Comparative Social Policy Master's Programmes

DSPI students Doctoral

We offer two highly 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 your understanding of social problems and challenges, policy options, reforming policy, and the impact on individual lives, households and societies. If you are aspiring to be a policy practitioner, looking towards a career in social policy research or interested in subsequent doctoral research, these programmes are the ideal route for you. 

A comparative approach

The two programmes explore welfare systems and policy developments across the world, with a focus on advanced economies in Europe and OECD countries. 

The comparative approach is a defining element of the degree: we believe systematic international comparison is the best way to analyse and understand a particular welfare system and its social policies. You study across disciplines, including demography, economics, political science, social policy and sociology.  

Rigorous methods training 

The course offers a strong emphasis on training in comparative research methods and their application in a thesis project. You are given rigorous methodological training, including in comparative research design and qualitative and quantitative research methods. This helps you evaluate existing research evidence and provides the necessary skills for independent research. 

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The central aim of the programme is to provide high quality, graduate level comparative research training in social policy in highly-developed countries.  

More specific aims are to develop your 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 (such as 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. 

The MSc and MPhil in Comparative Social Policy are full-time programmes, with the MSc running for one year and MPhil for two. The MPhil is 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, you will take a core paper, comprising two separate strands. The first – 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 - Social Policy Analysis – looks at the main approaches and methods to analysing and evaluating social policy. 

You will also take a course in comparative research design, statistical methods, systematic reviews and intensive work on methods, with classes in both quantitative and qualitative methods. In the second term you also take the specialised policy option papers. There is no teaching in the third term. You will be expected to use this time to work on your thesis and prepare for the exams and/or assessments which take place in week 9 of the third term (usually late June).  

There are four assessed components of the programme: 

  • Core Paper  
  • Research Methods  
  • Option Papers  
  • Thesis – to be completed in mid-August for MScs and in June of the second year for MPhils. 

Your 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. You need to achieve 50% to pass (a mark below 50% represents a fail). You need to achieve 50% or more in all components of the programme to pass the examination. 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 your exams/assessments are analytic skills, the ability to apply a range of relevant theoretical and methodological approaches, critical awareness of alternative approaches and sources of data, and the overall capacity to shape the material into a coherent and critical response, both in your assessment questions and within your thesis.  

The examination standards are appropriate if you have graduated with the equivalent of at least a good upper second-class degree. 

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 Comparative Social Policy and Social Policy Analysis paper is foundational to the programme. You would learn on this two-part course through lectures, seminars and workshops. It will provide you 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.  

In addition to the core paper and teaching in research design and methods, you will also undertake specialist policy courses (two in the MSc/three in the MPhil). The option papers focus on particular social policy areas, including education, family and gender, healthcare, labour market, pension policies and poverty. 

Lastly, you will write a thesis on a social policy topic of your choice. You will be closely guided through regular meetings with a supervisor. As an MPhil student, you would work on a longer thesis over your two-year programme of study, whereas, as an MSc student, you would complete a shorter thesis within one year. In addition to regular feedback and advice from your supervisor, you would also be assigned a college advisor to look after your wellbeing.   

The assessment of your taught course 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 your overall mark. 

Why not hear from students who have taken our programmes? View our student videos on this page

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

You will be allocated a supervisor, usually in the first week of the terms, who provides academic guidance oversees your progress throughout the programme. Other teaching staff are also available to give guidance, alongside the Director of Graduate Studies and the DSPI administrative team. 

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

In addition, you can draw on University-wide support as needed, such as Women’s Advisors and Chaplains.  The University has a counselling service which provides advice, both immediate and long term. There are also college nurses, doctors and dentists available.  

Profiles of current students can be found here and you can take a look at our student videos. Graduates from our programme go on to pursue academic careers in world-leading research universities, while other alumni hold influential positions in government, non-governmental and international organisations such as the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, and the UN. 

Oxford 1+1 MBA Programme

The Oxford 1+1 MBA programme provides high calibre candidates with the opportunity to apply to both the Comparative Social Policy MSc programme and the MBA programme offered by the Saïd Business School. 

ESRC 1+3 Doctoral Training

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

Some funding is available through the University of Oxford (see below) but you are strongly encouraged to apply for non-Oxford funding sources. You should consider funding for their studies as early as possible. 

A guide to the fees and funding can be found here: 

University of Oxford scholarships 

Applications received by the funding deadline for your course will be automatically considered for a number of scholarships available through the university, its colleges and other funds managed by both. 

The range of scholarships and eligibility criteria can be found here


External scholarships 

Given the strong competition for funding applicants are strongly encouraged to also seek out scholarships offered by non-University of Oxford bodies. 

A list of outside funders linked with the University of Oxford can be found here


If you have questions about the course or the application procedure, please check the University of Oxford graduate admissions webpage. For specific questions or to hear more about the department, academic staff and our application procedure, please contact our admissions officer: 

Further information

The core paper covers two courses both taught in the first term. You will be formally assessed through a three-hour written examination at the end of the third term in late June. 

For each of these two courses, you will complete several pieces of work that are considered formative (intended as feedback and learning for you rather than counting towards the final marks).  

Written work is assessed by your supervisor, following discussion on a one-to-one basis. The supervisor will consider your knowledge and use of relevant comparative literature and evidence, your understanding and application of theories/methods/concepts/issues, your critical discussion, and your analysis and presentation.  These assignments do not count towards your final mark. 

The two components of the Core Paper are as follows: 

Comparative Social Policy

You will be taught through a series of eight lectures and accompanying seminars led by 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. You will be introduced to key theories and concepts in Comparative Social Policy and reflect on how and why policy provisions differ in different contexts across time and space. 

Social Policy Analysis

You will learn about the theoretical and analytic tools necessary to engage in formal policy analysis and get experience of applying them to real-world problems. You will also receive constructive feedback. Your teaching will comprise a series of eight lectures, accompanied by four sessions involving 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 you work in groups to undertake and present policy analyses of your own. 

Through this part of the course, you gain practical skills through lectures and hands-on workshops. You will learn to conduct statistical analyses of quantitative and qualitative data. For example, you will carry out 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. Your hands-on work will be closely supervised, monitored and assessed. 

The Research Methods paper is divided into four courses, two in the first term and two in the second. This will include: 

  • A course of lectures on 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 you to carry out your own comparative research. 

  • An introductory course on statistical methods and systematic reviews. 

  • A course in quantitative methods, comprising hands-on workshops. These provide 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 practical sessions. These introduce you 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. 

Your research methods will be assessed though a series of assessments during the year, using a combination of examinations and/or submitted coursework assignments. 

Option papers give you the opportunity to develop an in-depth knowledge of a particular policy area. As these are built around the specialist research interests of academic staff, different option papers may be offered each year, depending on staff availability and interests. Therefore, you should 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. You are then invited to make your choice of which option papers you wish to take. 

The option papers are normally taught during the second term of the programme and are followed by an assessment/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. 

Option papers might include: 

•    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, you will usually complete a number of pieces of work (essays and presentations). The essays are assessed and marked by the option paper leader, with comments fed back to students. 

Your 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. You will normally develop your topic in the first two terms of the programme. In the second term, you will present and discuss an outline of your proposal with a panel made up of two staff members, other than your supervisor. Any suggestions/recommendations would then be discussed with your supervisor. MSc students go on to work more intensively on your thesis during the third term and over the summer vacation, ready for submission by the middle of August. You will have an individual supervisor for the thesis, whom you will usually meet three times a term. 

MPhil students write a 30,000-word thesis. You are required to develop your topic area during the second and third terms of your first year. During the third term of the first year, you will present and discuss your thesis proposal with a panel of two staff members, other than your supervisor. Any suggestions/recommendations would then be discussed with your supervisor. You will continue to work on your thesis over the summer. The second year of the MPhil is primarily thesis-focused, with submission usually in early June. 

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