Wanted: Conversations with some very important (and privileged) undergrads

Let’s start with the least shocking observation that a person could probably make about British government — it’s a teensy bit cliquey, and a teensy-weensy bit class driven.

Before you groan ‘Not another piece about the self-perpetuating governing elites’ and return to Facebook, I want to point out that this phenomenon, normally classified as a deeply unfair achilles heel for our country, opens up the possibility of taking a ride of a very peculiar kind of time machine.

What am I wittering about? Well, consider the following thought experiment. In a country that was truly 100% meritocratic it would be extraordinarily hard to work out which young people today were going to be running things in the future. So if you wanted to have a conversation with tomorrow’s leaders, you’d have no way of working it out who to speak to, unless you had a real, actual time machine with which to zip into the future and check.

The UK, however, isn’t such a perfect meritocracy: schools, universities, families and wealth play a big role in working out who will rise up. There’s plenty of uncertainty and noise to spice things up of course (our PM is currently a geography graduate, which is not traditionally a route to power), but if you’re willing to play a numbers game, a sort of time-machine starts to emerge. Here’s what I mean.

19 of 34

I carried a bit of manual analysis looking at elected and unelected leaders of some of the top government departments in the last two decades (e.g Number 10, Treasury, Foreign Office). In my modest study I looked at 34 senior people — top ministers and top civil servants, and dug into their educational history. What I found was that 19 out of 34 were the product of just three faculties (Law, History and Economics), in just two universities (Oxford and Cambridge). If anyone would like to help me expand these numbers, that’d be awesome.

This pattern is the raw material from which I can fashion my time machine. These faculties are not that big — they probably see hundreds rather than thousands of students graduate per year. So if a person could speak with a reasonable cross-section of such students today, you’d be speaking to a not unreasonable sample of at least some of tomorrow’s leaders, both elected and not. There’s no guarantee you’d speak to the Prime Minister of 2050, of course, but you’d definitely get an insight into the current thinking of a swathe of that overall future governing class.

And that, Dear Reader, is where I need your help.

I want to meet with a range of current undergraduate students of law, history or economics degrees (or combination degrees) at Oxford and Cambridge, or people who have graduated from these degrees within the last 5 years. I want to interview them about to what extent they feel their education so far has put them in good stead to run the country, and to what extent what they learned was incomplete or outdated. I want to talk to them about technology, the use of stats and evidence, and a range of other things to ask what they think they need if they’re going to make good decisions in the future. I don’t want to lecture them, I just want to listen to them with view to working out how we might help fill the gaps of such important people in future.

So if you know of anyone like this, or you know anyone who might know/employ/teach people in this most rarefied of situations, I’d hugely appreciate an intro. I’m tom@tomsteinberg.co.uk and @steiny on Twitter.

Self-awareness Caveat

Lastly, I should note up front that I’m aware that many people will probably find this project distasteful — they’ll tell me that I’m immoral to focus on these most lucky of individuals from these most elite of institutions. And I’ll admit it makes me uneasy too, I’ve long been a supporter of projects, like this one, that attempt to broaden the intake to our top social positions.

However, I believe that law, history and economics graduates from Oxbridge are going to continue to exert a wildly, disproportionate social impact on this country for the rest of my life, and probably beyond it. I also believe that virtually nothing I can do can stop that.

More optimistically, though, I believe that someone in my position might be able to do something to reduce the chance that such graduates merrily sign off a wave of new Healthcare.govs and NHS Connecting for Health and Child Support Agency disasters, over the next 30 years. Choosing to ignore that possibility of making a positive intervention in the name of moral purity is not a trade-off I’m willing to make. So if you can help me to chat to these lucky young people, please do. Thanks!

Trying to get real about the connection between digital technologies and social needs. Full list of writings at http://tomsteinberg.co.uk

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