakes; only six (of 28) come from the PPE stable.

PPE’s ubiquity is interesting, because if it has achieved widespread infection across the top of politics, the course becomes a quietly powerful lever in shaping how the country runs. Understand PPE, perhaps, and you’ll understand something of what makes our decision-makers tick. Change PPE, and you’ll change how the next generation of decision-makers think and behave.

Is a single course at one university the British equal to the École nationale d’administration, France’s storied and much examined civil servant factory? And if so, would changing it unlock a new way of running the UK?

"What really distinguishes students of the Oxford PPE course is not what they learn or don’t learn. It is how they learn"

Things aren’t quite that simple. PPE began in Oxford in 1920 — a mere upstart in an institution formed in 1096. Designed as a replacement for Greats, it was created to usurp the default degree choice of the elite at the time. However, PPE’s founders weren’t concerned with future political masters getting stuck in to Virgil and Plato. Their new course was planned to mould a new generation of civil service leaders. They thought that ancient history rather was moot when it came to administering a modern economy.

Academic influence on the government machinery had precedent. The Northcote-Trevelyan report — now more than 150 years old, and the only successful major reform of the British Civil Service in its history — owes some of its inspiration to Oxford. The N-T introduced competitive examinations into the Civil Service, inspired in part by Oxford’s own introduction of degree examinations in 1800. Before this, their process of awarding degrees was a little more slack:

“What is the Hebrew for the place of a skull?”
“Who founded University College?”
“King Alfred found it.”
“Very well, sir, you are competent for your degree.”
Oxford Hebrew and History exam (in full, conducted on horseback), 1770

Yet the list at the top of this post seems to suggest that PPE didn’t quite hit the mark it intended. There’s no sign of the course shaping the uppermost tier of a post-war bureaucratic class. Indeed, a cabinet secretary that oversaw the beginning of the Blair government was a graduate of the very course deemed unfit for training top officials 78 years earlier.

But despite this, I don’t think PPE was a failure. The only mistake Oxford made when they created it was thinking that the content mattered.

Full disclosure — I am an Oxford PPE graduate. I graduated in 2006. I didn’t choose the course because I wanted to make important decisions; I chose it because I didn’t want to make decisions. 

The main appeal of PPE for me was that the options are limitless. PPE examines you on eight subjects from a choice of more than 60. Your finals can be on anything from Aesthetics to Econometrics. You can drop P, P or E after the first year. There is no need to close any intellectual doors or specialise in anything. You don’t even have to write a dissertation. In this respect, it’s a total cop-out.

In practice, this means that it’s very rare to find two PPE graduates who know the same things. I strongly suspect that Rupert Murdoch, say, probably took quite different final exams to Tony Hall. But both got the same bit of paper at the end.

What really distinguishes students of the Oxford PPE course is not what they learn or don’t learn. It is how they learn. This is a learning experience that values qualities bearing all the hallmarks of the British “Establishment”. Preternatural self-confidence. Taking joy in argument for its own sake. The ability to busk convincingly when you’re hungover and know nothing.

These traits are common to all Oxbridge arts degrees. However, there is a subset of these that share their most important quality with PPE — prizing generalism over specialism. Greats is probably the most similar, History and Law close behind.

As an undergraduate, I went to two tutorials every week. The purpose of these 1:1 or 1:2 conversations with a tutor was to discuss an essay prepared over the last seven days. They were always a source of low-level dread for me, because I prefer to know what I’m talking about beforehand (I still suffer from this problem). For the first two years, I never felt confident as a trainee jack-of-all-trades going into intellectual battle with someone who was one of the country’s foremost experts on the topic in question. How could you be?

By the beginning of my third year my approach started to change. I had no more faith in my own ability, having ducked through a series of awkward but satisfactory tutorials. But I had finally convinced myself that nobody knew what they were talking about, not my peers, not the tutors, not the article writers. The clinching moment came when a coursemate of mine handed in essentially the same essay to a particularly flustered tutor two weeks running, polishing only the introduction and conclusion to something with rhetorical flourish. Week one was a 2:1. Week two was a first.

What the best of Oxford’s generalists were doing, it seemed to me, was following the quote above. But to "function" in their case meant the ability to construct an argument for one side, spice it up with originality or prejudice, and state it as confidently as possible. The content of the argument was pretty much irrelevant. Acknowledging the full sweep of possibilities while performing your own tune was what mattered.

Seeing all the shades of grey and picking the right shade for the times is still the essence of much political decision-making. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the only figure in that table to break this rule was also the only scientist.

"This level of homogeneity should worry anyone who is interested in positive reform"

So is the case for PPE being an Establishment training ground and finishing school overstated?

Yes, a bit. The political and official elite is drawn from a slightly wider pool of academic courses; History, Greats, Law and Economics mostly. It is much less satisfying for a storyteller to say that there are multiple golden tickets to the factory, but it’s the truth.

However, the pattern of learning rewarded by PPE — a pattern shared by the handful of other Oxbridge courses represented at the centre of the Cabinet table — is important in shaping the UK’s future decision makers when their political plasticity is greatest. The fact PPE covers "politics" as part of its content is far less important than those twice-weekly jousts between generalist and expert, itinerant and lifer, bluffer and inquisitor.

Even if you don’t buy the idea that undergraduate degrees have this much influence on future behaviour, this level of homogeneity should worry anyone who is interested in positive reform, from within or without. It is always difficult to avoid hiring or promoting in your own image. Fast Stream data analysed by the Institute for Government shows that Oxbridge candidates are still six times more likely to get the job than the average applicant.

It is really encouraging to see last week’s report published by the Cabinet Office taking a long, hard look at improving the diversity of backgrounds in the civil service Fast Stream. It is also good to hear Matt Hancock, minister for the Cabinet Office, being firm on diversity, and saying things are still “not good enough”.

Mr Hancock is well placed to judge, of course. He’s a PPE graduate too.

More on the civil service Fast Stream
Fast Stream to open assessment centres outside London in bid to tackle “unrepresentative” graduate intake
Civil service diversity: perm secs get “data driven and measurable” objectives for boosting Whitehall representation
Gus O’Donnell calls for an end to “stupid” fast stream rotation rule


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