Comparative Social Policy Master's programmes


The Department of Social Policy and Intervention is the leading social policy department in the UK, and part of Oxford University, one of the top research universities world-wide. It offers two well established Master’s programmes in social policy:

  • MSc in Comparative Social Policy (1 year)
  • MPhil in Comparative Social Policy (2 years)

Studying social policy enhances students’ understanding of social problems and societal challenges, different available policy options, the politics of reforming policy, and their impact on individual lives, households and societies. We offer graduate social policy education and social research training for students aspiring to be future policy practitioners in public, non-profit or private organizations as well as those pursuing careers in social policy research or subsequent doctoral research.

The two Master’s programmes explore welfare systems and policy developments across a range of different countries, with a focus on advanced economies in Europe and OECD countries. The comparative focus and approach is a defining element of the degree: we believe systematic international comparison is the best way to analyse and understand the nature and effectiveness of a particular welfare system and its social policies. Our approach is multidisciplinary, including demography, economics, political science, social policy and sociology. 

A Core Paper in Comparative Social Policy and Social Policy Analysis is foundational to the programme.  This, two-part course, taught through lectures, seminars and workshops, provides students with an understanding of the fundamentals of social policy analysis from policy making to its implementation and evaluation as well as knowledge of comparative welfare system analysis and cross-national variations in major social policy areas. 

A particular feature of our programme is a strong emphasis on training in comparative research methods and their application in a thesis project. Students are given rigorous methodological training, including in comparative research design and qualitative and quantitative research methods. This helps students evaluate existing research evidence and provides the necessary grounding and skills for independent research.

In addition to the Core Paper and teaching in research design and methods, students take specialist policy courses (two in the MSc/three in the MPhil) from a list. These Option Papers focus on particular social policy areas. Recent Option Papers include education, family and gender, healthcare, labour market, pension policies and poverty.

As a final step, students write a thesis on a social policy topic of their choice. The thesis project is closely guided by regular meetings with a supervisor. MPhil students work on a longer thesis during their two-year programme of study, whereas MSc students complete a shorter thesis within one year. 

Students receive regular feedback and advice from their supervisor and course instructors, and are also assigned a college advisor to look after their well-being.  

Assessment of the taught courses is based on methods-focused project work, a three-hour written examination paper, and a summative assignment based on an Option Paper (or two assignments for those taking the MPhil). The thesis makes up the final component of the overall marks.

To hear from students who have taken our programmes you can take a look at the videos on this page.

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The central aim of the programme is to provide high quality, graduate level research training in social policy, taking a comparative perspective, concentrating primarily on the highly-developed countries (broadly: those that correspond to the OECD area, especially those in Europe and America). More specific aims are to develop the student’s capacity:

  • to analyse, interpret and review the major concepts, theoretical approaches and historical and contemporary issues in social policy and welfare state development;
  • to analyse and compare specific areas of social policy (e.g. health, education, poverty) in different countries or systems, drawing on both empirical data and broader theoretical literature;
  • to undertake both quantitative and qualitative research, and understand the major issues and skills involved in research design and technical analysis in social policy related research;
  • to understand the importance and nature of the principles and ethical issues involved in social policy and related research;
  • to lay the foundations for doctoral work in social policy and/or for a career as a social policy researcher or analyst in government, international organisation, or the voluntary or private sector; and
  • to provide education and training that meets the ESRC’s postgraduate research training guidelines.

Programme element

MSc (1 year)

MPhil (2 years)

Core Paper in Comparative Social Policy and Social Policy Analysis, taught via a series of lectures, seminars and workshops

Examined through a written exam

Examined through a written exam

Research Design and Methods taught via lectures, seminars and hands-on workshops

Examined through written submissions

Examined through written submissions

Option Papers, taught via seminars

Two options taken, one examined through a written policy-based assignment.

Three options taken, two examined through a written policy-based assignment (in first and second year respectively).


Design and write a 10,000 word thesis

Design and write a 30,000 word thesis

The programme is led by a Course Director who works with a close-knit team of teachers and supervisors and takes overall responsibility for the programme, co-ordinating teaching, arranging supervision for student intellectual development and thesis supervision and completion.

Each student is allocated a supervisor, usually in the first week of the terms, who provides academic guidance to the student and oversees his or her progress throughout the year(s).

Other Departmental staff members are available to give guidance, including those leading the lectures and classes, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Department’s administrative team.

Each student is also allocated a college tutor who is responsible for their general welfare and is available to provide additional guidance and help with problems that may arise on the academic or social side.

In addition, students can draw on University-wide support as needed, such as Women’s Advisors, Chaplains and so forth, usually based in colleges.  The University has a counselling service which provides advice, both immediate and long term, to students.  There are college nurses and all colleges have a college doctor and many a college dentist.

This programme is offered as part of the Oxford 1+1 MBA programme. High calibre candidates have the opportunity to apply to both the Comparative Social Policy MSc programme and the MBA programme offered by the Saïd Business School.

These programmes can be part of a 1+3 ESRC University Doctoral Training Centre scholarship. Find out more on the doctoral training site.

CSP programme details

The MSc and MPhil in Comparative Social Policy are full-time programmes: the MSc extends over one year and the MPhil over two years. The MPhil is essentially an extended version of the MSc, sharing the same teaching in the first year, with an additional Option Paper and a longer thesis.

In the first term for both programmes, students will take a Core Paper which comprises two separate strands. The first – entitled Comparative Social Policy - studies the key principles and institutions of social policy, the development and typologies of welfare states in the OECD area and key reforms and challenges. The second strand focuses on Social Policy Analysis, outlining the main approaches and methods to analysing and evaluating social policy. Students also take a course in comparative research design, an introductory course in statistical methods, systematic reviews, intensive work on methods, with classes in both quantitative and qualitative methods. In the second term students also take the specialised policy Option Papers. In the third term there is no teaching. Students are expected to use this time to work on their thesis and also to prepare for the exams and/or assessments which takes place in week 9 of third term (usually late June). 

There are four assessed components of the programme:

Core Paper 

Research Methods 

Option Papers 

Thesis – handed in in mid-August for MScs and in June of the second year for MPhils.

Knowledge of the substantive areas of social policy is assessed by a combination of examinations and/or submitted coursework assignments throughout the year.

For the MSc, the three components of the programme (Core Paper, Principles and Practice of Research Design and Methods and the Option Paper) all have equal weight (22% each). The remaining marks (34%) are allocated to the thesis.

For the MPhil, there are four components of the programme (Core Paper, Research Methods and two Option Papers). Each of these carries the same weighting of marks - 15% each - and the thesis comprises 40%.

All components are marked using a numerical scale. The pass mark is 50% (marks below 50% represent a fail). To pass the examination, candidates must achieve 50% or more in all components of the programme.The examiners may award a distinction for excellence in the whole examination. To obtain a distinction, MSc candidates must either achieve an overall (weighted) mark of at least 70% OR marks on two papers of 70% and above AND no mark less than 64%. MPhil candidates must either achieve an overall (weighted) mark of at least 70% OR marks on three papers of 70% and above AND no mark less than 64%.

For students commencing from 2018, to obtain merit, MSc and MPhil candidates must achieve an overall (weighted) mark of at least 65% and less than 70%. Marks between 69.5% and 69.9% will be rounded up to 70%.

The main criteria for the examiners in judging the exams/assessments are analytic skills, ability to apply a range of relevant theoretical and methodological approaches, critical awareness of alternative approaches and sources of data, and overall capacity to shape the material into a coherent and critical response in assessment questions and for the purposes of the thesis.  The examination standards are those that are appropriate for students who have graduated with the equivalent of at least a good upper second-class degree.

The Core Paper covers two courses both taught in the first term; they are formally assessed through one three-hour written examination at the end of the third term in late June.

For each of these two courses, students complete a number of pieces of work that are considered formative (that is they are intended as feedback and learning for the student rather than counting towards the final marks).  Written work is assessed by the student’s supervisor on the basis of a general template  covering knowledge and use of relevant comparative literature and evidence, understanding and application of theories/methods/concepts/issues, critical discussion and analysis and presentation. This follows discussion on a one-to-one basis. These assignments do not count towards the final mark.

The two components of the Core Paper are as follows:


This is taught through a series of eight lectures with accompanying seminars led by members of the Comparative Social Policy teaching team. Teaching focuses on the theories, principles, ideas, institutions and providers that characterise different types of welfare state and social policy systems. Students will be introduced to key theories and concepts in the field of Comparative Social Policy and will be asked to reflect on how and why policy provisions differ in different contexts across time and space.


This course seeks to equip students with the theoretical and analytic tools necessary to engage in formal policy analysis and to provide experience in applying them to real-world-like problems while receiving constructive feedback. It is taught through a series of eight lectures accompanied by four sessions devoted to presentations by people engaged in the making and evaluation of social policy (politicians, policy makers in government and other sectors). The course also consists of four practical sessions in which students working in groups undertake and present policy analyses of their own.

Through this part of the course, students gain practical skills taught through lectures and hands-on workshops. Students acquire the ability to conduct statistical analyses of quantitative and qualitative data; for example undertaking quantitative analysis, using STATA, on large-scale cross-sectional data-sets to investigate cross-national differences in welfare state attitudes; or undertaking qualitative analysis of policy problems. This hands-on work is closely supervised and monitored and there are some formative assessments of practical work undertaken.

The Research Methods Paper includes:

The teaching here is divided into four courses, two in the first term and two in the second:

  • A course of lectures on the comparative method and elements of research design and research organisation. It explores the basic principles and characteristics of comparative method and assesses the philosophical underpinnings and potential use of a range of comparative methodologies and approaches. The course is designed also to prepare students to carry out their own comparative research.
  • An introductory course on statistical methods and systematic reviews.
  • A course in quantitative methods, comprising hands-on workshops which introduce and enable practice in applying basic principles of statistical inference and statistical models for the analysis of quantitative social science data.
  • A qualitative methods course, which comprises a mix of lectures and practice sessions. These introduce students to the main qualitative research methods and to specific techniques and strategies involved in the collection and analysis of qualitative data for policy purposes.

The research methods skills, covering quantitative methods, qualitative methods, and systematic reviews, are taught in a mix of lectures, classes, workshops and ‘hands-on’ computer lab based weekly training sessions. In addition, there is a course on the principles of comparative research design. Research methods will be assessed by a series of assessments throughout the year using a combination of examinations and/or submitted coursework assignments.

Option Papers offer students the opportunity to develop an in-depth knowledge of a particular policy area, and are built around the specialist research interests of academic staff. As a result, different Option Papers may be offered each year, depending on staff availability and interests. Please note that teaching in some options may not be available in every year. The list of options available is published at the start of each year and finalised at the end of the first term when students are invited to make their choice of which Option Papers they wish to take.

The Option Papers are normally taught during the second term of the programme, and assessed through an assement/exam. Study is through small seminar groups (usually 6-12 students).

MSc students select two Option Papers and are examined in one; MPhil students, over the two years, select three Option Papers and are examined in two.

The current list of Option Papers for 2010/21 includes:

•    Comparative Education Policy
•    Comparative Labour Market Institutions
•    The Economics of Social Policy
•    Family, Gender, and Welfare State in Comparative Perspective
•    Health Policy
•    Issues in Latin American Social Policy


For each Option Paper, students will usually complete a number of pieces of work (made up of a combination of essays and presentations). The essays are assessed and marked by the Option Paper leader with the comments fed back to students.

The master’s thesis should employ the comparative method in the study of a social policy topic. Such comparison requires at least two countries (or systems), though it can include the same country at different time periods (e.g. pre- and post-apartheid South Africa), or two or more sub-national jurisdictions within a single country.

MSc students write a 10,000 word thesis. They will normally develop their topic in the first two terms of the programme, and in the second term are expected to present and discuss an outline of their thesis proposal with a panel made up of two staff members other than their supervisor. This may result in suggestions/recommendations to be discussed with the supervisor. MSc students then work more intensively on their thesis during the third term and over the summer vacation, to ready it for submission by the middle of August.  Students have an individual supervisor for the thesis whom they usually meet three times a term.

MPhil students write a 30,000 word thesis. They are required to develop their topic area during the second and third terms of their first year. During the third term of the first year, they present and discuss their thesis proposal to a thesis panel of two staff members other than their supervisor. This may result in suggestions/recommendations to be discussed with the supervisor. It is intended that work continues on the thesis over the summer. The second year of the MPhil is primarily thesis-focused, with submission usually in early June of that year.

The Department has a formal research ethics checklist process and separate health and safety checklists to be completed as part of the thesis preparation.