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Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary
Professor Jacqui Briggs was a good friend and colleague, whose tragically early death in July 2018 curtailed her already significant contribution to politics teaching in the UK. It is therefore an honour marred by sadness that my article, “Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary” has been awarded the Jacqui Briggs Prize for the Best Article on Learning and Teaching published in Politics between 2018-2019.
The article makes a case for teaching applied politics at university level. It argues further that to see applied politics as merely about employability is to do a disservice to the nature of politics as a world-forming enterprise.
On the same day that I received news of my prize, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, delivered a speech in which he said that we can no longer:
"persist in the view that university is the silver bullet for everyone and everything. The revolution and need for change is long overdue. Education’s purpose is to unlock an individual’s potential so they can get the job and career that they crave."
That quote from Williamson unwittingly provides a set-up for my article. Let’s pick out, in reverse order, three elements: getting a job, unlocking individual potential, and that most un-conservative of notions, revolutionary change.
- Getting a job. Teaching applied politics ticks the employability box. Longitudinal surveys show that UK students go to university to enhance their job prospects, to study what they enjoy, and to realise their potential. They typically graduate bearing tens of thousands of pounds of debt. In the words of Wyman and Longwell, for politics degrees to not engage with employability ‘represents an abdication of the subject community’s responsibilities to its students’. Having taught applied politics at two UK universities, I can testify to its popularity with students. That modules with an employability focus are also popular with parents, university management, and government ministers should not be held against them.
- Unlocking individual potential. The title of Max Weber’s lecture ‘Politik als Beruf’ can be translated ‘politics as a profession’ or ‘politics as a calling’. Applied politics can be taught with sufficient normative and curricular breadth to cover both profession (employability) and calling. Starting from the identification of students’ values then facilitates exploration of different modes of political practice. Some do their politics climbing the career ladder, some climbing a cooling tower banner in hand. Activism, volunteering, campaigning, the sometimes decades long path into parliament – there is more to applying politics than paid employment.
- Revolutionary change. Politics students learn about critical thinking, socio-political structures, and competing ideologies. Whilst some might seek an individual solution to student debt in a well remunerated career, the applied politics of others would pursue deeper and wider solutions, changing the system that forced the debt upon them.
Teaching applied politics to make space for both activist and careerist is possible. We all embody a mix of ambitions and ideals, obligations and norms, abilities and opportunities. Politics students can strive both to get a good job and to change the world.
Dr Edwin Bacon is the Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln and the winner of the 2019 Jacqui Briggs Prize for the Best Article on Learning and Teaching published in Politics between 2018-2019. Ideas in this blog post first appeared in the article, Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary published in the PSA's journal Politics. Image credit: University of Hull/Flickr.