If you have a passion for tackling global social issues such as health, poverty, education and crime, there are social policy courses at undergraduate degree and Masters level to equip you for a successful career in this field
What is social policy?
As a broad subject, social policy is concerned with global societies and how national governments meet the basic human needs of its citizens spanning the course of their lifetime, all the way from birth through to old age. The welfare state refers to government spending on core economic and social areas including work, health, education and wellbeing.
When you study the subject, you'll be analysing the role that governments play in the provision of social services, considering the legislation, principles and guidelines in place.
You'll also be looking to highlight inequalities and propose solutions to ensure that all social groups - defined by age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and socio-economic status - have full access to the support and services available.
While social policy typically refers to the things that the government does to help people, public policy is what the government does when it affects people, whether that's positive or negative. However, there can be quite a bit of overlap between the two, and you'll find it's the same when it comes to university courses.
Social policy degrees
There are a number of social policy courses at undergraduate level, with the opportunity to go down either the Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) routes.
Irrespective of the type of degree you choose, many programmes include the chance to undertake a work placement and help you develop the research skills required for a successful career in the UK's public services sector.
For instance, the BA Social Policy at the University of Birmingham equips you with the theoretical knowledge and research ability to make sense of and address crucial social issues in the UK and beyond.
From prison overcrowding and homelessness to problem debts and an ageing population, you'll get to investigate possible solutions, challenge the status quo and 'make important things happen'.
In the second year of this social policy degree, you'll study two core modules in 'Social Research II' and 'Policy Analysis'. After this, you'll get to choose from a range of optional modules including:
- Education, Policy & Social Justice
- Gender and Sexuality
- Media and Society
- Poverty, Class and Inequality
- 'Sociology of Race' and Ethnicity - A Global Perspective
- Terror, Threat and Security.
By the time you reach your third year, you'll be ready to undertake your own research project on a subject you feel most passionate about. You can also take advantage of a work placement opportunity, as well as a 'Professional Development' module.
Another option is the BSc Social Policy from the University of Salford. This research-informed programme focuses on social change. It offers an optional community placement where you'll get to put what you've learned into practice by working for a partner organisation, such as local government or a private social care provider.
Finally, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has a department dedicated to the study of social policy. Its BSc International Social and Public Policy can be studied on its own or as part of a multidisciplinary approach in combination with politics or economics. With an international approach to the subject, you'll analyse real world issues such as poverty, disadvantage, international development, welfare and work.
Other BA and BSc Social Policy university options include:
All these social policy degrees with a September 2023 start date are usually studied for three years on a full-time basis, with some allowing the course to be studied across six years part time. The fees for 2022/23 and 2023/24 are set at £9,250 for students studying in England.
Masters in public policy
If you've not applied to university yet but know you'd like to study for a postgraduate qualification, The University of Edinburgh offers seven four-year social and public policy courses, including the MA in Government, Policy and Society.
In terms of one-year full-time (or two-year part-time) Masters degrees, there are plenty of options at this level. Many of the universities running undergraduate degree programmes - for instance, the University of Birmingham and University of York - also run Masters courses.
Social policy Masters degrees typically combine taught coursework along with supervised independent study. You'll get to develop your research skills and focus on an area of interest.
At the LSE, if you're hoping to concentrate on a specific type of public service, the interdisciplinary two-year Master of Public Administration (MPA) would give you the chance to work for a client organisation.
In the first year, you'll study three core modules:
- Micro and Macro Economics for Public Policy
- Political Science for Public Policy
- Quantitative Approaches and Policy Analysis.
The second year involves the 'MPA Capstone' project, where you'll get to address a real-life policy issue at a UK or international client organisation such as the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), ARUP, Bank of England or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
You'll then get to choose your degree specialism in one of the following fields:
- Economic Policy
- Inequality and Poverty
- International Development
- International Political Economy
- Social Impact.
Alternatively, the university's one-year, full-time MSc International Social and Public Policy (ISPP) programme addresses how states and societies respond to global challenges of social, demographic and economic change, and of poverty, migration and globalisation. It's underpinned by the LSE approach to social and public policy that's explicitly international, interdisciplinary and applied.
There's also the MSc Criminal Justice Policy that provides an opportunity to apply the concepts and theoretical perspectives from criminology, sociology, law and psychology to the subjects of crime, social order and criminal justice institutions.
If you've decided that you'd like to go down this postgraduate route, search for social policy courses.
You can also explore your options when it comes to funding postgraduate study.
Social policy jobs
Once you've achieved any relevant qualifications, there are a number of career paths to choose from.
- charity officer
- Civil Service administrator
- government social research officer
- health service manager
- housing manager/officer
- local government officer
If you'd like to discover what others have done after graduation, see what can I do with my degree in social policy?
Public policy internships
Many undergraduate and some Masters degree programmes include a work placement where you'll gain crucial work experience from working on real-life situations. However, even if your course doesn't include a formal placement, you could still look to secure a public policy internship with a relevant organisation for the summer months or once you graduate.
For instance, Public Policy Projects (PPP) is a London-based independent policy institute that provides eight-week internships (working two days or 16 hours a week) for those hoping to get involved with a range of policy areas including the life sciences, net zero and climate change, and health and social care. For this internship, you'll be paid the London Living Wage Rate (currently set at £11.95 per hour).
Doctoral students can also take advantage of the opportunity to gain practical experience with the University of Cambridge's Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) offering three-month, full-time policy internships to those embarking on a PhD.
Find out more
- Read about how to get a graduate job in public services.
- Explore the public services and administration sector.
- Consider public health careers.