Almost a third of new parliamentary candidates with a reasonable chance of winning seats in the general election were privately educated and one in five attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities, according to research published on Thursday.
A report from the educational charity the Sutton Trust, Parliamentary Privilege, analyses the backgrounds of those likely to become members of parliament for the first time in May’s general election and finds they are “unlikely to reflect any more social diversity than the current crop of MPs”.
The educational backgrounds varied across the political parties, but none was close to the national average. Of the likely new MPs, 31% attended private schools, compared with 7% of the adult population, and 19% attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities, compared with 1% of the adult population.
Among Conservative candidates, 49% were found to have been privately educated, compared with 19% of Labour candidates and 36% of Ukip candidates. In the current parliament, 33% of MPs went to independent schools – 52% of Conservative MPs, 10% of Labour MPs and 41% of Liberal Democrat MPs – meaning the next parliament is likely to see a very small reduction in the number of privately educated members.
“As previously, the chances of being in a position to be elected to government are much higher for those few people fortunate enough to have attended fee-paying independent schools,” the report says. “This is problematic both in that it is symptomatic of low levels of social mobility in Britain, and in its implications for the diversity of experience within parliament.”
Some 18% of Labour candidates and 28% of Conservative candidates attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities. Only one Ukip candidate attended Oxbridge. Among the current crop of MPs, 24% went to one of those universities – 17% of Labour MPs, 32% of Conservative MPs and 41% of Liberal Democrat MPs.
Overall 10% of the candidates examined had no degree, compared with 17% in the current parliament and 62% in the adult population, suggesting that the proportion of MPs who aren’t university educated will continue to fall. Only 5% of the Labour candidates researched have no university degree, compared with 10% of Conservative candidates and 35% of Ukip candidates.
A majority (55%) of new candidates went to the prestigious Russell Group universities, excluding Oxbridge, with 56% from Labour, 68% from Conservatives and 29% from Ukip. The report identifies this as “perhaps less of a concern” because many Russell Group universities “accept reasonable proportions of less privileged students”. Of current MPs, 54% went to Russell Group universities.
The report concludes that it is “reasonable to expect political leaders to be generally more highly educated than the average”, but that an effective parliament needed to draw on a wide body of life experience. “If the majority of MPs all share the same experience of education at an elite university, this considerably narrows the diversity of perspectives within government”, it says.
“This is particularly applicable to the high proportion of Oxbridge alumni. Oxford and Cambridge accept relatively few students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These universities, as our recent report on graduate outcomes has shown, confer particularly strong career advantages on graduates.”
The study looked at candidates who were selected by mid-December 2014 who were considered to have a “reasonable chance of winning”, based on an examination of the lists of target seats released by political parties, opinion polling and whether candidates are replacing MPs from the same party in safe seats.
The criteria used mean that the majority of the 260 parliamentary candidates looked at were from the Labour party (134) and the Conservative party (64), followed by Ukip (38), the Liberal Democrats (16), the Green party (3), Plaid Cymru (2), Sinn Féin (2) and Independents (1). The Scottish National Party had not yet selected any candidates when the data was compiled.
The report also looked at the professional backgrounds of candidates and concluded that the rise of the “political class” was “not quite as dominant as some might fear”. Of the sample, 40% had political careers beforehand, including half of Labour candidates, with 14% of Labour candidates having previously worked for a trade union. Some 47 of the 260 candidates had careers as consultants, often in media relations, while 29 have worked as barristers or solicitors and 19 as journalists.
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