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Why can’t you learn practical politics at university?

Almost every university runs courses in skills and knowledge to compete in the market – accounting, advertising, business studies, marketing and more. Business schools are not afraid to teach people how to “make a difference in the world” through enterprise, to quote Harvard. The best business schools use case studies, real life problems and placements to develop abilities to “change the world”. Universities have commercial units to help academics take research findings to market. They play a powerful part in starting new business , competing with established companies, disrupting industries and transforming societies.

But you’re often on your own if research has social rather than commercial impact and you want to learn how to influence policy for the common good rather than make money in the market.

Practical politics coverMy forthcoming book on Practical Politics: lessons in power and democracy aims to change this, by making the case for teaching practical politics. It sets out the policy drivers and examples of existing provision, together with a curriculum framework and a way of developing political skill in any subject. Aristotle described politics as the ‘master subject’ because it sets priorities for everything else and aims for ‘the highest of all goods achievable’.

Political ability is more for the well-being of society than business, since politics set the frameworks which govern business. But most politics courses treat the subject as an academic discipline, not as a practical necessity. They focus on knowledge and ideas rather than strategy and skills.

What’s stopping universities from teaching practical politics?

You might think there is a conspiracy to stop people from learning practical politics, but the real reasons are more mundane:

  1. Lack of demand: quite simply,  few people ask for courses in practical politics, because they don’t think it is available.
  2. Academic bias: higher education tends to look down on practical learning. It is much safer to write essays about political problems than learn how to do something about them.
  3. Lack of teachers: practical politics needs to be taught by successful campaigners who can do it and share their skills as well as experience, knowledge, skills and contacts.
  4. Fear: Education authorities may be afraid that teaching practical politics means getting involved in controversy and conflict, threatening their position as independent, unbiased centres of learning.

But all of this is changing, particularly in the United States. The Campus Compact was founded in 1985 to promote the civic purposes of higher education and ‘renew our role as agents of our democracy’. It has a membership of 1,200 colleges that link academic courses to community service learning. The American Democracy Project (ADP) includes some 250 public colleges to reach more than one and a half million students. Its Political Engagement Project aims to develop political efficacy and ‘prepare students to become informed, engaged, and active citizens’.

Creating demand for education in practical politics

Demand could be the biggest factor holding back the growth of education in practical politics: if students asked for courses in practical politics, universities would provide them. A growing number of universities run courses in public affairs, policy and government at a high level, and a few offer opportunities to learn skills of advocacy, campaigning, organising and negotiating for everyday politics.

The place of practical wisdom in universities

Universities have always taught vocational professions such as the priesthood, law and medicine, then engineering, teaching, architecture, business and other practical subjects. The growing demand for vocational subjects such as accounting, advertising, computing, law, management, marketing and technology is already shifting the emphasis to practical learning. Degree-level apprenticeships offer more cost-effective routes to higher education. Practical politics is a natural addition for higher education in democratic societies.

Why universities need to teach practical politics

As the pinnacle of education systems, universities influence learning across society. They educate people who will take leadership roles in business, politics, public service and all areas of education. More than half of all young adults in the west are expected to enter university-level education. This gives leaders in higher education a special responsibility for the education and welfare of humanity.

A growing number of jobs in business, the media, non-profits and public service need political skills as well as professional knowledge. The ability to analyse problems and devise solutions is not enough. Organizations want impact by influencing others. Adding political skills to almost any course will increase job prospects for its graduates. Political skills are also necessary to improve the impact of research.

In this context practical politics is a natural subject for higher education. Almost every course would benefit from greater understanding of the political context and power structures which affect the subject, as well as the skills of advocacy and influencing. Universities will need to recruit experienced campaigners to develop courses; develop partnerships with pressure groups, civil society networks and legislatures to provide opportunities for practical experience; and an ethical framework to ensure that practical politics does not become indoctrination into one political cause.

Learn more

Download a free copy of the first chapter from

Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy, will be published in the autumn by Trentham/Institute of Education Press.

Copies can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Academics can get an inspection copy from the publisher here.

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