Publisher's note: The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation. Located in Raleigh, North Carolina, it has been an independent 501(c)(3) organization since 2003. It was known as the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy until early January 2017.
The author of this post is Anthony Hennen.
For the past year, I was enrolled in a small graduate-level Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program at the Cevro Institute in Prague, Czech Republic. To my knowledge, it's one of two PPE programs in central/eastern Europe, an international experiment in the post-communist world. What makes it unique is its emphasis on understanding "political economy" with a classical liberal perspective.
The contrast between Czech higher education and American higher education is vast. Administrators are non-existent in the Czech Republic, as opposed to the bloated bureaucracy of American schools. Colleges do not dominate the social lives of Czech students like their American counterparts. Intercollegiate athletics are unheard of; instead, students organize sports among themselves. Czech higher education focuses solely on academics; as a result, it has a weaker hold on young Czechs. Attending college is like having a job: the conviviality of campus isn't there like in America. Nor are Czech campuses a world apart from the rest of society, as American universities tend to be. The "campuses" tend to be scattered around the city, rather than secluded from it.
That single-minded focus on academics means costs are much lower than in the United States. Cevro's PPE program runs on a shoestring budget: tuition for the program
is 8,400 euros, or $9,950. That is a steal for highly motivated students, but it also means a lack of administrative support and amenities such as stipends to support students presenting at conferences that are typical of American higher education.
PPE is an interdisciplinary degree that revives the study of political economy, and the University of Oxford is usually credited with starting the modern model in the 1920s. Programs incorporate political science, economics, sociology, law, philosophy, history, and related fields, and generally prepare students for further academic degrees, or careers in public policy, finance, journalism, management, and so on. Students are not usually laser-focused specialists but "generalists," and those who want to avoid getting corralled into an academic box. I was interested in the program as a way to further my career in journalism and public policy.
In its 2016-2017 inaugural year, the PPE program at Cevro attracted 20 students from 15 countries (and four continents) for an English-language program taught by European and American professors. For 2017-2018, 20 students from 12 countries enrolled. Students choose among four specializations: studies of post-communist transition, Austrian economics, international politics, or behavioral economics. Courses are composed of lectures, discussions, and symposia.
Cevro's program was flexible and practical. It offered a more personable educational experience with small class sizes and allowed students to shape the curriculum almost as much as the professors, focusing on their native countries or regional interests within the confines of classes. Students quickly bonded and engaged with one another, formed competitive rivalries, and benefited from the differences in their background.
Professors gave us assignments that questioned us about the changing role of the European Union, the field of law & economics, issues of countries experiencing societal transition, and moral philosophy's influence on economics, among others. I wanted a program that would challenge me on the history, politics, and economics of post-communist Europe, and I found it. I gained a deeper understanding of the region and its social, political, and economic issues, and I benefited from the connections I made with professors and experts, and my peers.
The program's classical liberal bent and the unique history of the Czech Republic gave students a rare experience. Some of our Czech professors had served as advisors to Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus during the post-communist transition period of the 1990s; others were economists at the Czech central bank and taught students about the inner workings of monetary institutions. American professors from Duke University, the University of Arizona, and Florida State University, among others, taught students about public choice, realistic idealism, and moral philosophy. Professors from Belgium, Germany, and Bulgaria taught property rights and liability rules, the difficulty of establishing the rule of law and the power of institutions, and the costs and benefits of the European Union.
The focus on institutional economics and an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing society was a big advantage: the world is too complicated to be understood from a purely economic perspective, and the PPE program pushes against the excessive specialization that results in so many narrow "academic ghettoes."
Academia, however, probably is not where most Cevro PPE students will end up. Cevro's low international profile and growing pains could be an issue for students who want to earn a PhD. Though a few of my classmates will pursue terminal degrees, the burden to prepare accordingly and network with professors falls on the students, as institutional support is limited. Most students are probably better off preparing for a PhD within an American master's program.
Regardless of the program's limitations, Peter Boettke, an economist at George Mason University and a Cevro professor, encouraged undergraduate students
who are unsure of what they want to specialize in during graduate school to consider the PPE program: "My expectations is that this program will be an outstanding scholarly preparation for PhD work in the humanities and social sciences."
Dr. Boettke may have a better understanding of what a PhD program requires, but the program did not seem designed as a master's-to-PhD pipeline.
Though my interest was not in pursuing an academic career, I presented papers at academic conferences in the Czech Republic and the United States, as did other students. Within the PPE program, students have the opportunity to produce high-quality work that can further an academic career, but performing at that level is up to the student.
The PPE program has some lingering problems, however. Student self-selection bias may be an issue. Though the student body has considerable geographic diversity and most students have strong and varied academic or professional backgrounds, libertarian and conservative students outnumbered liberals and socialists, a fairly uncommon situation. Discussions were rife with disagreement, but improving viewpoint diversity could improve class experiences and protect against the creep of ideological insularity.
Reputation is also a problem for Cevro. The Institute is something of an experimental college, offering a mix of American and European professors teaching interdisciplinary programs and focusing on education instead of research. Such emphases rarely boost a university's rankings. How I and my classmates-and those who follow us-perform in our eventual careers will determine its reputation-but that may take many years.
Cevro is no Harvard, but it is a focused, quality institution that offers a unique opportunity. I'm glad I enrolled in the program, especially because Cevro does not have an American equivalent.
The growing popularity
of PPE programs in Europe and the United States is a testament to the value of embracing an interdisciplinary academic approach. Less emphasis on specialized, low-impact research and more focus on teaching students to widen their view of the world could improve American higher education. Persuading colleges to reform their study-abroad programs to embrace programs like PPE at Cevro could also benefit students by getting them to see what life is like outside the United States.
Besides, what millennial college student would not benefit by escaping the insular confines of the American campus and getting thrown into a foreign world?