FOR many, their younger years are defined by regret. Some spent their teens and twenties in a drunken haze. Others are ashamed of a criminal conviction. Some became parents prematurely. What keeps me awake at night is that I studied politics at university. If you’re a prospective politics student, I’m writing to plead with you. Please don’t pursue this path.
It was the summer of 2017. The sun was shining, the economy was booming and I’d just graduated from Warwick with a politics degree. Armed with 3A*s and 2As at A-Level and a diverse portfolio of internships and extracurriculars, I was ready to take on the world.
I applied for hundreds of entry-level jobs to no avail. With maxed-out credit cards and no more student loan, I was struggling to survive. Desperation drove me to apply to the one place I never wanted to work – a school. Being a teaching assistant at a South London comprehensive was exactly what I expected: soul-destroying. It was less teaching assistant, more riot control. The eight hours of torture there and the two-hour train journey was exhausting. I still needed more money. At weekends, I tutored special needs students in English. Whenever the work was available (usually at night), I’d door-knock for London councils, conducting surveys on estates. My safety was often in jeopardy.
My three jobs, seven days a week, with no free time for friends or family, felt like a long road to nowhere. Eight miserable months and hundreds more applications later, I finally landed my dream job – lobbying. It looked like the light at the end of the tunnel. It turned out to be a train heading towards me.
American movies portray lobbyists wining and dining politicians on board private jets, secretly shaping the agenda. The reality couldn’t be less glamorous. I represented corner shop owners, pressuring politicians to do less about reducing plastic waste. Apparently recycling facilities take up too much space in small shops. It was less parliamentary politics, more office politics. My mentor ‘accidentally’ spilt coffee all over my keyboard just as I had to submit something urgently. My boss perpetually piled work on me. I’d work endlessly into the early hours. Counting overtime, I was earning less than £10 an hour – not much more than the minimum wage I was campaigning against raising as part of my job.
In America, liberalised campaign finance laws make or break elections, so lobbying is lucrative. In Britain, industry’s voice in shaping legislation is drowned out by experts, charities and public health organisations. Public affairs professionals peak at £33k. Big business trade associations, representing the interests and incomes of millionaires and billionaires, have starting salaries at £17-19k.
It’s not only me. The course of your life in the labour market is determined more by the subject you choose to study at university at 18 than even family wealth. Studying politics statistically increases your likelihood of a lifetime of low earnings and poor prospects. According to government data, after languages and classics, politics is the least likely degree to result in a job. One year after graduation, 82.7 per cent of politics graduates were in sustained employment or education. This is pitiful compared with medicine/dentistry (97.5 per cent), nursing (95.2 per cent) and education/teaching (91.7 per cent).
A politics degree is like a criminal record: redemption is difficult. Ordinarily, every A grade achieved at A-Level raises earnings by 3 per cent. Someone with high prior attainment who studies computer science can earn £30k more than their peer who studied the same subject. For economics and law, great grades at school can result in graduates earning three times more. For social studies degrees, it often makes next to no difference.
What about Russell Group graduates? Usually their incomes are 10-13 per cent higher (40 per cent after five years). However a top-tier institution alone doesn’t insure against low earnings. A politics graduate from Warwick (one of Britain’s best universities) earns only 2.3 per cent more than a politics graduate from Westminster (one of the worst).
The value of education can’t be reduced to raw employment and earnings data. There are reasons you shouldn’t study politics which matter more than the money you won’t earn. In your twenties, your brain is believed to undertake its second (and final) growth spurt. University makes and shapes who you are. The time you can devote purely to pursuing knowledge is something you’ll never get again. Don’t waste it studying something that doesn’t teach you tangible skills. You won’t learn speech writing or campaign management. You won’t learn the impact of political developments on company strategy and shares. You’ll waste your formative years, reading and regurgitating academic journals in essays and exams. You’ll pay over £9,000 a year for eight to ten hours of teaching a week, and reading books and articles you could have read at the public library for nothing.
A degree should be a specialism – politics isn’t. It’s a broad, borderless area, ranging from religion to economic policy to environment. It’s an undisciplined discipline which tries to piece together parts of everything, leaving you feeling as if you haven’t learnt anything. Your opinions are no more valuable than anyone else’s. To suggest they are is pure arrogance and elitism. Anyone who reads or watches news, pays taxes or votes is a politics student. If you formally study the subject but ever lose a political argument (and you will) you’ll feel your entire existence is invalidated.
The pointlessness of a course in politics is best reflected by how few politicians have studied it. Of 45 US presidents, only two (Kennedy and Obama) were politics undergraduates. Not a single British prime minister ever studied pure politics. Thatcher studied chemistry, Blair studied law, Johnson studied classics. Politics as an academic discipline is totally unnecessary but simply something one learns as part of life.
Of course you’ll find politics graduates who occupy top-tier posts but they’re the exceptions, not the rule. If you want to reach for the stars, look at medicine, STEM, economics or law. If you’re not money-minded, study literally anything – just not politics. A dance degree is more meaningful because it’s a skill not many people have, but everyone has a political opinion. Ultimately, any degree is a gamble but why would you hedge your bets when almost half (47 per cent) of politics, history and geography graduates later express regrets?
By now you will be asking why on earth I chose politics. Quite simply, at 18 I was young and dumb and my thoughts about the future lacked focus. Sixth-form teachers told us that higher education was less about making money but more about self-discovery. They ranted that university should be free but at the same time told us not to worry about the fees. As well as these mixed messages, when I made my choice in 2013 the research showing the profound impact of subject studied on lifetime outcomes was yet to be released. There is now no such excuse.