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The Political Economy of the Public Sector


  • Credit value: 15 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Deborah Mabbett
  • Assessment: a take-home test (70%) and two online short-answer quizzes (30%)

Module description

This module examines two of the most pressing issues in the organisation of public services today: the use of market and quasi-market mechanisms and the extent of decentralisation and devolution in government. The module draws on economic theories of market failure and fiscal federalism, alongside political theories about how support for public provision is maintained and how functions are assigned and coordinated between levels of government. These issues are examined through case studies of health, education and social security provision in the UK and beyond.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Concepts from the economics of the welfare state
  • The politics of universalism and selectivity
  • Redistribution versus provision: the basic income debate
  • Diversity in provision: quasi-markets in education
  • Combining public and private finance: topping up and opting out in health care
  • Researching public provision (universal health care reforms)
  • The assignment of functions between central and local government
  • Localism, federalism, cooperation and competition between governments
  • Debt and financialisation in the public sector
  • Researching multi-level governance

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • be able to compare, apply and, where appropriate, synthesise the main theoretical approaches to the study of public sector quasi-markets and intergovernmental relations
  • have a specialised understanding of issues and debates about public sector quasi-markets and intergovernmental relations
  • understand issues in evaluating quasi-market and decentralisation reforms, and be able to weigh up incomplete and contradictory evidence
  • be able to draw on both economic and political analyses to contribute to debates about the organisation of the public sector and its reform
  • have developed skills of critical thinking, enquiry, synthesis, analysis and evaluation that can be employed on other modules studied at this level.