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The Holyrood class of 2016: some evidence that not all HE is equal

May 7, 2016

[Note updated with new info 25 May and 4 August]

I’ve recently been doing some work with colleagues at Edinburgh University unpicking various statistics on access to HE in Scotland (we’ll be discussing the results  at this event  A theme which emerges – it’s not a new one –  is how far it matters what sort of higher education a person gets – college or university, newer university  or older?

With that all in my head, I wondered about the Holyrood class of 2016. There’s no threshold qualification for being an MSP. The skills required are varied.  We need some policy wonks, but we also need people with very high levels of empathy, and a wide mix of experience and general political skills, of the admirable and less admirable types, should count too.  So the range of educational backgrounds our MSPs have is a small, but I’ll argue meaningful, window on how far we can treat all higher education as the same.

For speed, I limited the analysis to new members, using this Scotsman piece as a guide to who they are. There’s no attempt here to compare with the ones who have gone, or the returners.  According to this piece, there are 45 new MSPs.  23 are Conservative, 15 SNP, 4 Labour, 2 Green and 1 Liberal Democrat.  To find information about them I googled various combinations of their name, party and the word “biography”, but I never went past page 2 of the results.  So there may well still be information out there for the three [originally five, grateful to readers for helping find two of them] for whom I couldn’t find any clues about their post school education. That left 42 who provided enough post-school information to be useful.

Of these:

19 attended an ancient university in Scotland or Russell Group university in England (4 Glasgow, 5 Aberdeen, 3 Edinburgh (though one part-time), 1 St Andrews,  1 part St Andrews/part Edinburgh, 1 Oxford, 1 Cambridge, 1 UEA, 1 Newcastle, 1 York and then Edinburgh). 1 more attended Edinburgh, after attending a pre-1992.

4 attended a pre-1992 university in Scotland (3 Strathclyde, 1 Dundee), though Ross Greer MSP (Green) appears to have left his course early, to work as a campaigner. 1 more went on to Strathclyde after attending an ancient.

2 attended a post-1992 Scottish university (1 RGU, 1 Glasgow College of Technology – the old name for GCU).

2 attended a non-Russell Group university elsewhere in the UK (Harper Adams, Keele).

3 have been in professions which strongly imply university attendance (clinical pharmacist, teacher, economist).

2 have been to an FE college (one in the Greenock/Inverclyde, one Sabhal Mor Ostaig), where they may have undertaken either FE or HE-level (e.g. HN) study. I’m assuming attendance at Sabhal Mor Ostaig before it became part of UHI.

4 more have been in professions which imply some post-school education but not necessarily at university (2 nurses of long-standing: nursing has only become all degree level relatively recently), a surveyor and a chartered accountant.

6 declared no post-school education and have past working lives which wouldn’t have required it.

I make that 30 university graduates at least out of 42 cases with some known background (19 of them at least from a Russell Group or ancient university, although the one part-time Edinburgh student is by a non-traditional route) and only 2/42 from an FE college. FE college participation is well above 2/29ths of post-school activity.

It’s this sort of thing that makes me unwilling to be too relaxed about how much the Scottish system relies on HE participation in FE colleges to  provide access to higher education for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.  It will get you so far. But not (often) as far as the Scottish Parliament.


The 6 new MSPs who seem likely to have no mention of post-school education because they did not attend college or university are all from the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour and SNP appear to have closed their ranks more (in practice, I don’t suggest it’s a policy) against admitting non-graduates to the higher levels of elected office. I’m a graduate, and I can come up with all sorts of reasons why graduates might make good elected representatives. Graduates can of course also come from all sorts of homes. But even for viewers in Scotland, in practice they tend to be from less challenging backgrounds, with those from Russell Group universities, again even here in Scotland, tending to come from a narrower range than graduates in general.

At this point, those MSPs who can will no doubt point to having started from working class homes, but I’m not sure that’s quite answer enough. As Lynsey Hanley has lately argued, the act of going to university doesn’t leave people unchanged.  Plus “working class” itself covers a very broad range of backgrounds, particularly in a country where I can’t recall ever hearing anyone describe their family as lower middle-class.  Working class in Scotland is often used to describe families with incomes well over the national average.  It stands for many as state of mind, attitude or identity, rather than a description of their recent personal economic experience. For others however economic disadvantage remains exactly that.

A parliament drawn so heavily from those who have been to university at its worst risks thinking and behaving like the sort of complacent new and not-so-new middle class meritocracy against which Michael Young warned. In this, Holyrood is no doubt like legislatures round the world.  I’d say they all need to start thinking seriously about how the voices of those who have not been through the university mill are heard nationally direct in the democratic process. Electing more of them would be the obvious one, but it’ll be a rarely talented or fortunate person who manages that now on anything less than a university degree, preferably from one of our more selective establishments.


The numbers above come from the information summarised in the tables below. Apologies to anyone the spelling of whose name has got mangled in the translation from my hand-written notes.

Conservative University  or degree specified (11)
Oliver Mundell Edinburgh
Gordon Lindhurst Edinburgh
Finlay Carson Aberdeen
Ross Thomson Aberdeen
Dean Lockhart Glasgow
Adam Tompkins University of East Anglia/LSE
Donald Cameron Oxford
Jeremy Balfour Edinburgh (part-time/London Bible College
Miles Briggs Robert Gordon University
Rachel Hamilton Harpers Adams University
Maurice Golden Dundee

Alexander Burnett

Liam Kerr




St Andrews/Edinburgh


Other post-school specified (1)
Jamie Greene College in Greenock/Inverclyde
Profession specified which might imply post-school HE (2)
Alison Harris Chartered accountant
Edward Monkton Ex-armed forces, surveyor, farmer


Other profession specified  (6)
Maurice Corry Ex-armed forces
Peter Chapman Farmer/businessman
Graham Simpson “Journalist since leaving school”
Alexander Stewart Worked in retail/own business
Annie Wells Retail manager
Brian Whittle Professional athlete
 No info  (3)
Douglas Ross


SNP University  or degree specified (9)
Gillian Martin Glasgow
Jenny Gilruth Glasgow
Tom Arthur Glasgow
Mairi Evans Aberdeen
Fulton McGregor Strathclyde/Edinburgh
Kate Forbes Cambridge
Ash Denham Keele/OU
Jeanne Freeman Glasgow College of Technology (became Glasgow Caledonian University)
 Ben McPherson  York/Edinburgh
College (1)
Ruth Maguire Sabhal Mor Ostaig
Profession specified which implies university  (1)
Maree Todd Clinical Pharmacist
Profession specified which may imply university (2)
Claire Haughey Mental health nurse
Emma Harper Nurse
No info (2)
Ivan McKee
Rona MacKay
 Daniel Johnson   St Andrews/Strathclyde
Monica Lennon  Strathclyde
Profession specified which implies university  (2)
Colin Smyth   Teacher

Richard Leonard




Andy Wightman (Aberdeen) and Ross Greer, who attended Strathclyde, but left early to become a campaigner.

Lib Dem

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Aberdeen).





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