What does a university education give you? Popular answers might well include flexible, nuanced thinking, an ability to weigh up evidence and a broad, open perspective on life.
Clearly these are all important qualities for a prime minister to have, and if it is true that you need a university education to acquire them (Sir John Major may disagree), then it is no small wonder that, as Sir Anthony Seldon points out in one of our features this week, almost all modern British prime ministers have been graduates.
Of course, this being the UK, it also matters very much which university you attend (and, therefore, which social networks – in the pre-digital sense – you are plugged into). So no surprise that the University of Oxford dominates the list of modern PMs’ alma maters.
The current prime minister, Theresa May, is no exception, having studied geography at St Hugh’s College. Not that the flexibility of her university-trained mind has been much on show during the general election campaign. Her constant repetition (at the behest, no doubt, of her fabled election strategist Sir Lynton Crosby) of the phrase “strong and stable leadership” led her to be likened in some hostile quarters to a dalek.
It is worth remembering that this is not a new accusation. As long ago as 2012, Sir Edward Acton, then vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, used the same comparison in relation to May’s adamant refusal, as home secretary, to take international students out of the net migration figures. Nor has she budged an inch on that in the subsequent five years, even including her refusal in the Conservative manifesto.
Indeed, for a graduate, May has been surprisingly cold towards universities – even if recently announced research funding increases suggest recognition of their crucial economic role in a post-Brexit UK. As Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and a former Whitehall mandarin, says in these pages, now might well be the time for vice-chancellors to adopt a new lobbying approach, more informed by the “art of the possible”.
So what of May’s Labour opponent, Jeremy Corbyn? One striking facet of the coverage that greeted his election as party leader in 2015 was the disdain of the right-wing press at his educational background: he got two E grades at A level and dropped out of a degree in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic – now part of London Metropolitan University. The Spectator, for instance, speculated that this “low-grade education” motivated his “purge of the Oxford set” from Labour’s inner circle, replacing them with “red-brick alumni”. Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph’s Angela Epstein, under the headline “Jeremy Corbyn is too thick to be Prime Minister”, wrote: “I want my politicians to have a stunning academic record. One which points to a sparkling intellectual rigour needed for deft political strategy and the cerebral processing of complex domestic and international policies.”
Yet, as Seldon points out, not all prime ministers who went to Oxford excelled there. And it is interesting that, for all the mud thrown at Corbyn during the election campaign, this line of attack was largely avoided. Perhaps that is because the country’s anti-Establishment mood is such that voters might actually prefer the next prime minister to be an outsider from North London Polytechnic instead of another Oxford graduate.
If becoming prime minister, though, has historically been all about privilege, where have all the University of Cambridge graduates gone? As Seldon observes, there was no shortage of them before the 20th century, but the last one, Stanley Baldwin, left No 10 in 1937.
One suggested explanation is Cambridge’s greater focus on science. Seldon dismisses that, but, either way, it is worth reflecting on why scientific expertise is apparently not regarded as important by voters. After all, if dispassionately assessing the evidence is important, then who better to do it than a scientist?
In these pages, David Berman suggests that one aim of science communication should be to cultivate an appetite among voters for scientifically trained leaders. The public mood may not currently favour experts and technocrats, but a week after Donald Trump (fond of mentioning his economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania when his intellect is questioned) pulled the US out of the Paris climate change accord, the case for technocrats is surely stronger than ever.
And at least a doctor will know what to do if the “real” daleks acquire any designs on the House of Commons.