Birkbeck politics

More than ever universities and students are framing their degrees in terms of future prospects rather than present knowledge. This partly explains a renewed interest in teaching applied politics on degree programmes, including the Practice of Politics module taught in the Birkbeck Politics Department. But applied politics needs to be taught in a deeper and more critical way than simply focusing on employability allows.

‘So, you’re doing a politics degree? Do you want to be a politician then? Perhaps we’ll see you as Prime Minister in 20 years time’.

I would hazard that this and similar conversational gambits have been heard by the vast majority of students studying politics today. The assumptions coming together in such conversation underpin my article Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary published in the journal Politics. They are also to be addressed in a keynote session at the 10th Annual Political Studies Association/British International Studies Association Teaching and Learning Conference for Politics taking place at the University of Lincoln in September 2017.

An assumption that the friends and families of politics students, and indeed many students themselves, often make is that a politics degree is vocational. In the sense of a vocation as a calling, studying politics surely is vocational. But in the narrow sense of providing a qualification for a profession, a BA in Politics is not a licence to practise. Indeed, more than that, modules on how to practise politics remain comparatively rare on the syllabi of UK politics degrees. Where they do exist, such modules often tend towards an emphasis on placements, which by definition have a specific focus rather than a wider view opening up the many ways in which people engage in the practice of politics.

Politics placements and the few applied politics modules that do exist are valued by students. They are also appreciated by universities and the state because they tick the employability box. We live in an age where higher education policy —and importantly, funding— is framed in terms of ‘graduate destination’, getting a job, and paying off the tens of thousands of pounds of debt that the state now obliges students to take on in return for getting educated. If universities teach politics from this perspective, the Chancellor of the Exchequer smiles and university marketing departments have a spring in their steps as they rush to brand their institution a ‘Top Twenty university for employability’ or something similar.

But how many politics students, or even politics lecturers, took on their current roles in order to brighten the life of Philip Hammond and boost the notion of a university as a corporate brand? What happened to changing the world and bucking the system?

A recent survey asked young people in the UK to identify their most pressing political issues; top of the list came concerns over education and employment, particularly fees and debt. If the immediate solution for a few individual students is high remuneration after graduation, then an employment-focused module addresses that need. But politics students are learning too about political theories, competing ideologies, the nature of power, anti-politics, and so on. Applying such deeper critical analysis, they might contend that a more profound and longer-term solution for all students perhaps lies in political change and contestation rather than acceptance of the world as it is?

Instead of ‘doing employability’ to get a job and start the life-long process of paying off debt, politics students might argue that a better response to anxiety over their future financial insecurity arises from questioning the very nature of today’s political norms. They might query the dominant discourse that opts for marketised solutions to policy challenges, the monetisation of public goods, a precarious labour market, the encouragement of personal debt, and so on.

In other words, teaching applied politics should not be the same as offering an employability module. It must include consideration of future careers, but it also ought to range far wider. Applied politics teaching meets student needs when it caters for both the careerist and the activist; for those who do their politics in suits climbing the ladder to Westminster and Whitehall, and for those who do their politics in a harness and hard-hat climbing the outside of a cooling tower in an ecological protest.

The article Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary draws on many years of experience teaching applied politics to develop these and related questions. It argues that applied politics merits a central place in the politics curriculum, and that it requires an approach that puts students’ own motivations, skills, and values first. Applied politics modules work best when they facilitate students’ own ideas about how and where they want to apply their politics. We need to move beyond a pedagogy of information towards a pedagogy of formation and transformation.

Edwin Bacon is Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck

Johnmcdonnellmp

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the politics department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.

In answering to Dermot Hodson’s questioning on political economy issues, he discusses the U-turn over George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter in terms of the time pressures of taking office and the urgency of repositioning Labour as the party of anti-austerity in spite of short-term costs to economic credibility. In answer to Hodson’s question about the EU referendum, McDonnell said that Labour would be entering the Brexit debate on its own terms, including through cooperation with other parties on the European left. When asked by Ben Worthy inspirational figures he name checked, unsurprisingly, the great 1940s Labour reformer Clement Attlee but, less expectedly, the artful balancer of the 1960s and 1970s Harold Wilson. He was less convinced when Alex Colas asked him for his most admired Conservative leader. He argued that, amid the political ‘insurgencies’ of Left and Right the rules of political leadership had now changed.

There were then searching crowd-sourced audience questions on a whole range of topics, from whether Labour could build a winning electoral coalition to dealing with rebels, press regulation and sacrificing principles for power. He argued that a winning coalition did exist among the majority of anti-conservative voters if the message was right, but felt the first round of elections in Scotland, London and local government in May 2016 may be tough. Party rebels [which McDonnell and Corbyn used to be] would face a barrage of ‘tea and sympathy’ and the public would be reached not through the main stream press but on the stump and through social media. He suggested more change was coming, supporting a PR elected House of Lords of the regions and initiatives around national savings bank and a series of gender based policy reviews.

John McDonnell was an MSc. student at Birkbeck between 1978 and 1981 under the great Bernard Crick, before entering politics and becoming Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and standing for Parliament in 1997. Studying politics at Birkbeck had given him a rounded, deeper understanding of politics and, he said, a fear of essay deadlines.

To hear more listen to the podcast here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/in-conversation-with-john-mcdonnell/

weblogo220x68.gifweblogo220x68.gif bbeck

The Department of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London ranked 12th in Britain in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) for 4* research – considered ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour – just beneath University of Cambridge. This places it within the top quarter of research-active Politics departments, higher if we include the many institutions that did not enter the REF. It also ranks 12th overall in 4* outputs, 17th overall for Grade Point Average. This confirms Birkbeck’s status as a top tier Politics department within the UK, and the world.

We’ll be posting and tweeting some of our research highlights over the next few days…