Oxbridge would do well to learn from its competition.WikimediaCommons

“So what exactly do you study again, Max?”, my grandmother asks for the third time in as many hours on Christmas day. “History”, “Law” and the like have it easy in this regard. A one-word answer, sharp and easy to blurt out, met with nodding approval from your girlfriend’s parents or barber trying to make small talk. We have it less easy. “Erm, Human, Social and Political Sciences” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

Like most of my family members, a few short years ago I had never heard of Human, Social and Political Sciences, or ‘HSPS’ in Cambridge-speak. It was only when trawling through the woefully archaic UCAS courses page that I stumbled across this odd-sounding blend of social sciences. At first glance, I thought it would be a great fit: a course perfectly suited to both my interest in politics and lack of a Maths A-level – an Economics degree was out of reach. Yet now, three or so years down the line, I’m not nearly as enamoured by the tripos as I once was.

HSPS was birthed in 2013 from a merger of the Politics, Psychology and Sociology Tripos (previously known as Social and Political Sciences, or ‘SPS’) with the Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos. The idea of HSPS and its predecessors was to offer freshers the chance to discover a broad range of subjects they had not encountered before. After all, no child has ever told their parents they want to study ‘Social Anthropology’ at university. I do understand the merit of this approach. A good handful of my friends would never have applied to read either Sociology or Social Anthropology, yet are now happily on track to graduate in those fields within the HSPS Tripos.

"In practice, HSPS punishes those who don’t want the faff of an American-style liberal arts course"

But soon after 2013, the new faculty realised it was too disparate a course to make sense. Archaeology quickly declared their independence from HSPS after a significant drop in students taking their papers. It’s only a shame that they stopped there and didn’t break HSPS up completely. The intent behind the amalgamation makes sense: expose students to new topics they might otherwise never grapple with. In practice, however, it punishes those who know which of the incorporated social sciences they want to pursue without the faff of a first year taken straight from an American liberal arts course.

Why should a prospective Sociologist or Social Anthropologist be forced to tailor their application to be more political if they plan to specialise after a year of HSPS anyway? Why should I – as someone who, if I’m being frank, only loved the ‘P’ in HSPS – spend half my first year waffling through Anthropological theory whilst also knowing from the start that I’ll be dropping it after a year?

Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone: many HSPSers appreciate and gain from the freedom their first year provides them with. It’s my fault, really – I applied for the course and fortuitously got accepted, so I shouldn’t be complaining too much. It’s also my fault that I might have sounded like a bad Hugh Grant impression in those Anthropology supervisions, stumbling over my words when I had been caught out on a particular niche of ‘structural functionalism’ theory.

"If you want to read Politics at either of the two best universities in the country, you’re stuck mixing and matching"

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But why not offer a straight Politics course? Why not allow prospective applicants to apply directly for Anthropology or Sociology? This idea isn’t exactly revolutionary: at every other university I looked at, bar Oxbridge, I was able to focus solely on Politics. Most other Russell Group universities also offer HSPS’s other constituent parts as stand-alones. If you want to read Politics at either of the two best universities in the country, you’re stuck mixing and matching. You could apply for HSPS at Cambridge, History and Politics at either or go for PPE at Oxford – and despite the claims some Cantabs like to make, HSPS is a wildly different course to PPE (for the better I might add).


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In truth, it seems to me that Oxbridge’s antipathy to doing any of this has to do with branding. This applies especially to PPE, but also to HSPS. Everyone has heard of PPE: it’s probably the most famous joint degree in Britain. The much younger HSPS is also gaining reputational traction, with places becoming increasingly competitive (applications have risen by about 50% in the last five years). Proponents of such courses argue that breaking them up would make them less attractive to applicants across the board, and that their loss would attract further competition from competing faculties, say at the London School of Economics or St. Andrews. But I’d argue the LSE has the best of both worlds, offering both stand-alone courses like Politics and hybrid degrees, like their own versions of PPE and History & International Relations.

Yes, there are bigger and more pressing problems at this university. Yes, I should have paid more attention in my SAN1 lectures. But please can we at least stop pretending that Oxbridge can’t learn something from anywhere else?