OCT 15, 2020 • 15 min read
Earlier this week, we brought you which US Colleges have educated the most US Presidents (read it here). Today is the UK edition, where we take a look at where British Prime Ministers have historically gone to university.
For those unfamiliar, the UK Prime Minister is the individual empowered by the Queen to lead the nation. To earn this right, they must almost always be the leader of the party which wins the most seats in the House of Commons during a general election. They also have the responsibility to appoint members to the government, known as ministers.
Because the office of Prime Minister was created by convention, it is difficult to definitively say when it was first created and how many there have been. However, many regard Robert Walpole as the first de facto Prime Minister, meaning that there have been fifty-five to date since 1721. Aside from the eight Prime Ministers who did not go to University, all of them studied at a select group of 6 Universities. Check out what they are below:
Yes, you read that correctly.
A staggering 28 PMs have been educated at Oxford, the UK’s oldest and top-ranking university. That's more than half!
Included is Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, H H Asquith, Marquess of Salisbury, Earl of Rosebery, William Ewart Gladstone, Earl of Derby, Sir Robert Peel, George Canning, Lord Grenville, Henry Addington, Earl of Shelburne, Duke of Portland, Lord North, Earl of Chatham, George Grenville, Henry Pelham and Earl of Wilmington.
So, why have so many Prime Ministers studied at Oxford? Part of the story is its age. The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and the world’s second oldest surviving university. While its exact founding date is unknown, there is evidence that teaching took place as far back as 1096.
Secondly, the world-renowned Oxford Union debating society might also be playing a big role. Founded in 1823, this society has historically been a training ground for future British politicians. Students come here to learn the debating style they use in the House of Commons, make the right connections and explore their passion for debating.
Thirdly, Oxford’s continued academic excellence and top-programs are a third reason why they produce students with the requisite intellect and cunning to reach the office of PM. This year, Times Higher Education (THE) ranked Oxford as the best university in the world for the fifth consecutive year (read more about this here). Oxford’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) is almost tailor-made to give people the broad knowledge they need to pursue a career in politics. Check out what a day in the life of an Oxford PPE student looks like on our youtube channel here.
Fourteen PMs studied at Cambridge, including Robert Walpole Thomas Pelham-Holles, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Augustus FitzRoy, William Pitt the Younger, Spencer Perceval Robert Jenkinson, Frederick John Robinson, Charles Grey, William Lamb, George Hamilton-Gordon, Henry John Temple, Arthur Balfour, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and Stanley Baldwin.
The University of Cambridge is the UK’s second oldest university. It is located in the town of Cambridge — just an hour from the city of London. The university is a collegiate public research institution and home to more than 18,000 students and 9,000 staff. There are 31 colleges, some of which date back to the 13th century, and more than 100 academic departments. Popular courses include economics, medicine and law.
In many ways, the aspects that have made Cambridge a fertile ground for former British PMs is similarly a mix of age, debating traditions and academic excellence. Together with Oxford, more than three quarters of the PMs in the history of Britain have studied at either Oxford or Cambridge. However, in recent times it does seem that Cambridge has slipped behind its ancient rival in terms of PM education, with its last former student to ascend to the office (Stanley Baldwin) leaving in 1937. In contrast, Oxford have educated 11 of the last 15 PMs.
John Russell, Henry John Temple and Gordon Brown studied at the University of Edinburgh.
Both John Russell and Henry John Temple were Victorian-era Prime Ministers from aristocratic families. Gordon Brown was PM from 2007 to 2010, and the last Labour Party Prime Minister to serve since over a decade of Conservative Party rule.
Gordon Brown has gone beyond merely studying at Edinburgh, and in 1972 was elected Lord Rector of the university. In this role, he chaired the University Court, as well as meetings of the General Council in the absence of the Chancellor. He remains the only UK Prime Minister to have obtained a PhD, which he earned at Edinburgh. Gordon Brown is also the only one of the above Prime Ministers who studied at the University of Edinburgh to be from Scotland.
The University of Edinburgh first began as a college of law before expanding into a formally established college, under the Royal Charter of King James VI of Scotland on 14th April 1582. This makes it the sixth oldest university in the UK. Popular courses include politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), medicine and business management.
Prime Ministers William Lamb, Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Bonar Law studied at the University of Glasgow.
Of these Prime Ministers, only Henry Campbell-Bannerman was born in Scotland, however, Bonar Law was born to a Scottish family in New Brunswick, Canada while it was a British colony.
Prior to studying at Glasgow, English aristocrat William Lamb (aka. Lord Melbourne) studied law at Cambridge. Throughout English history, Lamb is perhaps best known for being the Prime Minister when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne at 18 years old. He is rumoured to have spent about 5 hours tutoring the new Queen about politics each day.
The University of Glasgow is the UK’s fourth oldest university, established in 1451. It’s best known for its programs in communications & media studies, medicine and veterinary medicine.
Both Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin studied in Birmingham in the late 1800s.
As a disclaimer, these Prime Ministers did not actually attend the University of Birmingham per se, but attended a predecessor institution, Mason Science College, which was incorporated into the university by Royal Charter in 1900.
Both of these Prime Ministers have a similar story. From wealthy industrial families, both were sent to Mason Science College to study Metallurgy. Neville Chamberlain was even the successor to Stanley Baldwin after Baldwin served his third-term as Prime Minister from 1935-1937. Neville Chamberlain was succeeded by Winston Churchill following the breakout of World War II.
The science and engineering programs remain a strength of the university, and metallurgy continues to be taught by the Metallurgy and Materials Department.
It seems that one British Prime Minister earned his degree as an international student!
I am of course talking about John Stuart, who earned his degree in Civil Law from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Prior to earning his degree at Leiden, he also studied for a time at the nearby University of Groningen.
In fact, during the 18th and 19th century it was common practice for University students from aristocratic backgrounds to travel abroad on a “grand tour” either before, during or after earning their degree, and many studied for several months at European universities. However, John Stuart certainly went against the grain by earning the entirety of his degree abroad.
The University of Leiden remains the oldest continuing institution of Higher Education in the Netherlands. It also remains one of the top Law schools in the world, and is ranked 27th in the Times Higher Education subject rankings for law.
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