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Predictable – and wrong: the usual suspects make the usual noise about Oxbridge admissions

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s annual report, published tomorrow, has already stimulated depressingly predictable commentary in relation to admission to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Blame state schools, they say, because some do not have a good enough standard of teaching and some don’t encourage applications. Such individuals can also doubtless confirm the world is in fact not flat, so there are at least three things we can all agree on. However, all of the comments I have seen ignore one of the central points about the data in tomorrow’s report: state school candidates are good enough to take over 70% of places at some colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and yet only just over 40% at others, component parts of the same universities offering the same courses. Can it really be state schools that are responsible for this disparity? Are all the best state school applicants applying to particular colleges and all the best independent school applicants to others? Much has been made this week of the ‘academic ability’ of independently educated candidates as an explanation for this and yet if you consult the academic performance tables for the two universities, which rank each college by their exam results, you will not find those with the highest proportions of pupils from the independent sector all at the top of these tables – quite the contrary.

I have some experience of admissions indirectly, having been at Oxford as a student and involved in access work there for 6 years. The reality is that your chance of getting in is hugely conditioned by the college you apply to and, beyond that, the particular subject tutors in that particular college. Tutors I worked with then and now all admit this privately. Over recent years, the universities have centralised aspects of the process to try and mitigate this impact, but one of the frustrations of those who work on trying to reach parts of the country that do not send enough people to the universities is that their admirable efforts are impeded, even when they can encourage applicants, by the particular tutors or colleges those candidates apply to. It is well-established that people bring prejudices to recruitment processes and admission to Oxbridge has many similarities to other recruitment processes, not least in that candidates are all interviewed. It would be remarkable if the only group of individuals in the world who were immune to any such prejudices bar academic ones were tutors at two universities.

When the independent school sector defends its dominance of institutions, it says everything is merit-based and accuses people of trying to ‘dumb down’ or ‘lower standards’. They’re indulged in this by certain newspaper columnists, a group 47% of which (as the Commission’s ‘Elitist Britain?’ shows), went to Oxbridge themselves and 43% of whom were privately educated. It must be unsettling for some of those columnists to think that in another set of circumstances, perhaps picking a different college, they might not have been accepted. That is however the reality for most people, and instead of dealing out the usual dollop of blame to state schools (undoubtedly in part justified), they could instead look at what those colleges with high state school acceptances are doing well, for others to learn from. They could look at all the preparation independent schools do with their candidates, from helping them with the aptitude tests and interview practice weeks and months before their pupils apply, to advising very carefully which colleges they might want to consider applying to based on what success the school has had there in the past. They could even come up with the names of two independent schools that they imagine have great records of sending people to Oxbridge and highlight how many of the school’s governors were not just Oxbridge-educated, but occupy official positions within the Universities. There is much more to explain who gets into our two best universities than simply raw academic ability and the deficiencies of state schools.


David Johnston is Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation and a member of the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission

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