From Oxbridge to Uxbridge

Lee Elliot Major on the changing parliamentary educational elite

“British democracy recognises that you need a system to protect the important things of life, and keep them out of the hands of the barbarians. Things like the opera, Radio Three, the countryside, the law, the universities … both of them.”  As with so many other things, the fictitious Sir Humphrey Appleby summed it up perfectly in the classic 1980’s BBC TV Comedy Yes Minister.

Just about every politician and civil servant encountered in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister is educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. All except Prime Minister Jim Hacker, who is treated with disdain for having studied at the lowly London School of Economics. Sir Humphrey of course is an alumnus of ‘Baillie College’, Oxford.

Plus ça change – at least you might think so according to figures produced this week by a great new data resource on new parliamentary candidates in 2015 general election. The study considers the 224 constituencies that have the potential to change hands. Out of these 224 seats, 200 new candidates have been selected by the main political parties.

The most noteworthy finding is that 17% of Labour candidates attended Oxbridge – exactly the same proportion of Oxbridge graduates among the Tory candidates.

That sounds like quite a lot of potential MPs from just two elite universities, but it doesn’t necessarily represent a blow to social mobility. The study has yet to confirm the school backgrounds of this group. Among their number is the Etonian Boris Johnson who was selected as Tory candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. From Oxbridge to Uxbridge you might say. But they also include Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Ilford North Wes Streeting, a state school pupil who attended one of the Sutton Trust summer schools that enable non-privileged students to get into Cambridge and other leading universities.

If many of the Oxbridge candidates of a similar ilk to Wes then it will mean a job well done for the Trust. Improving access to universities is one of ten recommendations in the Trust’s Mobility Manifesto – a roadmap for improved social mobility being discussed at fringe meetings at all the major party conferences over the coming weeks.

These latest figures for parliament’s new recruits also confirm a trend of diminishing representation from the two ancient universities over the last 50 years. When we looked at the educational backgrounds of the new parliament in 2010 we found that just under three in ten MPs in the House of Commons were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge universities. I’ve combined the historical figures we quoted in our 2010 report below to chart the change in percentage of Oxbridge educated MPs over time.

Oxbridge educated MPs over time


What’s interesting is that the new recruits of 2015 are the first cohort where Labour and Tory candidates are equally likely to have attended Oxford or Cambridge. This may point to greater diversity in the university backgrounds of MPs. But it also highlights how similar all the main political parties have become. The Trust will produce a full educational breakdown of the new parliament after the general election next May.

The closer to power the more educationally elite our elected politicians become. Around 60% of those attending the latest UK Cabinet went to Oxbridge and 50% are privately educated. The UK is not alone in this respect. I recently looked at President Obama’s US Cabinet and found that 58% attended Ivy League (which make up just 0.4% of US undergraduate students).

The same challenge applies to both cabinets: they are totally unrepresentative of the people they are intended to serve, and are clearly in danger of what some have termed ‘group think’ – a lack of diversity of perspectives when making decisions.

The same could be said of the upper echelons of Whitehall as a whole. Last month’s Social Mobility Commission report confirmed that 57% of senior civil servants came from Oxbridge’s ‘dreaming spires’. A few years ago meanwhile I asked for the educational backgrounds of special advisers to Ministers (SPADs) and found that 80% of those who responded had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Even Sir Humphrey may have been shocked by that statistic.

2017-12-07T15:10:00+00:00 September 25th, 2014|Categories: Blog|


  1. Peter September 25, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I think the chart misinterprets the data. To assess trends over time you need to compare 2015 PPCs with 2010 PPCs rather than compare 2015 PPCs with 2010 MPs who were actually elected.

    Firstly, the majority of PPCs are fighting unwinnable seats (and this is especially the case for Lib Dems and Conservatives). It’s likely that only those replacing retiring MPs in non-marginal seats will actually get in.

    Secondly, it ignores the fact that most MPs in the 2015 Parliament are already in the House of Commons – there generally isn’t a high turnover of MPs unless one party wins a landslide.

  2. Tim Carr September 26, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Peter, As the author of some of the research used in this piece ( I’d like to respond to a couple of your points.

    Fully agree that there are dangers of mixing MPs with PPCs but that is why this is only forecasting. The PPCs considered have been carefully selected only in seats that are “potentially winnable”. Right now, all commentators/academics/journalists agree that the outcome of the next election is too close to predict (see for instance). So it is prudent at this stage to take into account all realistic scenarios. The figures are also broken down by party for you to make your own judgement.

    On your 2nd point, you’re right that most MPs are already in the Commons. But even if there isn’t a landslide, sufficiently large numbers of individual MPs can change (retirements etc) to have an impact on social background of all MPs (so there were 227 new MPs or 35% in 2010, 119 or 18% in 2005, 108 – I think – in 2001, inc 79 retirements), 256 (39%) in 1997 etc). 70+ MPs are already standing down in 2015.

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