In an ideal world these would be different issues. In a truly meritocratic society those going to elite universities would be doing so on the basis of their abilities rather than who their parents were. In the UK and I suspect elsewhere we are some way from that ideal. Although I am pretty sure the reasons for this largely occur before 18, I also agree that Oxbridge could improve matters greatly if they stopped selecting students on the basis of interviews. It is one of many reasons why Oxbridge interviews reduce social welfare.
Here is a more minor observation which I think is quite revealing. As Owen says a big part of the problem with Oxbridge is that those from many backgrounds are put off from applying because they think it is only for toffs. It isn’t, but sometimes Oxbridge seems to pretend otherwise. For example there is the ludicrous Oxford tradition of making every student dress up in gowns and worse when they take exams. It means that just at the time that prospective students come for open days they are sure to see a large number of students walking around wearing funny clothes. If I was thinking about coming to Oxford it would put me off. It is rather sad that Oxford students keep voting to continue this tradition, but perhaps it tells you something about the wisdom of elites.
Which brings me to what I think is the crucial point: why is there this presumption that we should be governed by a meritocratic elite? Ability in a particular subject does not seem to be critical. No one suggests the Chancellor should have an economics degree rather than a 2.1 in modern history. (In the past even numeracy seemed not to be required.) The idea that politicians are having to deploy skills that you can only develop at university is a little naive. Most do not have the time to think very deeply about anything, and when issues that involve any knowledge arise they take advice. This is why I have no problem with the kind of delegation you get with central banks or infrastructure commissions. The main difference in those cases is that the public get to hear about what the advice is.
People in universities talk a lot about non-subject specific skills, like developing critical faculties, but arguably some of the crucial critical faculties for a politician are better learnt by leaving university and doing a job. Good judgement does not come from intellectual ability: Chris Dillow argues there is little correlation between high IQ and career success. Now I’m not going to pretend that, other things being equal, I would be indifferent to whether my MP had an economics degree or an NVQ in catering. But other things are not equal. We have a representative democracy, and one way to make sure it works well is if the people chosen to represent us are to some degree representative of the population as a whole.
Of course compatibility between democracy and meritocracy, and the merits of a meritocracy itself, are big issues. It is telling that the book that coined the term meritocracy, by the great Michael Young, had difficulty finding a publisher and was not reviewed by any scholarly publication. But I suspect what is going on here, at least in some quarters, is far simpler, and is a reflection of Trudeau’s remark. It is 2015, so it is no longer acceptable in public to argue that we should be governed by people from a particular class or background. For people who would still like to make that argument, the next best thing is to talk about which university (if any) a politician has been to.