Wanderlust Wendy

New Changes to the LSE MPA

Since my last post on the LSE MPA, there have been some significant changes made to the curriculum. How did I find out about the new changes? An email from my blog reader. This in and of itself should raise concern over the level (or lack thereof) of communication between administration and the student body.

So, what are the changes?

Instead of 5 units of courses a year and a mandatory dissertation in year 2, the new curriculum only consists of 4 units of classes a year. Dissertation in year 2 is now optional in place of an one-unit course. For the International Development folks, this means you no longer have an option course in year one. The trade-off is a 20% lighter workload than what I had to endure.

I found out about these changes whilst studying for 2nd of my five exams and it made me want to scream. Just the thought that had I enter this program one year later, my life would have been 20% better, i.e, I would’ve been able to devote to my classes 20% more, have a better social life, or the like. I am a proponent of making the dissertation an option. This is a professional degree, and dissertation does not necessarily provide the kind of tool kit that one needs in a professional arena.

Responses from the student body

Since most of us did not know about this news until a few days ago, the newly elected board of MPA Policy Forum (supposed to be a student governing group – its name is undergoing possible change) vigorously lobbied for a meeting with the MPA Steering Committee.

An email was sent out few days ago from one of the Committee members who would not be able to attend the meeting. One of the paragraphs really drew my attention:

We are acutely aware that students do not feel they were given adequate opportunity to comment on the new arrangements, and although this was raised at Staff Student Liaison Committee meeting, and is in direct response to other petitions from students over several years, we are profusely sorry that more was not done in this respect.

So he apologized, but I did not see any concrete plans on how procedures will change to better communicate and engage the student body. Again, if you are changing curriculum without consulting students who are experiencing the coursework and will be the ones who apply the learning, then how is it possible to have a good curriculum? It’s analogous to designing aid policies without asking the local population what their needs are. Come on! LSE is better than that!


Whether or not the incoming 2nd year students will adopt the new curriculum, or maintain the current status quo of 5 units of classes including mandatory dissertation, requires unanimous voting from the student body.

I have a hard time believing that there are people who do NOT want the change. To be a complete nerd, let me just apply a little of what we learned this year. Adopting the new change is a Pareto optimal move for everyone – no one can be worse off. If you want to write a dissertation – take the option. If you want to take more classes, feel free to audit and attend all the classes you want at the LSE. No one is stopping you. But voting against the new change will hurt those who struggle with current load of coursework. The email from my reader who informed me of this new changed said, “So I am guessing someone has read your blog and took note of your comment that 5 units are just too much!” I wouldn’t go as far as that, but while the administration did not adequately engage the student body, I am quite certain that the complaint of excessive coursework is well represented.

Why do I care?

You may wonder why I am wasting my time addressing issues that have no relevance to me, considering I am off to Columbia next year. Well, I spent a year here at the LSE, and will thus be forever associated with the program. I want the LSE MPA to evolve and to grow into something that all of the students can be proud of, and can enthusiastically recommend to others. From my last post, you can probably conjure that I currently lean toward the negative side when it comes to recommending it.

I want to be equally as proud of my time at the LSE as I will be at Columbia SIPA. I want people to recognize these two programs as equal substitutes. I don’t want anyone in the future to ever ask me what I was thinking when I chose LSE MPA over Columbia SIPA.

My two cents

So what would I change if people gave a crap about what I think?

Significantly lower admission granted to undergraduates.

Every good professional program has exception of a few absolutely brilliant undergraduates who deserve a place. They have saved lives or took part in some other amazing miracle during their summers or gap year. Those people absolutely deserve a place. However, letting academically brilliant students who lack professional experiences into a professional program creates problems for the rest of the student body. Unfortunately, the LSE MPA currently has a much higher percentage of such students than other programs that I know. As far as I remember, I don’t remember this statistic being published whilst I made my decision, so I was in the dark.

What problems could academically brilliant undergrads possibly create?

For one, their skill as a study machine has not diminished one bit. They haven’t forgotten how to study strategically, how to cram for exams, how to memorize extensive amount of information. Those who have gained professional experiences have a great deal of other skills, but at a great disadvantage in this area.

Furthermore, I notice a lot of people who came from undergrad also studied similar subjects before, which further put them at an academic advantage. So not only that they remember how to study, they also just learned this stuff sometimes less than a year ago. You tell me if that doesn’t create imbalances with people who’ve been in the workforce for 5 years and did Art History or Literature in undergrad.

Once again: this is a PROFESSIONAL program

Curriculum for a professional program can’t mimic MSc degrees. The admission process and the type of students admitted can’t be the same as purely academic programs. I am confident that the current administration is well aware of these factors, but I feel they still lack significantly in addressing the professional aspects of the program. The academic side is more than well taken care of – obviously even a bit too much given the reduction in curriculum. Focusing more on the professional aspect will set this program apart. The competition for MPA programs are nowhere near as fierce as MBA programs and LSE is already one of the best, but it needs to innovate continuously and quickly to compete with programs that are sprouting around the world.

Your thoughts?

I don’t mean to air the program’s dirty laundry in public, but I believe these type of changes and issues need to be made aware for prospective students, who perhaps don’t want to get reeled into a not-yet stable program.

I also think it’s a good chance for other policy professionals to contribute their ideas on what makes a great professional program that will serve the wide and varied public sphere. They are the people out there doing the kind of work that people in this program aspire to. So if they were to educate new-comers, what would they want us to learn?

7 thoughts on “New Changes to the LSE MPA”

  1. Good thoughts, but I disagree with you on several fronts.
    First moving to four units is not a no-brainer – yes we all feel like we work hard, maybe too hard, but moving to four units is not the only solution – why not run the units that we have more efficiently? For example, instead of spending 3 hours a week "guessing" STATA commands, give us a complete tutorial for each lesson that we can refer to long after we are gone from the MPA, and let's drop the Management course from the second year curriculum.

    Students have certainly complained in the past about workload – but there has NEVER been a formal request to reduce the units.

    In terms of real costs of moving from 5 to 4 units:
    1) You are receiving 20% less education
    2) You lose considerable ability to specialize your degree with option courses
    3) There is some perception of a loss of pedigree/prestige/eliteness (though this should be secondary)
    4) Auditing a class is not the same as taking it for credit – I would never have the discipline to learn a topic as well were I not taking it for credit, and much of the learning occurs over revision (June)
    5) Since our core courses are a full year long, this restricts our options vis a vis our peer GPPN schools (Columbia, Sciences Po, Hertie Berlin and Lee Kuan Yu Singapore) so keeping option courses around is one of the few distinguishing factors we have
    6) Cost – if there is a reduction to 4 units, there should be a commensurate decrease in tuition, and as LSE is one of the most expensive options, moving to 4 units should at the least result in lower tuition.

    These are just my thoughts, I make no presumptions about what the "median" MPA is or what he/she wants, but it's important to see all angles. This is an issue we are taking very seriously.

    The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this was gone about in a terrible way. However I want to emphasize that the administration do have our best interests in mind – I'm just not convinced they have effectively gauged opinion in this instance. The most recent email sent to all MPAs is a good sign that they are receiving lots of feedback and are responsive, and the meeting on Tuesday as well as the results of our student survey should be very helpful in terms of getting more color on the (pending) changes.

    If you have any questions feel free to email me at [email protected]

    Chris Wang

    2011-2012 Chair, MPA Student Association
    MPA Candidate, Public and Economic Policy

    • We actually agree more than you think! I didn't fully articulate all my thoughts (there are many) 🙂
      – I absolutely agree in the lack of options in specializing. GV478 (political science) and EC455 (econometrics) should all be able to condense into one term, leaving more room for option courses. If option is the issue, cutting this into one unit leaves a whole other unit free. The problem with taking 5 units where many are optional is that the expectation from professor differs from what we are capable of offering. If you take a course in a depatment where the MSc students only take 3 units, then they expect that much out of you, yet you are spread thin. That's the biggest problem I find with the current setup.

      – I don't think changing the curriculum impacts the prestige/perception of the program that much in a broad sense. Let's be honest, most peole only know the difference between MPA and MScs at the LSE is one is 2 yrs and the other is one. (some may not even know that!)

      – Very good point about the cost!

  2. Hi Wendy,
    You probably are not aware but I have been following your blog for the past 6 – 7 months focusing especially on your journey through the LSE MPA. In the course of this period I have seen your blogs progress from being a vibrant commentary on the program (when you were getting ready to join in and your initial months) towards deeper shades of grey taking on a very somber tone. Pardon the hyperbole, but I can’t help expressing thus after going through your latest post.

    Through this gradual change in tone I have found you raising questions on the excessively theoretical nature of a professional course and practical applications of concepts. I have seen you worry about workloads and the excessive reliance on term examinations as the major differentiating factor while assessing performance. Today you raised a question about the class mix where you betrayed anxiety about having to compete with brilliant undergrads who come armed with the tricks of the trade to excel academically.

    To be honest I find your last point a bit disquieting as to borrow a point raised by you, I have been a part of “the” workforce for 9 years since I finished my MBA, have a little daughter who starts school this fall along with me and am giving up a seriously good position for a course, where I am already carrying a handicap before I have started! The MPA to me is a medium that I want to use to correct the course of my career that I feel is strongly aligned to my interests. And to second Chris’ point, I am paying a fair bit to get that on my CV. Its not really a question of the number of units one can handle, in my case. Its what I can take away from this course; that goes a tad beyond grades or competing against precocious undergrads who are more familiar with academic rigor than someone like me.

    I agree that we may find ourselves getting spread thin and hopefully Chris and Co. can find a middle path in the discussion on Tuesday. But I would like to certainly try and imbibe as much as I can over the next two years without worrying too much about grades or the competition. After all as you say this is a PROFESSIONAL program and in my humble opinion the “imbalances” that you speak about makes the learning a little more stimulating not to mention enables people like me to revisit the noble art of “cramming” 🙂

    My take: Let us not be too quick to label the program as “not yet stable” based on the conclusions drawn above.

    • Hi Ratkim!
      Thanks for your comments and thanks for following my journey this year.

      I completely agree that one should want to get as much out of a program as possible. But I believe a professional program should be about much more than theoretical academic learning. I would have preferred to invest more of my time in professional events and taking courses that provide toolkit and methods that tailor towards practical application.

      The point I made about having lots of freshly minted undergrads is less about the academic competition as I personally don't care about that. But rather, it's the environment that they create – they ARE very academically competitive and thus creating a stressful environment that doesn't really encourage a stimulating learning experience. Furthermore, I find it's much more interesting when my peers have had experiences in the "real world" that contribute to conversations. If nothing else, group projects (and there are a ton!) are usually easier to tolerate when there are more who have had to deal with groups in the real world.

      Let me know how you find the program when you start in the fall. I look forward to hear your own experience with the LSE MPA! all the best.

  3. Hi Wendy,
    Thanks for your insight into the MPA programme at LSE. I have received an offer for the Public and Economic Policy stream but I am a little bit apprehensive about taking it up in the next year as I have just finished my undergraduate degree in Ireland and feel more than a little bit burned out and I am a little bit worried about going through another two years of stressful exams. I just wanted to ask if your place in Columbia was dependent upon achieving a certain grade? Or is it an unconditional offer? Best of luck with your exams!

    • Hi Kimberly!
      Thanks for your comment, and as you can probably infer from my post, I would recommend people getting a few years of work experience before joining a professional program like the MPA. Not to mention if you are already feeling burned out, it will only get worse with this academically rigorous program.

      My admission to Columbia was based largely on the material I initially submitted to the LSE and a few additional essays. Since LSE doesn't really believe in continuous assessment, there are thus not much to submit by the time you apply for dual degree at Columbia. I hope this helps. Best of luck in your decision.

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