Sharon Feeney, John Hogan and Brendan K O'Rourke


While politicians come, and go, the universities that our most senior political leaders are educated in seem to remain largely the same decades after decade.  Theresa May’s election gamble looks like it will pay off for her and the Conservative Party, but if he was elected, Jeremy Corbyn would be just the 5th post war British prime minister who is not an Oxbridge graduate.  Of the 4 non-Oxbridge PMs, only Gordon Brown was a university graduate, in his case Edinburgh University.  In a country of 65 million citizens, and over 160 universities, British prime ministers’ higher education seems to be moulded, almost exclusively, at Oxbridge. These optics will surely present challenges to the parties endeavouring to connect with voters in the run up to the British general election. 

Social uniformity and groupthink can render cliques blind to alternatives. At the same, their exclusiveness makes the wider society suspicious of any contribution they make.  Yet, networking is regarded as valuable in building trust, exchanging ideas, making connections, and acting cohesively. There is also the argument that we want the ‘best minds’ to be our leaders, and the assumption is that the best minds are forged in the ‘best’ institutions of learning.

Between 1937 and 2012, of the 340 cabinet ministers in the UK, 290 were university graduates.  Of these 290, 182 were Oxbridge graduates.  In Ireland, in the same period, there were 157 cabinet minister, 106 of whom were graduates and of these 66 graduated from either University College Dublin (UCD) or Trinity College Dublin (TCD).  Thus, in both counties just two universities account for almost the exact same percentage of cabinet ministers who graduated university over three quarters of a century – 62 percent.  The standout university in the UK is Oxford, which accounts for 119 of the 290 university educated ministers; while in Ireland it is UCD, accounting for 54 of the 106 graduates in cabinet. 

Yet, these factoids, while persuasive, make it difficult to get a real sense of how concentrated an elite’s formation is, especially in comparison to others.  When comparing top politicians’ higher educations across countries some obvious complications arise: the populations and their age profiles, the numbers attending higher education, the numbers and shares of higher educational institutions and the size of the political elite. To help gain a better comparative understanding we set out a range of indices that facilitate the direct quantitative comparison of elite formation systems.


Influence and exclusivity elements of elite formation systems

The indices we employ produce results that are comparable across institutions, jurisdictions and time (both long and short periods). The indices capture how elite a system is in the formation of a societal group by measuring the influence and exclusivity of that system. In turn, the influence of a higher education system comprises the proportion of cabinet ministers associated with institutes that produce them and the limited number, or “fewness”, of those institutions. The exclusivity is also comprised of two aspects. First, the more alternatives there are to any one institute, the more exclusivity there is. Second, the more unequal the shares of each institution, the more exclusivity there is. The eliteness of a higher education system is the linked combination of influence and exclusivity.

We found that the higher education system in the UK that produced cabinet ministers was more elite and influential than the Irish system over the period 1937-1997 (see Figures 1 and 2); but this situation was reversed thereafter. 


Figure 1: Eliteness index trends for Irish and UK higher education systems supplying cabinet ministers.


This reversal in the period 1997-2012 was connected with “New” Labour’s coming to power in the UK in 1997.  Tony Blair, and later Gordon Browne, filled their cabinets with ministers who graduated from a range of British higher education institutions, rather than just Oxbridge, as had been the wont of previous prime ministers. 


Figure 2: Influence index trends for Irish and UK higher education systems supplying cabinet ministers.


The British higher education system was also just a little more exclusive than the Irish system in each of the periods examined.  The more rapid decrease in the exclusiveness of the Irish system, since the early 1980s, was due to the number of higher education places in each Irish higher education institution growing rapidly, while the relevant general population of the country expanded more slowly.  It was also a time when the number of places in UK higher education institutions expanded at a slower rate in comparison to the relevant general population and, of course, in comparison to Ireland—as borne out by the results in Figure 3.


Figure 3: Exclusiveness index trends for Irish and UK higher education systems supplying cabinet ministers.


Until now, we might have had the general impression that the Irish higher education system was less elite than its UK counterpart.  After all, previous work has shown the UK political elite to have a much more elitist post-primary education than is the case in Ireland. While some of the factoids presented above might have challenged such prior assumptions – their variety and multidimensional character made it easier to focus on those elements of the story that confirm one’s own prejudices.

Our indices constitute a significant new tool for use in comparative elite studies, bringing a level of transparency and comparability that was absent heretofore. In the case of both countries, the results underline the general view that only a few universities dominate when it comes to high political office, these are Oxford in the case of the UK and UCD in Ireland.  

Here we have focused on comparing the higher education political elite formation systems in Ireland and the UK. However, our indices can also be employed across a much broader range of countries, or even within individual countries, and over varying and overlapping time periods, to examine a vast array of different types of elites and their formation systems.  Additionally, the data we have amassed on UK and Irish higher education systems could be of use in the study of any elite groups in those countries.


A fuller description of our research, along with details of all calculations and supporting information, can be found in our article ‘Elite formation in the higher education systems of Ireland and the UK: Measuring, comparing and decomposing longitudinal patterns of cabinet members’, forthcoming in the British Educational Research Journal and available through early view.  Please be sure to Tweet this link if you find the article interesting.  


Sharon Feeney is Head of Learning Development, College of Business, Dublin Institute of Technology.  John Hogan is a Research Fellow at the College of Business, Dublin Institute of Technology. Brendan K. O’Rourke is a College of Business Lecture and Head of the Business, Society and Sustainability Research Centre at the Dublin Institute of Technology.