Why I chose to study across the pond

James Crabtree on the American dream

Should you quit your job, go back to university and study politics? In June 2000, I received an amusing circular e-mail suggesting not. It claimed that Larry Ellison, the billionaire chief executive of the IT giant Oracle, had given a speech to the graduating class at Yale University in the US.

"Five years from now, ten years from now, even 30 years from now," Ellison was quoted as saying, "odds are the person on your left is going to be a loser. The person on your right, meanwhile, will also be a loser. And you? Loser cum laude." This giant of the internet economy, it seemed, thought going back to college was for dummies. And with these words in mind, I recently quit my job, crossed the Atlantic and went to an American university to study politics. I must need my head examined.

The Ellison e-mail turns out to have been an elaborate - but all too plausible - hoax. Plausible because the knowledge economy hype of the late 1990s came bundled with a "drop out, start up" mentality. Fusty old-world universities were of questionable value. This was the era of Infobahn- powered learning by doing. Graduating "Loser cum laude" meant missing out on stock options. Spending money on school meant not spending money on sharp suits. And then you would have no suit to wear at high-powered networking events. Who needs libraries, after all, when you've got Google?

Even politics could not escape this changing of the tide. Perhaps the smartest take on it is BoBos in Paradise, David Brooks's caustic to the "bourgeois bohemian . . . the people who are thriving in the information age". Brooks maps out the route of "BoBo intellectualism". Aspirant political leaders take this path by rushing their education - a mere distraction - and head quickly for fame in the real world.

It isn't so much about the destination - although the BBC, selected civil service departments, a newspaper, a respected think-tank or a reputable not-for-profit will all do nicely - as the certainty that politics is an applied science.

This path to the punditocracy rarely starts in an ivory tower. The wonks do not all have PhDs. "Good chat" frequently beats hard skills. Knowing people is respected over knowing things. And no public policy problem is so significant that it can't be fixed with arresting "annecdata". The political class talk a good game on evidence-based policy-making. But the smart kids know that policy-based evidence-making is much the wiser career move.

You might think that in a "knowledge economy", institutions that exist solely to promote knowledge would be feted by students and society alike. Not so in Britain. For those thinking of going back to college, the initial calculation looks grim.

First, there is the small business of money. Graduate degrees in politics train students to analyse policy but prepare them for positions of public responsibility. Positions of public responsibility are, almost by definition, badly paid. And yet the training still costs an arm and a leg. Fees, loans, living expenses and lost earnings mount up fast. Small wonder that so many public policy graduates promote social justice by signing on with the management consultancy Accenture.

Second, you must figure out the opportunity cost of not working. The length of your study - in my case, two years - means the same length of time not making contacts, not doing projects about real issues and not keeping in touch with day-to-day events in the Westminster village.

Third, you have the uncertainty of taking time out. You have a decent job now, but will you when you return to work? You might get lucky. You might even snag a job where your boss is genuinely impressed by your dissertation on the constitutional importance of the deputy speaker between 1945 and 1974. But equally, you might find yourself interviewed by a contemptuous Ellison wondering what you have been doing with your life.

And after all this, do British universities even teach politics well? I would say yes, if you want to read Hobbes, fiddle with public choice theory or become an expert on the legislative process in Poland. But no, if what you want to do is combine the rigour of an academic Masters degree with the practical application of an MBA. It is in providing this - political degrees that make you smarter and more employable - that the British system fails.

Because our system misses this trick, going to study politics in the US has become a mark of success quite separate from the contents of any degree. Who cares what Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls, David Miliband or the rest of the bright young things who went Stateside actually learnt? The bulge on their resumes tells you all you need to know.

But wouldn't it be nicer if Americans (and others nations) came here to study, rather than the other way round? There have been a few hopeful developments in this direction. Patrick Dunleavy, a professor at the London School of Economics, has recently launched a joint Masters in public administration with Columbia University in New York. And various others, such as the Warwick Institute of Governance and Public Management, now have worth- while programmes.

Pippa Norris, a British academic teaching politics in the US, suggests there "remains a sharper distinction between civil service training, done in-house, and other public policy/ public administration programmes" that teach academic theory. She also suggests that, in America, "the assumption that Masters degrees are essential for most managerial jobs" keeps people coming back.

But in a country such as Britain, where you don't need a Masters to get on, what might make students come back? There is enormous value in studying politics at length. But much of that value is lost if students are not taught skills that will make them more employable. At present, it seems that Britain's graduate-level politics focuses too often on what academics want to teach and too little on what students want to learn.

The political hotshots of tomorrow will need a vast range of skills to make sense of a baffling world. Many of these could be best taught at universities. But at the moment, they are not. The students are being let down by the dons. It's about time we let them know. Otherwise, the danger isn't that people will graduate "Loser cum laude". It's that they will give up graduating at all.

James Crabtree is a Fulbright scholar at Harvard University

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns