Democracy or pipeline to power

By Jokin de Carlos-Sola

When it comes to education of politicians, sometimes it can be seen that they converge all in a very limited list of high prestige Universities, which makes these elites sometimes seem more separated from other citizens. The most well known examples of this ephenomenon are seen in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, is it also happing in the European Union. When talking about elite education it is important to specify what are we talking about. In the United States it has been seen how Universities of the Ivy League have a special status when it comes to their role educating high ranking political figures, meanwhile in the UK Universities like Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE are considered the best path for a successful career in the public service. These Universities are also extremely selective, counting with special fees and requirements and only accepting a handful of students. 

In Europe however, the status of Universities as “elite institutions” is unclear. Some countries have their politicians and civil servants coming from aparticular set of schools, that have a more “elitist tradition”, like a more competitive selection process, while others go to just normal Universities without any special requirements.


First is France, who among the EU countries is the closest that has a series of schools designed to form political elites, the so called “Grand Ecoles”. These schools, more specifically the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) or the École nationale d’administration (ENA), have fostered the vast majority of French Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers and many more national civil servants. They are considered within France as elite schools with a very selective admission process, which includes special examinations and requirements meant to educate the leaders of France. 

The Germanic World 

Other European countries however have a more unclear system, in which some Universities might be known as “elite” but that works and functions like an average school. Before the Second World War in The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Germany there was a higher importance attributed to the student associations and fraternities as a factor to become part of the political elite, to the point that politicians changed university but they stayed in the association, since that was the way in which networking could be done and a group mentality was formed. In the case of Germany and the Netherlands these were the so called “Corps” while in Sweden it was in the so called “Nations”. After the end of the Second World War these associations would gradually lose their importance and although they exist as social clubs, they generally are not considered any longer a requirement for career development. The Netherlands however will be an exception as some association would still be seen as a trampoline to success, for instance in 2010 Mark Rutte’s first cabinet included at least five members of the association Minerva from Leiden, the oldest in the Netherlands. 

However, this does not mean that there is no pattern of where do politicians go to study in Northern Europe, in Sweden is mostly Lund or Uppsala, in Denmark, Copenhagen and Aarhus, in the Netherlands, Leiden, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Groningen and in Germany Hamburg, Freiburg, Munich, Heidelberg, Tübingen or Berlin (FU and Humboldt).  However, none of these Universitiess have special requirements or fees like in France. Education from foreign institutions such as Sciences Po or the LSE is also very much valued when it comes to developing a political career in Brussels.

Other countries in Europe

Other European countries such as Spain or Italy have no institutions that are considered as “manufacturers of leaders”. Generally speaking, leaders might have studied in the city they come from or might not intended to run for office at the time of their studies. In any case there doesn’t seem to be any pattern connecting the political elite with any particular education and less with an education with special requirements. However, it can be seen that some institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs greatly employs people from a limited set of Universities. The Spanish Foreign Ministry recruits from the main Universities of Madrid (Complutense, Autonoma and Carlos III), as well as others like Navarra or Barcelona and Italy mainly recruits is civil servants at LUISS, Sapienza and Bocconi. 

EU Institutions 

Then there is the case of the European Institutions in Brussels. It is being seen currently that a lot civil servants are coming from a series of institutions specialise in European Affairs around Brussels. The most important of those is the College of Europe. Founded after the Second World War by Salvador de Madariaga, an exiled Spanish liberal Minister, the College was intended to educate future European civil servants. During the past decades it has acquired a reputation of an elite institution. This is not accidental since the College has been modelled after the French ENA. Most of the alumni of the College of Europe find themselves in high positions in European Institutions as well as important positions in their own home countries. Others find themselves hired by consultancies established in Brussels. Other Universities of this sort include the University of Maastricht, the Free University of Brussels, or KU Leuven, as well as previously mentioned Sciences Po, Kings College and LSE. There has been an increase in criticism of the so called “EU bubble” as if its become more clear that people who have gone to these colleges find themselves having an easier time finding jobs in Brussels and advancing their carrier there. 

Why is this important?

From here we can learn that the Europeans in general do not consider education at a prestigious school as a requirement to get elected for higher office. However, it can also be seen that institutions have a preference for a series of schools, that might be because of the prestige of these gives its alumni good name but at the same time some people have pointed out that they are being selected by people who also went to these schools to begin with. In the case of Brussels and France particularly this criticism has become very widespread as they are arguably the most radical cases.  In France it has lead to Macron announcing the closure of the ENA and in the case of Brussels the College of Europe has suffered a lot of criticism regarding controversies like cases of sexism or accusations of xenophobia. In Germany for instance there has been the question why Universities that promote elitism are being financed by the state. 

In conclusion, it can be said that Europeans do not find the American or British system of elite schools that appealing and that the Universities that actually follow this model as centres of elite education find themselves victims of a lot of criticism. This is because they give a sense of exclusiveness that alienates a lot of people that are not part of it and yet must put their trust in people that actually are.  Nevertheless, some Universities seem clearly bigger guarantors of a successful career in the European public service, however in a less obvious way.