Three-quarters of Britain’s prime ministers went to Oxford or Cambridge (but mostly Oxford)

Oxford chums.
Oxford chums.
Image: Parliament TV/Reuters
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Britain formally started calling its top political leader “prime minister” in 1721, and for a long time graduates from Oxford and Cambridge, the country’s two premier universities, got the top job with roughly equal frequency.

Then Oxford pulled ahead. Way ahead.

Earlier this year, Theresa May became the 27th Oxford graduate to become prime minister. Cambridge, by contrast, has sent only 13 prime ministers to Westminster (or 14, if you count Charles Watson-Wentworth, whose educational history is the subject of some debate). The last Cambridge man to sit as prime minister was Stanley Baldwin in the early 1920s; there have been 10 Oxford grads who have led the government since then.   

Since 1721, 40 of Britain’s 54 prime ministers went to either Oxford or Cambridge, collectively known as “Oxbridge.” The rivalry between the two elite institutions manifests itself in an annual boat race, which is how Oxford Today, a magazine sent to graduates, explains the situation in its latest issue:

If this contest morphed into the boat race, Oxford would be ahead by several lengths and still pulling away.

(For the record, Cambridge has won the boat race 82 times to Oxford’s 79.)

Bar a few early prime ministers whose higher education consisted either of the “Grand Tour” of continental Europe or studies abroad in places like Brussels and Utrecht, every prime minister who went to university in the UK chose either Oxford or Cambridge until John Russell in 1846. Granted, there were few other universities to choose from at the time, but Russell broke the trend by going to Edinburgh University (although he didn’t get a degree). 

The most recent non-Oxbridge prime minister, Gordon Brown (prime minister from 2007 to 2010), also studied in Edinburgh. John Major, who held the post from 1990 to 1997, was the last leader who didn’t go to university at all. Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the opposition Labour party, started a course at North London Polytechnic but didn’t finish it. 

Oxbridge graduates dominate the UK’s professional class, according to the Sutton Trust, accounting for a majority of judges, lawyers, journalists, and civil servants. Last year, more than 18,000 people applied for 3,200 undergraduate places at Oxford (an 18% acceptance rate), and 16,000 applicants went for 3,400 places at Cambridge (a 21% success rate).