Let’s take it for granted that a majority of the British press are not fans of the Labour Party’s recently elected leader Jeremy Corbyn. He acknowledged as much in his speech at this year’s party conference in Brighton, noting that he had been accused of a range of extreme views, including welcoming the prospect of an asteroid “wiping out” humanity (Daily Mail, 12 August). However, in recent weeks a new front has been opened up on Corbyn by the Right-leaning press: a sneering dismissal of his academic qualifications.
It began with Martin Amis, the novelist and graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, describing Corbyn in The Sunday Times as “undereducated”. The Labour leader achieved two Es at A level and spent a year at the former North London Polytechnic (now part of London Metropolitan University) pursuing a degree in trade union studies, before dropping out. Amis wrote that Corbyn’s “intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity”.
The Spectator’s Harry Mount (Magdalen College, Oxford) was next, bemoaning “Corbyn’s purge of the Oxford set”. Out had gone Tony Blair (St John’s), Ed Balls (Keble), Yvette Cooper (Balliol) and the Miliband brothers (Corpus Christi). In had come John McDonnell (Birkbeck, University of London, via part-time study as a mature student), Tom Watson (University of Hull) and University of Sussex graduates Hilary Benn and Owen Smith. Mount suggested that this “brain transplant” had “perhaps” been motivated by Corbyn’s “low-grade education”.
This was followed by an article in The Daily Telegraph by Angela Epstein, herself a graduate of the redbrick University of Manchester, with the title: “Jeremy Corbyn is too thick to be Prime Minister”. In it, she suggested that the leader of the opposition’s unimpressive academic CV meant he lacked the “sparkling intellect” and “quick wits” to perform deftly at Prime Minister’s Questions.
But Corbyn is not alone in recently having had his academic qualifications questioned. David Blair in the Telegraph described Yanis Varoufakis, the “radical Marxist” former finance minister of Greece, as having “a lower-second class degree in mathematics from Essex University”. He neglected to mention his PhD in economics from the same institution.
What none of these articles mentioned is that recent prime ministers James Callaghan and John Major did not go to university at all. Nor did Sir Winston Churchill, Ramsay Macdonald, David Lloyd George, Benjamin Disraeli or Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. The former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, does not have a degree either. He retracted a published CV that suggested he attended the University of Perugia (founded 1308) rather than the University for Foreigners (a language school in Perugia). An undergraduate education at an “elite” institution promises access to the peer cohort; it is not a guarantee of intelligence or political savvy.
But facts are seldom a bar to having an opinion in the media. Presumably Russell Group graduates such as Gordon Brown (University of Edinburgh), Nicola Sturgeon (University of Glasgow) and Tim Farron (Newcastle University) are now also thought to have had an impoverished (because non-Oxbridge) education – never mind the eight current heads of state who, according to a recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), graduated from Manchester (including the prime minister of Iraq and the presidents of Iceland and the Republic of Ireland).
Or perhaps a special snooty disdain is reserved for Corbyn owing to his ex-polytechnic background. However, our newer universities are increasingly incubators for world leaders. The Hepi report also reveals that Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, is a graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University, and Hadia Tajik, formerly the Norwegian minister of culture (Norway’s first Muslim and youngest ever minister), is a graduate of Kingston University.
There are many reasons to be critical of Corbyn. Among them are his inexperience in running the apparatus of the Labour Party, his reluctance to deal with the mainstream media and his imbalance of interests between ethical foreign policy and macroeconomics. However, none of these is a result of the quality of his education or his aptitude for study as a teenager.
On the one hand, these recent attacks on Corbyn are standard-issue media knockabout, in which ignorance of the complex rainbow of UK tertiary education is all too common. On the other hand, they plug into a broadly held belief that graduate prospects are determined by the university attended, rather than by the transformative experience of higher education itself.
The latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that accounting and finance graduates from Robert Gordon and Portsmouth universities are more likely to be employed than their counterparts at the London School of Economics. Engineering alumni of the universities of Northampton and Hertfordshire, on average, earn more than those graduating from similar courses at the University of Warwick or King’s College London.
But it is surely just as big a mistake to equate graduate salaries with educational experience as it is to take the historical reputation of the institution someone attended as a proxy measure for their suitability for work. As any grown-up knows, career success is about what you do after you leave university.
Martin McQuillan is dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences and pro vice-chancellor for research at Kingston University.