But Burgess and Maclean, in fact the whole Cambridge Five, showed that the concept of recruiting from the two most elite universities in the UK via the discrete tap on the shoulder was a faulted system. Sure the world of espionage and counter-espionage needs bright cookies, but those two universities also seem to engender a certain degree of self assuredness that probably distorted the eventual employer.
And while it is fair to say that the students at Oxford and Cambridge have always tended to be amongst the brightest in the country, they haven't had the absolute monopoly on bright students.
However intellectual capability is one of the facets of modern intelligence that is still valued. Unlike the almost super hero skills touted by Ian Fleming's James Bond and the socially inept anti heroes featured in Le Carre novels, the reality of counter-espionage is the ability to analyse seemingly huge amounts of data and identify trends and clues distributed randomly, finding the literal needle in the haystack. Some computer skills necessary then, perhaps super geek level for starters?
In the novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Le Carre had his main character, who was pretending to be a double agent for the East Germans, keep an eye out for whether the British Secret Service were ordering more paper clips than before, as that could indicate an uptick in activity. Except he didn't call it uptick, obviously. And of course, even if it did indicate an uptick, would that necessarily have been a useful indication to the East Germans? It's not like we ignored them for long during the Cold War.
Today, along with all the traditional intelligence channels - information gleaned from individuals and dissected from newspapers - the intelligence services have many other forms of communication to wade through; social networks, text messaging, news channels on satellite stations and internet blogs (grief - who reads them?) for example, and much of this will be old, some will be badly recycled, a lot will be engineered to hide or divert away from the truth. The modern analyst really doesn't have the time or need to develop the skills of James Bond or the cast of Spooks, he or she is drowning in data trying to extract a semblance of the truth from it.
But of course the really sensitive stuff, the plans of an attack, the secrets that people want to keep that way, won't be in plain sight, and won't be in clear. It'll be in code, and that is where the mathematicians that have traditionally been recruited in Oxford and Cambridge come into their own.
The tap on the shoulder is long gone - if you're eligible (bright, British and of a reasonable character) then you can apply to join the British Secret Services - Such as MI5 or MI6 (actually known as the Secret Intelligence Service - SIS). Be warned, they are picky. But they're good and the work is probably very rewarding.
However the real code-breaking stuff takes place not in London but in a town called Cheltenham, at a location called GCHQ - yup, you can apply for a job there too . But they aren't waiting for the brightest and the best to beat a path to their door, they're making it easier for them to identify tomorrow's code-breakers and to provide a taster for those with the ability but perhaps who may not realise that code-breaking is a real job. They sponsor a competition aimed at British schools - overseas schools have tried to enter without luck - with the aim of pitching increasingly more difficult cyphers to be decrypted. The uptake is accelerating - historically about 200 teams apply to take place, however this year 1600 teams have had a crack. To be fair, only 30 of the teams managed to complete all of the levels in a competition that run for nearly two months.
Of course, most of the entrants won't want to be code-breakers. But some will display a talent that may be missed through normal school curricula and, well, normal teenage life and these will almost certainly be earmarked for follow up.
Perhaps the tap on the shoulder when they reach Cambridge will make a come back after all?
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