Political Studies Association: Applying to Study Politics at a British University

The PSA is holding a series of events for students thinking about studying politics and/ or international relations at University.  The notes on my talk on ‘Selecting the right course and institution’ (at the University of Edinburgh, 20th June) are copy and pasted below.  Note the potentially interesting difference in the advice given to students in Scotland:

“Paul Cairney, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen paul.cairney@abdn.ac.uk

Political Studies Association Workshop on Applying to Study Politics at a British University

Things to think about when selecting a University course in Politics and/ or International Relations

How far should I go?

• Most calculations might be in this order: how much will it cost? Should I stay at home? Will I make new friends? How will it affect my grades? How will it affect my learning?

• Beyond Scotland – to the rest of the UK? Most students in Scotland will not go to the rest of the UK because it will cost them an extra £27000 in fees. This is a reasonable calculation to make, although it would be worth being sure that you know how such fees would be paid back. Some of you may be in the position to see this as an investment in your future rather than a weight around your neck.

• Beyond Scotland – to the rest of Europe? Since the UK is an EU member state, its citizens can go to another EU university and pay the same fees as domestic students. The main obstacle is the language barrier. Few universities will teach undergraduate students in English (postgraduate studies are different) and it is not a good idea to learn a new language when learning a new subject (in my opinion, it is better to have this experience as part of an exchange programme where they teach courses in English).

• Beyond home? There may be a basic trade-off between the costs and benefits of moving away. The costs of living away from home are generally financial and occasionally social. The cost of staying at home can (but may not necessarily) be a relative inability to adapt to University life, since local students often have less of an incentive to form new social networks at University (since they always have the option of their friends and family at home). This may often be a factor in University performance – being engaged and content generally helps people learn.

What is the right institution?

• What are the practical implications of University snobbery? People will always have their own biases about the general quality of particular institutions. Perhaps the main bias to consider is that of employers – will they rate every degree in the same way? The answer is ‘probably not’ but individual employers (and their employees) are difficult to predict.

• What are the key sources of University selection snobbery? The obvious distinction is between Oxford/ Cambridge and the rest, followed by the ‘Russell Group’ (which includes Edinburgh and Glasgow) and the distinction between ‘pre-1992’ (such as Napier, Heriott Watt, GCU, RGU) and ‘post-1992’ universities (such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen).

• Note the (often large) difference between the status of the University as a whole and the status of individual departments. For example, the University of Essex has one of the highest status political science departments. Strathclyde was once the highest status department in Scotland.

• Note the difference between a department noted for its research excellence and its teaching excellence.

How can we analyse the ‘league tables’?

• Rule of thumb for academics: we don’t rate the tables but we use them if they make us look good

• Rule of thumb overall: Universities are now chasing these tables – are they getting better scores and becoming better Universities?

• Most important league table for academics: the Research Excellence Framework (as a source of prestige and funding)

• Most important league table for students: National Student Survey?

• What do the composite league tables measure?

• Complete University Guide – ‘entry standards’, ‘student satisfaction’, ‘research assessment’, ‘graduate prospects’

• Guardian – NSS, ‘Expenditure per student’, ‘Staff student ratio’, ‘value added score’, ‘entry tariff’

• Times – also includes completion rates and grades achieved

• Times Higher Education (THE) – (1) reputation (2) ‘teaching’, ‘research’, ‘citations’, ‘industry income’, ‘international outlook’ (3) factors such as sports facilities and student unions

• Note 1: handle with care

• Note 2: find subject specific scores

• Note 3: what do you care about most?

What other sources of information are there?

• Prospectus

• Website (University and department)

• Staff pages, blogs and other social media?

• Open days and applicant days

• Liaison visits

• PSA guide?

• Student associations

The important details

• 3 or 4 years?

• Liberal arts or specialise from the start? Or breadth versus depth?

• Mix of compulsory options and course choices?

• What course options interest you?

• Can you be confident that they will exist by the time you get there?

• Research led teaching? What does it mean?

• Do the Professors teach the undergraduates? If so, how much and when? How can you find out? Should you want the Professors?!

• How do they assess your work?

• How do they encourage learning? How do you learn?

• Campus or not?

• City or town?

• Easy to get around or easy to get back? Compare Aberystwyth with (say) Edinburgh.”

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