Open University beats Oxford and Cambridge at producing CEOs and MDs

Every year, millions of students, parents and academics gather wide-eyed to peruse the latest university league table.

But what would the results look like if it was based on the number of graduates who went on to run a company?

The experts, top recruitment firm Forward Role, decided to find out. They analysed over 260,000 LinkedIn profiles to discover who’s really top of the class.

Here’s what they learned.

The top 10 universities producing the most CEOs

Table 1: All-time rankings

Firstly, we looked at how each UK university fared in terms of the total number of CEOs and Managing Directors they produced.

Rank University Name Number of graduates who are now CEOs and MDs
1 Open University 8,196
2 University of Cambridge 7,309
3 University of Oxford 7,033
4 The University of Manchester 7,011
5 University of Leeds 5,188
6 University of Birmingham 4,490
7 The University of Nottingham 3,833
8 University of Bristol 3,815
9 Manchester Metropolitan University 3,801
10 London Business School 3,791
11 University College London (UCL) 3,765
12 London School of Economics and Political Science 3,678
13 Imperial College London 3,539
14 The University of Edinburgh 3,435
15 Nottingham Trent University 3,400
16 University of Westminster 3,369
17 Kingston University 3,337
18 Loughborough University 3,289
19 Durham University 3,284
20 University of Southampton 3,235

In a shocking twist, world-renowned universities Oxford and Cambridge were outshone by the Open University, which specialises in long-distance learning via online courses and tutors.

Speaking about the findings, an Open University spokesperson said, “The Open University is an institution, open to all, that helps people realise their ambition whether that is professional or personal. No matter what someone’s ambition in life, education is an enabler to help them reach it. We know that through education, anything is possible.”

And despite being in the nation’s capital and one of the world’s most economically powerful cities, London Business School trailed behind more northern universities including Leeds, Birmingham and two universities in Manchester.

The University of Manchester did exceptionally well, coming in at fourth place just 22 graduates shy of Oxford’s total.

Table 2: 2018 ranking

Next, we looked at how each university performed last year.

Rank University Name Number of graduates who are now CEOs and MDs
1 London School of Economics and Political Science 953
2 University of Oxford 858
3 University of Cambridge 790
4 Open University 775
5 London Business School 729
6 University College London (UCL) 638
7 St George’s University 551
8 King’s College London 479
9 The University of Manchester 367
10 University of Liverpool 345

Oxford and Cambridge again made it to the top-end of the table, but the number-one spot was pipped by London School of Economics and Political Science, who cleared the rest by a margin of more than 10%.

In fact, 2018 was a year in which London-based universities excelled, with half of all the institutions that made the year’s list based in the capital. There has been a revival that will see London colleges climb the all-time list in years to come.

The Open University made another impressive appearance on the list, albeit just missing out on the podium.

What degrees produce the most CEOs?

When compiling the alternative league tables, we also wanted to find out which degrees were most commonly studied by today’s business leaders.

Below is a list of the top ten degrees to study in the UK if you want to become a CEO.

Rank Degree Number of graduates who are now CEOs and MDs
1 Business Administration and Management, General 22,215
2 Economics 13,086
3 Marketing 5,979
4 History 4,492
5 Business/Commerce, General 4,338
6 Law 4,035
7 Mathematics 3,597
8 Psychology 1,386
9 Political Science and Government 1,234
10 Design and Visual Communications, General 789

Unsurprisingly, Business Administration and Management topped the list, with nearly double the number of successful graduates than the next most-popular degree, Economics.

Surprisingly, History degrees made an extraordinary appearance as the fourth-best degree to do to become a CEO.

Equally unexpected was Design and Visual Communications, which managed to make the list in tenth place. With increasing competition in the online marketplace, though, knowing how to stand out from the crowd is an incredibly valuable asset, so we might see Design degrees becoming increasingly popular as markets continue to evolve.

What about postgraduates?

Finally, we wanted to know if having a postgraduate degree increased the likelihood of graduates becoming business leaders.


Total number of CEOs and MDs 260,054
Number with post-graduate degrees 114,0664
Percentage 44%

Of all the CEOs and MDs we examined, nearly half (44%) had postgraduate degrees as well. This is a significantly higher ratio than the wider population: the Sutton Trust found that 11% of working Britons had postgraduate degrees.

Top of the class

The new research tells us a lot about education and career paths that lead people into senior-level positions or even running their own businesses.

“Seeing the Open University come at the top of the all-time table opened our eyes to what it takes to be a CEO,” says Brian Johnson from Forward Role.

“Those that apply themselves to develop outside of the regular path from college to university to job are the ones that see more success down the line.

“Companies who want really promising recruits should look for those who invest in their future with postgraduate degrees and online courses — the data shows it’ll pay off.”