In just over the last hundred years, there have been as many Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom that went to Oxford University’s Balliol College as those that didn’t go to university at all. This means that a college with a current total enrollment of 682, less than 0.01% of the UK’s population, has fielded the same number of PMs as the 73.8% that do not have a university degree. The grip of public schools and Oxbridge on the dominant institutions of this country is historic, but not resigned to the past; our current PM Boris Johnson is an alumnus of both Eton and Balliol. There is much photographic evidence of how Johnson, far from rejecting the elitist stereotype enshrouding the college, embraced the pomp and privilege he crossed paths with, from attending the expensive balls Oxford is famed for to becoming a member of the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive dining club known for excessive behaviour and inflicting thousands of pounds worth of damage on establishments that host them.
While a ‘public schoolboy’ image can be played for laughs to deflect from the immense advantages such a background affords – case in point the ‘Honorable Member for the Eighteenth Century’ Jacob Rees-Mogg – most politicians with similar upbringings deem it unsuitable to laud their well-connected education. Rory Stewart, former Tory MP and independent candidate in the 2020 London mayoral election, would far rather spend weeks walking across the capital than discuss how the prestigious alma matters he shares with Boris Johnson equipped him with the confidence of believing he should be mayor of a city he’s never lived in.
And what of those who’ve never attended any university in the first place, like most of the population? Far from the collegiate houses of Oxbridge, unfamiliar with the identikit new-build halls of residence in place on many UK campuses, those without a degree accounted for just a quarter of MPs in 2015. Those in this camp include Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (though he was privately educated up until age 11) and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, who this month discussed with the Guardian how her education lasted until she was 16 when she left school with not one GCSE above grade D.
But though the 2017 election fielded the most ever diverse sessions statistically in parliament (more women, more LGBT+ MPs, more people of colour than ever before), the likelihood a candidate from the two biggest parties would have a degree has risen by roughly 20% since 1979. After 1980, student maintenance grants rose from £380 to £1,430, and as tuition fees were subsidised by the government, higher education became more accessible than ever. But in 2019, the landscape is very different. University graduates can expect to leave with at least £27,000 worth of debt with a higher interest rate than that of most mortgages. So whether the current rise in degree-educated members of the house is sustainable is unclear as late Millennials and Generation Z become more prominent politically. What will the new generation’s rise bring? Tuition fees have become a dark shadow hanging over the leaders and constituents of tomorrow. Far from being stereotyped with a lack of intellect, pretty soon candidates without a degree might be an indication of a new status quo.