School of Social and Political Science

MSc Comparative Public Policy

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The application deadline for this programme is 27 June 2022.

How do countries and regions across the globe navigate the most pressing public policy challenges?

Here in Scotland we think about public policy in comparative terms almost by definition: what are the similarities and differences between Scottish public policies and those implemented elsewhere in the UK? How and why do they differ in their performance?

Embedded in an environment that is naturally conducive to public policy comparisons, we will ask questions about how countries and regions across the globe navigate similar challenges, often deploying different solutions to common problems.

Policy-makers often refer to what works or doesn’t work elsewhere to persuade the public about the strengths and weaknesses of particular policy options and comparing is at the heart of some of the most hotly-debated policy problems:

  • Why do students pay for a university degree in some countries but not others?
  • Why are unemployment benefits much more generous in some countries than others?
  • Why did national responses to the 2008 financial crisis vary widely and so did the responses to Covid-19?

In this programme we will help you come up with clever comparative questions and answer them in a sound and rigorous way.


We've recently redesigned our flagship MSc Comparative Public Policy, to create a programme that is theory-led, empirically informed and practice-oriented.

We want you to be able to think critically, cleverly and creatively about comparative public policy. At the heart of comparative public policy is understanding the economic, political and social factors that lead countries across the world to develop responses to public policy issues.

We want you to be able to identify the factors that shape similarities and differences in such responses across time and space. We want this to be an entertaining exercise for you from both an analytical and a practical standpoint.

Analytically, we want to give you the theoretical tools to understand why particular sets of policies are implemented in particular countries. Practically, we want to give you the instruments to rigorously assess which ones ‘work’ best and what some countries or regions can – or, equally importantly, cannot – learn from others.

We want you to leave Edinburgh ready to work in the world of policy and to devise thorough analyses for stakeholders in the public and private sector leveraging the comparative perspective as a unique strength to tackle policy problems in today’s highly integrated societies.


Our curriculum has three essential components, which provide a framework for your learning over the course of the year.

They are:

  • a core course in each of semesters 1 and 2
  • a set of specialist elective courses
  • your dissertation

Core courses

Your two core courses introduce you to government, institutions and the policy process, and teach the ins and outs of comparisons from a theoretical and methodological standpoint.

Theoretically, you will learn when it is a good idea to compare and how to construct a meaningful comparison, while from a methodological point of view you will learn about the different qualitative and quantitative techniques that may be employed to conduct comparative analyses.

Elective courses

In each semester you choose two further courses from a list of recommended options, though you may take others offered across the School. While the core courses support your working together as a programme cohort, option courses give you contact with students across topics and disciplines.

Your electives might explore a specific policy area, such as education, energy or the labour market; zoom into a specific policy mechanism, such as public engagement; broaden your knowledge to neighbouring disciplines, such as European studies or international political economy; or strengthen your qualitative or quantitative methodological skills to carry out social science research of the highest standard. We encourage you to make the programme your own at every stage, and your programme director will help you work out what it is you really want to do.

Students also have access to a wider range of options taught in other MSc degrees in the School. The degree programme is complemented by research training in a variety of methodologies and research techniques on introductory and advanced level tailored to the research needs of individual students. 


The third element of your programme is a dissertation, an extended, independent research-based project with a comparative angle. It's wholly your own, and it's what makes your MSc a masters degree. Many students work on their own with a supervisor, but we also have a placement-based alternative, supported by a dedicated team.

In essence, we want you to develop in the way we'd want government or any other policy community to develop, as a cohort of specialists informed and enriched by contact with others.

Students in recent years chose to write dissertations on topics such as:

  • tax and benefit fraud in Britain and Germany
  • educational systems in Scotland and Iceland
  • the impact of European Union disability legislation in Scotland and Italy
  • European Neighbourhood Policy
  • gender, development and globalisation in Mexico and Malaysia
  • regulation of advertising of prescription drugs in the USA and New Zealand

Placement-based dissertation

You will also have the opportunity, should you wish, to undertake a Placement-based Dissertation with an external organisation and write your dissertation on the project you have worked on. There is a possibility to undertake such a placement with an organisation of your choice, and this should be discussed with your Programme Director.

Part-time study

Part-time students usually take four courses in their first year and two in their second; the dissertation element can be started as early as April or May of the first year, although there is a degree of flexibility to fit around work or personal commitments of any given student.

Career opportunities

The MSc in Comparative Public Policy gives students an recognised qualification that opens a path to a range of employment opportunities and further study.  A survey of previous graduates of the MSc in Policy Studies and the MSc in Comparative Public Policy found that, within six months, students had gone on to employment in the Scottish Executive, in social research, in a housing association, in local government, and in other public and private sector bodies.  One had taken up a voluntary position within the EC delegation in New York. 

From other past students who keep in touch we know that our students go on to occupy positions in the Scottish Government, social research, housing associations, local government, and in other public and private sector bodies, both locally and internationally.National Health Service, in civil service, as well as taking the opportunity to pursue further study in the UK and further a field. 

All students have access to the Edinburgh University Careers Service during the programme. The service provides both general and specific guidance on career options, runs career fairs, talks and training sessions, offers assistance with a CV, applications forms and interview preparation, and helps in exploring further study options. Appointments can be arranged on the day or in advance online. You can access the service by dropping in to the third floor of the Main Library on George Square, calling 0131 650 4670.

Careers Service website

How to apply

Application Deadlines

Due to high demand, the school operates a number of selection deadlines.

We will make a small number of offers to the most outstanding candidates on an ongoing basis, but hold the majority of applications until the next published selection deadline when we will offer a proportion of the places available to applicants selected through a competitive process.

Please ensure that you have submitted all supporting documentation and paid the application fee before the deadline for the round you wish to be considered in.

Deadlines for applicants applying to study in 2022-2023:

Round Application deadline Places awarded by
1 28th February 2022 25th March 2022
2 27th June 2022 22nd July 2022


Application fee

A non-refundable application fee of £50 must be paid after you submit your application. Your application will not be processed until we have received your application fee.

Award Title Duration Study mode  
MSc   1 Year Full-time Tuition fees
MSc   2 Years Part-time Tuition fees


Reading recommendations

Students will encounter a wide range of reading material during their studies, and the University's libraries cater for a range of disciplinary interests.  While each individual course will issue students with a specific reading list, we introduce some more general readings here which may be of interest to applicants.

Introductory texts:

  • Kennett, P. (ed.) (2004): A Handbook of Comparative Social Policy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. See particularly chapter by Jochen Clasen: “Defining comparative social policy”, pp. 91-102

Examples of political economy:

  • Esping-Andersen, G. (1999): Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Hall, P. A. & Soskice, D. (eds.) (2001): Varieties of Capitalism: the Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford: Oxford University Press

An excellent large-scale public policy study:

  • Castles, F. G. (1998): Comparative Public Policy, Edward Elgar

A good example of a comparative case study: 

  • Clasen, J. (2005): Reforming European Welfare States: Germany and the United Kingdom Compared, Oxford: Oxford University Press

And a single case study from Denmark:  

  • Flyvbjerg, B. (1998) Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Good overviews of gender-sensitive comparative policy analysis:

  • Sainsbury, D. (ed.) (1999): Gender and Welfare State Regimes, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Gornick, J. C. and Meyers, M. (eds.) (2003): Families that Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and employment, New York: Russell Sage foundation

An example of the study of policy-transfer:

  • Dolowitz, D.P. with others (2000). Policy Transfer and British Social Policy: Learning from the USA? Buckingham: Open University Press

On methodological and theoretical aspects of comparative public policy: 

  • Kennett, Patricia (2001): Comparative Social Policy. Theory and Research, Buchingham: Open University Press
  • Landman, Todd (2000): Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics: an Introduction, London/New York: Routledge
  • Ragin, Charles C. (1987/1989): The Comparative Method. Moving beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies, Berkeley: University of California Press

For any one new to the field of policy studies in general, we suggest the following book as an introduction:  

  • Hudson, J. and Lowe, S. (eds.) (2004): Understanding the Policy Process, Policy Press
Additional information

Study in a dynamic environment

We're a relatively large department of social and public policy, including both early career and more experienced staff with a wide range of research interests and teaching experience in both academic and professional settings.

We host colleagues working in the:

As part of a large school, this creates opportunities for us to work closely with colleagues in Politics, Sociology, Social Anthropology, Social Work, International Development and Science and Technology Studies. It also gives our students access to an unusually wide range of additional specialist courses, and to engage with students on a variety of parallel programmes.

We want you to feel you belong in Edinburgh as part of a cosmopolitan staff and student community from many countries around the world.


Undergraduate contact

The School of Social and Political Science sits within the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.  All enquiries and applications relating to undergraduate admissions to the School are handled by our College. Please contact:

CAHSS Undergraduate Admissions
University of Edinburgh
57 George Square
Edinburgh, EH8 9JX

Tel: +44 (0)131 650 3565