Lords’ Degrees

This post is a sequel to a previous post on MPs’ degrees

In June, Subtle Engine posted a chart that showed which subject areas were studied by a sample of MPs while at university. A few people suggested that it would also be interesting to see what fields of knowledge the Lords were most comfortable with. So here we go…

TL;DR – Like MPs, members of the Lords primarily studied degrees in arts rather than science or technology subject areas. About 17% of Lords studied STEM subjects (more than MPs’ 13%).

Data collected by a script that looks up each Lord’s Wikipedia entry (click for full size image)

As with MPs, data on Lords’ degrees isn’t published. The approach used in this post (and the previous) is to use an automatic script that looks up Lords’ entries in Wikipedia, and searches for phrases that mention HE qualifications, e.g. “gained a first in…” or “graduated in…”.

Using a list of 858 current Members of the Lords (from They Work For You), the script found Wikipedia entries for at least 636 Lords. Of the 636 entries it was possible to find references to and categorise 260 Lords’ degrees (about 30% of the House) into subject areas.

The four most common subject areas (accounting for 75% of the sample) were identical to those of MPs – Social studies, Law, Historical & philosophical studies and Languages. Again, as with the MPs, there was a fairly rapid drop to the less popular subjects.

About 17% of the sample studied subject areas generally thought of as STEM; slightly higher than the sample of MPs, of which 13% studied STEM subjects. The most popular STEM subject area was physical sciences, followed by Medicine & dentistry and Mathematical sciences.

Comparing the Lords’ subject areas to those of the population of students at UK universities in 2012/13 shows the bias towards Social studies, Law and Historical and philosophical studies – and away from others, such as Creative arts and design, or Biological sciences:

Lords’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Lords’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students (click for full size image)

As with the previous blog post on MPs’ degrees, the point of this post isn’t that non-STEM degrees aren’t valuable, but that there is a noticeable lack of representatives in the Lords who have studied science and technology subjects at university.

At the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, there’s no better illustration of the need for Lords who are informed of technology than the recent story of Lady O’Cathain (whose Wikipedia article doesn’t mention her degree) and her horror at the discovery of Google Maps:

I was horrified the other day when I was giving a certain website to look at. I could see the roses in my garden. It was on a Google map or something, and I have no idea how it was taken.

Lady O’Cathain joined a new committee called Digital Skills, appointed in June to “examine what [rapidly changing technology] means for the labour market”. Perhaps the Lords should start with themselves?

Note on the script and sample

It’s slightly harder to automatically look up Lords than MPs on Wikipedia, as the URLs of their articles are more colourful. It’s generally easy for a script to find an MP’s Wiki page by concatenating their first and last name (sometimes appending _(politician)):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Cameron

(Hereditary) Lords are referred to by their title, like The Marquess of Salisbury, but searching for this on Wikipedia results in the page for the title rather than the current holder of that title (searching for the bishops results in a similar issue):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquess_of_Salisbury

What we want for our purpose is to find the incumbent’s page, but there’s no consistent way of linking from the title’s page to the current holder (some pages do, and some pages don’t). Here’s the page we actually want for the Marquess of Salisbury:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gascoyne-Cecil,_7th_Marquess_of_Salisbury

This is by way of an aside, but is mentioned to show that the initial sample of 636 Lords is probably biased towards life peers (who, like MPs, have less ambiguous Wikipedia URLs) and away from hereditary peers and the lords spiritual.

As with the previous post, these charts will not be perfectly accurate, but should show the broad trend fairly reliably. They depend on correct Wikipedia entries as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas.

MPs’ Degrees: What Do They Know?

September 2017: The below post relates to MPs elected in 2010. If you’re interested in more up-to-date data, see some of the sources in this Twitter thread (click on the tweet to see the rest in the thread):


An earlier post quoted Carl Sagan, who was convinced that not enough people really understand science and technology: “a prescription for disaster”, he said. So what fields of knowledge are our national decision-makers most comfortable in?

There’s been plenty of media noise in recent years about ‘professional politicians’ and more recently about Labour’s choice of candidates, as well as the occasional FoI request to government departments to find out what qualifications ministers have.

But information on MPs’ qualifications doesn’t seem to be readily available… Until now perhaps! The data in the chart below was collected by a script which looks up the Wikipedia entry for each MP, searches for mention of their degree, and if found, categorises it:

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Data collected by a script that looks up each MP’s Wikipedia entry

Of 650 MPs in the 2010-2015 parliament, the script found data on the degrees of 374 MPs, about 58% of the total. The other 276 may not be graduates, or their Wikipedia entry may not mention it, or be specific enough to categorise (some entries refer to a BSc or BA).

Of the sample, the most common subject area (using HESA’s subject areas) was social studies, which includes geography, economics etc. Following a sharp drop, the next category was law, and historical and philosophical studies, before another fall to languages.

The most common STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths) subject area (based on this definition) was physical sciences (14 MPs in the sample qualified in chemistry, physics etc.). 8 MPs had degrees in maths, 6 in engineering & technology and 2 in computer sciences.

Is the high proportion of social studies graduates in parliament actually unusual, or does it simply reflect the popularity of those subjects? This chart compares the distribution of MPs across subject areas with full-time students at UK universities in 2012/13:

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MPs’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Of the three biggest parties; 11.3% of Conservative MPs, 11.9% of Labour MPs and 23.7% of Liberal Democrat MPs in the sample studied STEM subjects. However, taking sample sizes into account, the Lib Dems’ lead on STEM isn’t statistically significant.

About 32 MPs (9% of the sample) studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. A recent BBC article about PPE in Westminster quoted graduate and columnist Nick Cohen talking about his subject’s penetration in government:

[PPE is] a degree for generalists, and British society has always loved generalists … But I think we’d certainly benefit from more scientists and engineers at the top.

Does this matter? Of course degrees in subject areas other than STEM are valuable; qualifications in politics or history are obviously appropriate for an MP. And of course it’s true that many social studies graduates have an excellent understanding of technology.

But the bias away from STEM is still striking. One humdrum argument for more tech know-how in Westminster is that as public services become more IT-dependent, ministers need a better understanding of the pitfalls of technology. As the Institute for Government found:

Ministers frequently do not pay sufficient attention to the IT dimension of policy announcements

But the more interesting arguments are related to future trends; say if human enhancement becomes commonplace, or robots have a big effect on the labour market. Legislators are keen to promote STEM, but does parliament itself have the knowledge it needs to keep up?

There’s now a sequel to this post that looks at Lords’ degrees.

Note on the script

The above charts may not be completely accurate; they depend on the MP’s Wikipedia entry to correctly record the degree, as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas. The script is on Github, if you’d like to see it – or improve it!

Thanks to TheyWorkForYou for making the list of MPs available, and to Wikipedia for making its data available via an API, as well as its contributors for researching MPs and keeping their articles up to date. Any errors are highly likely to be the author’s.