If young people really are uninterested in politics, they have a funny way of showing it. The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show applications to read politics at university in 2003 are up by 14 per cent on last year, against an average of 4.2 per cent against all subjects and well ahead of other social sciences such as economics (3.8 per cent) and sociology (2.6 per cent).
Those numbers confirm the perceptions of Wyn Grant, the new chairman of the Political Studies Association. Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, says: "The number who are strongly interested in politics, our target audience, has not declined very much."
Like a newspaper's circulation or a television show's ratings, applications matter to an academic discipline - they're not the whole story, but they are the key market indicator and improvements are good for security, confidence and faith in the future. Where predecessors back in the 1980s feared for their discipline's future and wondered how all the 1960s appointees would be replaced on retirement, Grant can say that political studies is "in broadly good health".
He adds: "Where there are problems they are those general to academic life - morale, the impact of quality assessment, the requirements of working in a modern university - rather than ones specific to politics."
Grant sees a discipline that was successfully renewed in the 1990s and experienced "a great deal of organic growth. The average age of students has been reduced sharply", with buoyant demand at undergraduate and postgraduate level. "There is a greater range of courses than ever, and a wider demand."
Students who are "much more focused on getting a good degree and aware of what that takes" are showing increased interest in several aspects of the discipline. He notes: "There has been a considerable revival of interest in political theory with the debate on intergenerational justice taking off in a big way. Democratisation, north-south issues and the European Union are all areas of growth, while Latin America and East Asian studies are much stronger than they were."
That buoyancy is reflected in the PSA's own fortunes. Membership is 1,250, up by a third since December 1999. Annual income (£291,000) and expenditure (£220,000) both rose roughly sevenfold in the decade to 2001 and are projected to grow to £370,000 and £350,000 respectively in 2003. Submission pressure on the quarterly PSA academic journal Political Studies is such that it is to be supplemented from January by the triannual Political Studies Review .
Most PSA chairmen were leading executive members before starting their three-year term of office. Grant was not, although he was treasurer in the 1970s. He says: "There are some advantages. You can take a fresh look at things."
That fresh look incorporates a reorganisation of grants and awards, brought under a single committee chaired by Terrell Carver, and an emphasis on the problems of contract researchers. "We've introduced a lower subscription rate, which will hopefully encourage them to become members, identify who they are and how many there are of them, and help in addressing their problems."
He also wants to see more work on promoting the study of politics in schools - where AS levels offer a new opportunity and greater awareness of the PSA's work. A start was made this year by the hiring of Ivor Gaber, emeritus professor of journalism at Goldsmiths College, London, as media relations adviser. One of his tasks is to promote the PSA's annual conference. It has never received the coverage an event convening several hundred specialists in a subject of media interest might expect. Gaber is confident, though. In three years he hopes for a transformation.
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