You might have heard of PPE at Oxford already – it’s the “degree that runs Britain”, with countless politicians going through the degree. But what actually is the degree, and why should you do it?
What is PPE?
PPE: Philosophy, Politics and Economics is a diverse course, giving you the opportunity to cover three broad and closely interlinked subjects. In your first year you study all three disciplines, then you can either continue with all three (the tripartite option) in later years, or choose to specialise in two (the bipartite option).
It is a great course if you are looking for diversity, and the opportunity to dabble in lots of different subjects. It is also extremely current, with current affairs always impacting politics and the economy. Furthermore, the philosophy will allow you to address politics from a different angle, addressing how philosophical theories can be applied to politics.
What do I need to get in for PPE?
The usual offer for PPE at Oxford is AAA, and there are no compulsory prerequisite A-Levels, although Maths and History are both recommended. A good grasp of Maths is essential to the economics element of the course, although all of the A-Level Maths content will be covered at the beginning of first year. Of those who apply to study PPE, just under 1 in 8 candidates are successful in securing a place.
First year PPE modules
Here is a breakdown of the first year PPE course, so you can get a feel for what you would be studying:
Theory of Politics
This course gives you a background into the essential parts of politics. The course will be structured so that you write an essay on a topic, and then have a tutorial following on from the essay. The course will be divided into two parts: political thinkers and core topics in politics. Examples of political thinkers you will cover are Locke, Marx or Rousseau, and an example essay question is “In what sense are citizens free in Rousseau’s state.” The other half of the course will focus on political concepts, such as power, democracy or liberty, and an example essay question is “What is the point of democracy?”
The Practice of Politics
This course is also split into two different themes: comparative politics and the more sociological side of politics.
- Comparative Politics: This focuses on comparing different democratic systems, for example looking at how party systems affect a democracy. Furthermore, you explore different definitions of democracy, and how different states achieve this.
- Sociological side of Politics: This element of the course explores social movement and the history of politics, for example revolutions is a topic, and state strengths another.
This is the slightly more mathematical side of Politics. You use Rstudio (a programming tool) to do statistical analysis on a large data set. The data set you are given contains about 6 democracies, and then you are assigned a couple of different essay questions, one of which you write an extended essay in response to, using your statistical evidence, gathered from your work on RStudio. This course is taught through lab sessions, where you get to know RStudio. An example of a question you may have to answer is “Do consensus democracies have better economic outcomes than majoritarian?” The focus of this course is using large data sets to support an argument, so now you know where the large data set topic at A-Level is useful!
This course explores Utilitarianism, specifically focusing on JS Mill’s influential text. Each week you will study a different element, such as hedonism, or comparing Mills’ hedonism to Benson’s. You also will look at rule utiliitrianism, and act utilitarianism.
- Utilitarianism: This is a branch of ethical theories that promotes actions that maximise the happiness of the majority of the population.
- Rule Utilitarianism: This is the strand of utilitarianism where you make a general rule about acts which promotes the general happiness of everyone, instead of calculating whether each act will cause happiness.
- Act Utilitarianism: This branch promotes that every single act should try to induce general happiness. You think of the consequences of every act, each act must promote the most possible happiness.
General Philosophy: This course gives you an overall introduction into key philosophers and topics. You study a wide range of topics such as knowledge, God and evil, and personal identity. You also read key works of Descartes, Locke and Hume, meaning you have a wide understanding of the foundations of philosophy. An example essay question you may have general philosophy is “What does it take for something to be knowledge, and not just a justified true belief?”
This is the more mathematical part of the philosophy course. You learn a logical language, called L1, where you can formalise arguments to work out their validity. You learn how to construct truth tables, and natural deduction proofs, and also the philosophical issues with translating English into the language of L1. This is taught through lectures, and then problem sheets which correspond to the lectures. You then have classes going through the answers. The set text for this course is Halbach’s The Logic Manual.
Microeconomics is taught in lectures in the first term, and weekly assignments are problem sheets. It’s about firms, individuals, markets and market failures (supply and demand graphs, monopolies, competitive markets, consumer choice and game theory are all key topics in this course). In your first year, microeconomics involves a lot more maths than macroeconomics. Here is an example question from a microeconomics problem sheet:
Draw in a graph the effect on the demand curve, the supply curve, the equilibrium price and quantity for the following events, in the market for a cup of coffee:
- The cost of coffee beans increases;
- Caffeine is shown to have some new positive health effect.
Macroeconomics is taught in lectures in the second term, and the weekly assignments are also problem sheets. It’s about the country’s economy as a whole, so economic growth, trade, unemployment, inflation, money and currency. You learn about economic shocks, the Euro crisis, and the 2008 financial crisis, and models of what drives economic growth. It can be quite political. On a macroeconomics problem sheet you will get some questions that centre around manipulating data and using equations, and others that are more essay based, where you are presented with a question and you must argue both sides-using the reading you have done.
Mathematical techniques used in Economics
This is more of an independent study module, it is completed through a workbook that every economics student is given. Most of the Maths covered is of A-Level standard, so it is not too taxing if you already have a Maths A-Level. There are also supplementary lectures to accompany the workbook, for those students who have not studied Maths A-Level. As well as the content of Maths A-Level, you will also study some new areas, such as optimisation. Optimisation is about maximising and minimising functions of more than one variable, to work out the optimal conditions to produce a product in for example.
Day in the Life
For an idea of what studying PPE is really like, here’s a day in the life of Leah, a first year PPE student at Oxford:
9.00 Wake up and have some breakfast, fill in gaps in yesterday’s lecture notes from slides
9.50 Leave college with other PPEists to walk to Exam Schools for 10am politics
10.05 Politics lecture on Rousseau’s The Social Contract
11.05 Microeconomics lecture on firms and production
12.05 General Philosophy lecture on Cartesian scepticism
1.00 Go back to college for lunch in hall
2.00 Go to the library to read and make notes on philosophy articles
5.00 Go to sports training/drama/music rehearsal
6.00 Have dinner in college
7.00 Return to library, plan philosophy essay
9.00 Go to debating event/ speaker event, and go out afterwards or go to bed
How heavy is the workload?
The workload each week will vary during your PPE degree. You can have anything between 1 essay every 2 weeks and 2 essays every week, depending on what modules you are doing at the time. There are 10 hours of lectures a week, but most people don’t go to all of them, as sometimes they are repeats and don’t always correspond to the essays that your tutors are setting. You have 2 or 3 tutorials a week, in college, with small groups, usually just 2 of you. There are also maths classes, logic classes and RStudio classes throughout the year on and off.
PPE is a broad, fascinating degree, which covers a huge amount of ground. If you’re interested, take a look at our Economics reading list, or our Philosophy reading list, to begin exploring two-thirds of the degree – but don’t forget about Politics!