Philosophy, politics and economics, or politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), is an interdisciplinary undergraduate or postgraduate degree which combines study from three disciplines. The first institution to offer degrees in PPE was the University of Oxford in the 1920s.
This particular course has produced a significant number of notable graduates such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese politician and State Counsellor of Myanmar, Nobel Peace Prize winner; Princess Haya bint Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan; Christopher Hitchens, the British–American author and journalist; Oscar winning writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Philippa Foot and Michael Dummett, British philosophers; Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and David Cameron, former Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom; Hugh Gaitskell, William Hague and Ed Miliband, former Leaders of the Opposition; former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto and current Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan; and Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Tony Abbott, former Prime Ministers of Australia. The course received fresh attention in 2017, when Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai earned a place.
In the 1980s, the University of York went on to establish its own PPE degree based upon the Oxford model; King's College London, the University of Warwick, the University of Manchester, and other British universities later followed. According to the BBC, the Oxford PPE "dominate[s] public life" (in the UK). It is now offered at several other leading colleges and universities around the world. More recently Warwick University and King’s College added a new degree under the name of PPL (Politics, Philosophy and Law) with the aim to bring an alternative to the more classical PPE degrees.
In the United States, it is offered by three Ivy League universities – the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University (under the designation Ethics, Politics and Economics), and Dartmouth College. In 2020, in addition to its undergraduate degree programs in PPE, Virginia Tech established one of the first research centers in the world dedicated to interdisciplinary research in PPE. Several PPE programmes exist in Canada, most notable the first endowed school in the nation - the Frank McKenna School of Philosophy, Politics & Economics at Mount Allison University. In Asia, Tsinghua University, NUS, Tel-Aviv University and Ashoka University are among those that have PPE or similar programs.
Philosophy, politics and economics was established as a degree course at the University of Oxford in the 1920s, as a modern alternative to classics (known as "literae humaniores" or "greats" at Oxford) because it was thought as a more modern alternative for those entering the civil service. It was thus initially known as "modern greats". The first PPE students commenced their course in the autumn of 1921. The regulation by which it was established is Statt. Tit. VI. Sect. 1 C; "the subject of the Honour School of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics shall be the study of the structure, and the philosophical and economic principles, of Modern Society." Initially it was compulsory to study all three subjects for all three years of the course, but in 1970 this requirement was relaxed, and since then students have been able to drop one subject after the first year – most do this, but a minority continue with all three.
During the 1960s some students started to critique the course from a left-wing perspective, culminating in the publication of a pamphlet, The Poverty of PPE, in 1968, written by Trevor Pateman, who argued that it "gives no training in scholarship, only refining to a high degree of perfection the ability to write short dilettantish essays on the basis of very little knowledge: ideal training for the social engineer". The pamphlet advocated incorporating the study of sociology, anthropology and art, and to take on the aim of "assist(ing) the radicalisation and mobilisation of political opinion outside the university". In response, some minor changes were made, with influential leftist writers such as Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray being added to politics reading lists, but the core of the programme remained the same.
Christopher Stray has pointed to the course as one reason for the gradual decline of the study of classics, as classicists in political life began to be edged out by those who had studied the modern greats.
Dario Castiglione and Iain Hampsher-Monk have described the course as being fundamental to the development of political thought in the UK, since it established a connection between politics and philosophy. Previously at Oxford, and for some time subsequently at Cambridge, politics had been taught only as a branch of modern history.
The programme is rooted in the view that to understand social phenomena one must approach them from several complementary disciplinary directions and analytical frameworks. In this regard, the study of philosophy is considered important because it both equips students with meta-tools such as the ability to reason rigorously and logically, and facilitates ethical reflection. The study of politics is considered necessary because it acquaints students with the institutions that govern society and help solve collective action problems. Finally, studying economics is seen as vital in the modern world because political decisions often concern economic matters, and government decisions are often influenced by economic events. The vast majority of students at Oxford drop one of the three subjects for the second and third years of their course. Oxford now has more than 600 undergraduates studying the subject, admitting over 200 each year.
Oxford PPE graduate Nick Cohen and former tutor Iain McLean consider the course's breadth important to its appeal, especially "because British society values generalists over specialists". Academic and Labour peer Maurice Glasman noted that "PPE combines the status of an elite university degree – PPE is the ultimate form of being good at school – with the stamp of a vocational course. It is perfect training for cabinet membership, and it gives you a view of life". However he also noted that it had an orientation towards consensus politics and technocracy.
Geoffrey Evans, an Oxford fellow in politics and a senior tutor, critiques that the Oxford course's success and consequent over-demand is a self-perpetuating feature of those in front of and behind the scenes in national administration, in stating "all in all, it's how the class system works". In the current economic system he bemoans the unavoidable inequalities besetting admissions and thereby enviable recruitment prospects of successful graduates. The argument itself intended as a paternalistic ethical reflection on how governments and peoples can perpetuate social stratification.
Stewart Wood, a former adviser to Ed Miliband who studied PPE at Oxford in the 1980s and taught politics there in the 1990s and 2000s, acknowledged that the programme has been slow to catch up with contemporary political developments, saying that "it does still feel like a course for people who are going to run the Raj in 1936... In the politics part of PPE, you can go three years without discussing a single contemporary public policy issue". He also stated that the structure of the course gave it a centrist bias, due to the range of material covered: "...most students think, mistakenly, that the only way to do it justice is to take a centre position".