Can ‘outsider’ universities break the Oxbridge stranglehold on the Civil Service? Carole Talbot explores…
It’s well understood that Whitehall Civil Servants go to Oxford and Cambridge Universities more often than elsewhere. And, many of the linkages into these universities are based on civil servants having attended one of the Oxbridge Colleges themselves and that the relationships between ex students and tutors form the basis of the evaluation of academic expertise.
While this situation might persist recent research suggests the dominance of Oxbridge is much less important. Firstly, the social class structure within Whitehall has been changing for some time. Between 1998 and 2011, for example, the number of Oxbridge graduates entering the civil service fast stream fell from 34.5% to 26.0%. Add to this the fact that 23% of the senior civil service are external recruits from the private, voluntary and wider public sector, see this article by Colin Talbot. Therefore serious inroads have been made to the dominance of Oxbridge educated civil servants.
Furthermore, new survey research with senior civil servants suggests while Oxbridge remains an important source of research and expertise it is not the whole story and the links between Whitehall and Academics are in fact very widespread and include universities across the country, as this report shows.
Further analysis provides findings from the question which asked Civil Servants to list up to five universities as sources of the best academic research and expertise from their perspective ‘within the UK’. What we found was that, yes, Oxford and Cambridge are highly valued for their research and expertise. Oxford was selected 47 times and Cambridge 53. Their names also appeared in all five positions selected – although there was no attempt to rank universities in the question, if Oxbridge Universities were totally dominant in the market for research and expertise they would likely have occupied more of the 1st and 2nd positions among the 404 selections. The London Colleges counted together were also selected 100 times. Among the colleges of course there is a wide variation – with the LSE receiving 30 nominations, UCL 23 and Imperial 22 – others many fewer. Therefore, Oxford, Cambridge and the London Universities counted together received 200 out of the 404 selections.
Slightly over half of the selections were then not for these particular top universities. This suggests that there is a lot of ‘acknowledged’ expertise outside of the London area within Whitehall. There is a long tail of universities contributing research and expertise, some perhaps having expertise only a few or even one particular area, but they are acknowledged for it. Both via the REF process and among policymakers.
Outside of the London area, The University of Manchester follows with 23, level pegging with UCL, and Warwick University with 19. The University of Birmingham received 12 and Cranfield University 10. I have presented here all universities which received 10 or above nominations. Therefore, another 64 selections are accounted for which leaves 140 for all other universities across the United Kingdom.
A total of 44 universities share the 140 nominations, sometimes only 1 or 2. They represent a huge variety based on the survey results including Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Universities and many specialist institutions too including colleges of art, agriculture, bio medical and veterinary training to highlight just a few of the disciplines acknowledged.
This adds to what was more striking data on the London area dominance drawn from the ‘Who’s Lobbying Database’ in 2013. This analysis looked at the ‘potential influence’ from Universities lobbying with Parliament and the Government. This data source showed that Parliament is lobbied more than government and implied Parliament is more receptive to lobbying. The sample of 10 academic institutions with a general public policy focus was admittedly small and so cannot be taken as a representative sample. However, the breakdown of the data does show a similar story of the dominance of the so-called Golden Triangle of universities (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, LSE and Kings College). These account for 77% of Parliamentary appearances and 83% of meetings with Government, see here.
Due to the size of the sample in the above this appears to be slightly exaggerated – it is probable by examining a wider number of universities it would likely show more the story that our new survey data suggests, more impacts but in the form of a ‘long tail’ of a lot with a few impacts each. Our conclusion, that there is broad engagement across universities and the walls of Whitehall are not impervious to sustained attempts from ‘outsiders’ to breakthrough – but it could be hard work.