Global upheavals have made politics popular and the UK is now a world leader in research. Alan Thomson reports
Iraq, terrorism, asylum, globalisation, healthcare, transport, top-up fees - you name it, the government is under fire in just about every area. But what is bad news for government is great news for university politics departments.
Applications were up 6.6 per cent this year for politics and government courses. This is on top of a rise of 15.4 per cent the year before. The rise can be traced to 9/11 and the start of the war against terror. The introduction of university tuition fees has also played its part in politicising young people, the experts say.
Research is also buoyant, with the UK consolidating its position as second only to the US in terms of academic output. The subject did well in the 2001 research assessment exercise and has managed to retain and even enhance its reputation as a serious subject at a time when some "softer" social science subjects have found themselves unfairly dubbed "Mickey Mouse".
By definition, politics and government courses and the students who study them are at the mercy of external events. Consider those who took courses in comparative communist states as part of their degrees in the mid-1980s.
In 1989 such knowledge ceased being political and, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, became largely historical almost overnight. Comparative communist states courses had to be rethought rapidly.
Fortunately for the subject, when radical things happen - usually meaning when things go wrong for governments - there is an upsurge in political interest and in the numbers of people who want to study the subject academically. And things inevitably go wrong for governments.
The worst-case scenario for recruitment to politics seems to be when nothing much happens politically. The recent rise in the number of applications followed a dip that stretched back to the mid-1990s. Some academics equate this with the fall of Margaret Thatcher, never a dull politician, in 1990 and her replacement by the less charismatic John Major.
Add to this the fact that the Conservative Party had, by the mid-1990s, become jaded after holding power since 1979 and there is a recipe for apathy. At such times, politics can be perceived as boring, irrelevant, debased and simply not worth studying.
Todd Landman, a senior lecturer in Essex University's government department and co-director of the institution's Human Rights Centre, said: "Within the UK in the mid-90s there was a bit of burn-out, and with Labour's election in 1997, there was a lot of energy released - students were energised. 9/11 changed everything. It was something that said there is a bigger world out there and it is not doing so well. I think this hit home to students already worried about globalisation, politics in the third world and democracy at home.
"I think this has been galvanised recently in the run-up to the war. We have not seen that number of people on the streets before. Students may be again becoming interested in institutional politics as well as extra-institutional politics."
According to Justin Fisher, a senior lecturer in political science at Brunel University and chairman of the Political Studies Association's education and research sub-committee: "Extreme politicians are good for recruitment. Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s were extremely good for recruitment, and the most recent events of 9/11 cannot be overlooked.
"I also think that some of the steps the government has taken have made things more relevant to students, like devolution and, of course, tuition fees. These make students potentially more interested in studying politics."
Other social and cultural changes in society have also played a role in the steady growth in the popularity of politics as a subject, said Matthew Watson, senior lecturer in political economy at Birmingham University.
"Live Aid in 1985 had a massive politicising effect. It took politics away from mundane party politics and provided a hook on which young people could focus their energies," he said.
"Young people may also be political in a different way now. There is almost a reluctance of people involved in clearly political events like anti-war and anti-globalisation protests to identify themselves as politically motivated and charged.
"Many of our students doing a political science degree say they are not really interested in politics, by which they mean that party politics does not hold much attraction for them. But these people are clearly political."
Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a shift away from the study of politics as the analysis of nations and their political structures and systems towards looking at issues such as the politics of globalisation and international relations. These are supranational topics but they fit better than national politics into today's global structures and, conveniently, with what young people wish to study.
The University of Wales, Aberystwyth, boasts the world's first department of international politics, established in 1919. In recent years, its student growth has been startling. Ken Booth was set an undergraduate intake target of 95 students when he took over as head of the department in 1999. This year, the department signed up 185 first-years.
Professor Booth said: "I think the idea that students are not interested in politics needs to be broken up. They are not necessarily interested in what happens in the parish hall in Westminster but are interested in things like race and poverty and that translates into global issues."
The pressures on politics courses and research to adapt to world developments is intense. Dr Fisher described it as studying a subject in "real time".
He said: "The excitement of it is taking theories and applying them in real time. Departments are increasingly doing applied work for government and government agencies. There has been far more consultation of experts and evidenced-based policy since the late 1990s."
Contracts from bodies such as the Electoral Commission and large projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council have given a boost to research.
Yet despite a good performance in the 2001 RAE, many departments rated 4 will be hit by a real-terms cut in funding over the next three years.
Some departments have tried to bolster their income by starting and expanding the number of premium-fee masters courses, recruiting from the corporate sector and from overseas. But often the more prestigious Russell Group universities do better here rather than the sometimes lower-rated, cash-strapped politics departments in newer universities.
Nonetheless, political science research overall is in rude health, though not without its internal debates. One of the main debates continues to focus on quantitative versus qualitative political science. Academics tend to favour one approach or the other.
Dr Landman said: "For instance, if one were interested in the relationship between democracy and economic development, a quantitative approach might generate a gross domestic product and democracy table and run a correlation analysis. This has been done since the 1950s.
"Qualitative people come along and say something like 'how did you categorise your democracies? And you are not telling us how development leads to democracy'. I think the cleverer political scientists look for a synthesis."
Dr Fisher said: "Economics has been particularly influential on politics, but it depends on which side of the fence you sit on whether you think it is a good or a bad influence. I think it is fair to say that some people resent the influence of econometrics. I think it has been very good in terms of the quantitative influence."
Dr Watson said that the debate went as far as academics rethinking what politics is actually about.
He said: "We are talking about how politics fits in with the wider social science framework, its links with sociology, economics and history, for example. There is some quite lively debate about the parameters of politics."
Professor Booth said that at least one debate was settling down in the field of international relations. It focused on the methodological differences between the so-called realists (who took the view that politics is about states, the military, power, violence); the postmodernists (for whom representation and language was all) and the critical theorists (for whom economics and material factors are key to understanding international politics).
He said: "The realists have been saying to a great extent since 9/11 that they are right - the world is nasty, brutish and short. I think the group that has lost out, because they were a fashion in the 1990s, are the postmodernists."
World events have driven political scientists to take a more internationally comparative and less state-centric approach to their subject: where once politics placed a significant emphasis on studying the political structures within a given country, there is now more interest in transnational issues, international relations and in non-governmental organisations and their impact.
The fact that the subject happens in "real time", as Dr Fisher described it, means that political events affect student demand for courses. The subject is fortunate, therefore, that research interests and course development tends to fit well with the sort of courses demanded by students.
Professor Booth said that his department's Institute for Welsh Politics has been doing well since devolution and the setting-up of the Welsh Assembly.
Not least, he said, this was because students saw the vocational worth of such a course, with degrees in Welsh politics transporting them into jobs with the Welsh Assembly and in the Welsh terrestrial and digital media.
Overall, academics say that studying politics, with its emphasis on data-gathering and comparative analysis, imparts strong vocational skills.
There are about 1,800 academics working in about 90 politics and allied departments in UK universities. John Benyon, professor of political studies at Leicester University and treasurer of the PSA, said that membership of the PSA had grown from fewer than 900 in 1998 to nearly 1,400 this year.
Many of the new members were younger academics, he said.
Professor Benyon said: "This is hard evidence that politics is feeling very self-confident. Young academics want to be part of an academy of political scientists.
"We are now able to offer grants to people for small research projects and overseas travel, all of which help build connections with political scientists in Europe and North America."
In general, recruitment to doctoral programmes is healthy across the board and, unlike subjects such as economics, there ought to be no problem recruiting the next generation of academics and lecturers. But there are problems relating to the age profile of political scientists.
Dr Watson said: "Most of the departments in the country, apart from the ancient and big civic universities, were created in the expansion in the 1960s, so they are going to come up to retirement soon and all at about the same time. The real bottleneck is with young people starting their academic careers. There are no jobs for them because of the number of older academics in place. And, frankly, promotions are going to people whose CVs are not as good as those of people struggling to get their first job."
Professor Booth said that the problem tended to be in finding enough people to fill politics chairs. He suggested that this might be due in part to the Conservative cuts to social science budgets in the 1980s, which have led to a lack of political scientists in their late 30s and early 40s.
But just as sociology was the buzz subject of the 1960s and 1970s, economics the topic of choice for many in the 1980s and business studies and media studies the areas of growth in the 1990s, the noughties may be the decade for politics.
Current world events certainly augur well for the future of the subject as globalisation of corporate, governmental and non-governmental structures continues apace and tensions grow between the rich and poor within countries and between states, between Christianity and Islam, between the US and Europe, between the West and emerging economic giants such as China.
Add to this supranational concerns about the environment and politics departments ought to be riding the crest of a wave of political interest and engagement.
A THRIVING FIELD - IN SPITE OF RESEARCH FUNDING CUTS
Matthew Watson, senior lecturer in political economy, Birmingham University
"In politics, the depth of expertise might have been greater in a smaller range of things, but I think it is better to have a broader range of areas we can talk about.
"There has been a change in the culture of political experts within the public debate. This is perhaps understandable in terms of Iraq.
The experts here were from the military and other weapons experts rather than political scientists."
Ken Booth, head of international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
"In some respects, some research done in British university politics departments is better than that done in the US. Some of that done in the US is too US-centric - they cannot see beyond the US.
"On the other hand, some of the greatest thinkers around are, at the present time, in the US. But I think Britain does very well on very little funding."
Justin Fisher, senior lecturer in political science, Brunel University
"In a sense, politics is at the mercy of external affairs. But if we were teaching the same stuff we did 50 years ago, it would be dull.
"In the past, politics might have been seen as an outgrowth of history or law, but now there is a much greater sense of it as a discipline."
Todd Landman, senior lecturer in politics, Essex University
"Our first-year course used to be an introduction to politics, but the content has changed. It's now about the study of democracy and its different models. The subject is trying to reassert its relevance."
John Benyon, professor of political studies, Leicester University
"Politics is doing very well in terms of student recruitment. There are a range of external reasons for this, but it may also be the case that not only is politics an inherently interesting subject to study but it has a good graduate employment rate.
"Research is strong, but the fly in the ointment is the concentration of research funding. We are appalled by the likely effect of this. If you have concentration of funding for social sciences such as politics in ten or 12 departments, then what are the others supposed to be doing?"