Politics PG Student Experience at the University of Manchester

by | Jul 13, 2021 | Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Postgraduate | 0 comments

Postgraduate Politics student Ben Pontz, originally from the USA, shares his experience of studying at the University of Manchester.

Sometime in the summer of 2019, I began to think seriously about studying for a master’s degree in the UK, after graduating from my American undergraduate institution, Gettysburg College. My undergraduate thesis examined how civic institutions anchor strong communities, and I was keen to find out more about the UK’s new experimental policy of ‘regional devolution.’

On the recommendation of one of my advisors at Gettysburg, I got in touch with Professor Andy Westwood, Director of the Governance and Public Policy Pathway of the MA Political Science programme, at The University of Manchester.

We soon struck up an engaging email correspondence that excited and inspired me to apply for a place on Andy’s course. I decided studying here would be the best place for me to learn about regional devolution and give me the opportunities and skills I was looking for from an MA programme. Before we had ever met, Andy wrote a recommendation letter to the Fulbright Commission in the United States, endorsing my application.

This start to my Manchester journey proved emblematic of so much of my experience at the University over these last 10 months. As an American student who had much to learn about the British university system (not to mention British politics), people at this university have, at every turn, gone out of their way to be helpful. The pandemic meant I never had the chance to meet many of these people in person. Despite this, I found staff here did everything in their power to put students first and provide a first-rate educational experience.

I moved to the city last October, less than a month before the region entered ‘tier three’ restrictions, and shortly before the first nationwide lockdown. Disappointingly, government regulations meant I did not have a single in-person class; this was not the way my classmates and I were expecting to learn about public policy. But to dwell on what was beyond our control would obscure what was, in so many ways, a remarkably positive experience.

My degree enabled me to carry out original research, successfully fielding a survey of local residents and conducting interviews with key stakeholders responsible for driving regional devolution in the city-region. My work yielded a wealth of insights I am looking forward to continuing to investigate far beyond my time in Manchester.

I forged friendships during lockdown – when the extent of what we could do together was walk about the city! As the lockdown eased, we visited many of Manchester’s

interesting museums, hiked in the Peak District, and visited several neighboring cities and towns. I even squeezed in a short-term work placement at the BBC. I tried to not let the circumstances hold me back from making the most of what Manchester could offer me as a master’s student.

I cannot think of another university in the world, let alone in the UK, that, in a single year, would have given an MA student access to academics with the concentration of expertise that Rob Ford, Maria Sobolewska, Ed Fieldhouse, Liz Richardson, and Andy have. I also benefitted from the wisdom that brilliant earlier career academics such as Tim Oliver, Dan Silver, and Chris Butler, brought to their ‘classrooms’ (or rather, Zoom rooms!) each day. Without exception, they went above and beyond to make my experience equal parts educational and enjoyable. Even professors from outside my department went out of their way to show hospitality and spread holiday cheer. A literature professor who heard I would be ‘stuck in Manchester’ at Christmas invited me into his home to spend the day with him and his family, and I regularly attended church with a business lecturer who kindly shared tips on being an ‘American in Manchester.’

If there is one lesson of my exploration into what makes strong communities, it is the leadership of strong civic institutions, and one thing that is true of all strong civic institutions is people from top to bottom who are invested in the mission. The University of Manchester is, without a doubt, one such institution, which helps also make the wider region, one such community.

A few weeks ago, shortly before I returned to the states, I finally met Andy in person for a hot dog. It is still not clear to me why we had decided a hot dog was the way to mark to a long-awaited in person meet-up, but we did! It occurred to me, as I walked back to my flat, that the world had changed a lot in the two years since Andy and I first exchanged emails and when we finally met each other in the flesh. New developments in politics, public policy, and, of course, pandemics brought yet more tumult to what already seemed like a rather tumultuous time. At many points, the only thing that seemed certain was further uncertainty; and that, if it wasn’t raining in Manchester, it would be soon enough!

As an aspiring policymaker myself, I can think of nowhere I would have rather been these last 10 months to prepare for that lifelong ambition than as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Manchester. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to do so.