Revealed: former students of Scotland’s ‘ancient’ universities control Holyrood
The Herald Scotland, by David Leask
They are the true political elite of Scotland, more powerful than any party or movement.
Graduates of Scotland’s "ancient" universities dominate Holyrood and the Scottish Government after this year’s general election in a way MPs who have come down from Oxbridge could only dream of in Westminster.
Collectively MSPs who studied at Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Dundee can command an absolute majority on the floor of the house, something that no party, not even the all-conquering SNP can manage.
But Ancients "alumni" have an even tighter grip on the actual government, according to research for this newspaper. They account for 90 per cent of cabinet members and 70 per cent of all ministers.
A single "ancient" – Glasgow – was attended by a quarter of MSPs, half of all ministers and seven out of 10 cabinet ministers, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. That compares with fewer than two per cent of the Scottish population who have ever studied at the university.
Meanwhile our research shows the number of MSPs who did not go to university or a college that was subsequently given university status has fallen to just 25. That is 19 per cent of the total, down from 34 or 26 per cent.
That means parliament is well out of step with the general population. Scotland, largely thanks to migrants, has been named as the joint most educated country in Europe, with Russia, with some 45 per cent of the population with a tertiary education.
The Herald research counted people who attended university – rather than those who graduated – because we are interested in connections and experiences rather than just qualifications. So we have listed cabinet minister Derek Mackay as even been educated at Glasgow University, although he dropped out before graduating.
Political analysts are always looking out for personal relationships and shared experiences in the background of politicians. So they are not too surprised that Ms Sturgeon’s inner cabinet is full of people who went to the same university she did. In fact, several ministers, Angela Constance, Fergus Ewing, Fiona Hyslop, Shona Robison and Alastair Allan were all at Glasgow in its politically intense 1980s. They follow generations of Labour and Liberal politicians who have taken the same route, such as Donald Dewar and Charles Kennedy.
As The Herald revealed last year that half of all 59 Scottish MPs had gone to an ancient Scottish university, including a quarter who had attended Glasgow. Oxbridge accounts for 26 per cent of all MPs as of 2015 but full half of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministers. That means Glasgow University alone has more influence in Scotland than Oxford and Cambridge combined have in the UK.
Paul Cairney, of Stirling University, has been watching these trends for years. He said: "Unlike Westminster, the Scottish Parliament doesn’t recruit much from Oxford and Cambridge, but its equivalent is recruitment from a small number of ‘Ancient’ Universities.
"Glasgow University stands out as the biggest recruitment base, which has also traditionally supplied a disproportionate number of Scottish MPs".
"We shouldn’t be too surprised that a far greater proportion of the Scottish Parliament, than the general public, went to University.
"In fact, it presents us with a dilemma: we want MSPs to represent the background of the public, but we also want them to be equipped with the kinds of transferable skills – including articulate and confident public speaking, and critical analysis of government policy – that they tend to hone at University."
A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland was quick to deny that a high level of university alumni in parliament was a sign that Holyrood was out of touch. She said: "We’re proud that a high proportion of MSPs are alumni from our universities. Scotland’s universities are among the best in the world but they are not elitist. We know that many MSPs were the first in their family to go to university.
"Where that is the case they will be able to bring particular empathy and passion to the cross-party objective of widening access. We look forward to engaging with them on this important priority for us."