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The professor will see you now - teaching parliament

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. This week: in-person parliamentary studies

Every year, preparing for my students’ trip to Westminster, I swear it will be the last one I organise. To use a technical term common in political science, it is a grade A ball-ache: a massive calling in of favours, juggling the busy diaries of busy people; the ever-present risk of last-minute cancellations or being bumped from the room; the faff of escorting dozens of undergraduates through security (“please don’t make a joke about a bomb”).

Yet every year, once it’s over, I always find myself reflecting that it is one of the more worthwhile things I do. Every year, it’ll be the last. Every year, it isn’t.

Over the last couple of decades, more than 100 MPs and peers have spoken to my students and, in part, this column is just a huge thank-you, both to them and to anyone who has spoken at anything similar.

But it’s also a call to arms for the idea of trying to teach politics away from the seminar room. There is something invaluable in students being able to engage directly with their subject. Imagine studying theology and being able to ask John the Baptist what he thought he was playing at.

Students get to hear someone who ‘does’ politics; they get real-world examples in which to locate more theoretical material. Even when the material delivered is essentially the same as that conveyed by academic staff, it can have reinforcement value; and often the speakers provide insights and perspectives not available in the classroom or academic literature.

Perhaps the exemplar was one student who had often struggled to accept a point I had made to him about the way the whips’ office functioned; when a Labour chief whip made exactly the same point to him, he suddenly got it.

It’s also always good to see students have their preconceptions about people challenged; I am especially thinking of the time Michael Gove had an entire room eating out of his hand by the end of the session. Sometimes it’s just more fun; Eric Forth v Students was always a highlight.

There is also benefit in giving students the skills to compete in the political workplace. That’s partly about knowledge, but it’s more about the deeper understanding and the softer skills – confidence, especially – that also comes from these sorts of interactions.

Students get to hear someone who ‘does’ politics; they get real-world examples

Queen Mary is one of 20 or so British universities that teach a parliamentary studies module in formal conjunction with Parliament. The implicit assumption underpinning the module is that if we educate people about how their legislature functions, we will increase their faith in it. After all, no one promotes outreach work by institutions in order to diminish faith in them.

Yet it’s perfectly plausible to construct a less positive hypothesis: that with knowledge could come negativity. There are plenty of things wrong with most parliaments (and, as even its defenders accept, the Westminster one is no exception); bringing these to the attention of students could erode their trust. This may be one of those occasions when ignorance is, if not bliss, at least preferable.

I bring good news. When this was tested, several years ago, the opposite seemed to be the case. Students who took the module emerged with improved knowledge as well as an increase – slight in some cases, more dramatic in others – in political satisfaction and trust. Students who took the module became more positive both about Parliament and parliamentarians. Something similar is true of citizenship education in schools. Saving democracy, one student group at a time.

Further reading: P Cowley and M Stuart, ‘The Effect of Teaching Parliamentary Studies on Students’ Knowledge and Attitudes: A Pilot Study’, Politics (2014); J Tonge et al, ‘Does Citizenship Education Make Young People Better-Engaged Citizens?’, Political Studies (2012).

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