Oxbridge Myths – Social Mobility or Classist Bastion?

December 18, 2012 8:00 pm

This year’s Oxford and Cambridge interviews are going on as we speak. Thousands of nervous teenagers will be chatting away, hundreds of dons will be nodding sagely. And guess what?

Most of those kids will be rejected.

It’s simple maths. There are far more applicants than there are places. This means that, come late December or early January, the media will indulge in its annual Oxbridge-bashing festival, with righteous anger diverted towards private schools, the government, and perhaps the interview-preparation companies. You know the sort – the distraught parent writing to the Telegraph to protest the rejection of their dearest son, who has A*s flowing from his orifices, or their daughter, an Olympic swimmer and Turner-prizewinner. Of course, both children love classics so much that they independently translated Xenophon before Nursery. The interviewers must be mistaken.

Or there’s the Elly Nowell type – the girl who ‘rejected’ Magdalen Oxford last year. Such stories annoy me, because they are largely inaccurate, and moreover, detrimental to Britain’s social mobility. So, just as Ms Nowell pre-emptively rebutted Magdalen’s decision, I figure that this year I’ll get my two pence in first.

I’m moderately qualified to do so – not just because I’m an Ox grad, but because I’m involved in the application process. I have friends who are now middling- or senior- academics. I work lots for both corporate and social-enterprise ‘preparation’ or ‘mock-interview’ companies. I keep in touch with my tutors. I do a little private tuition myself. I know the myths.

Oxbridge graduates dominating top professions and positions of power is a bad thing

This is only a bad thing if Oxbridge is not a meritocratic institution. I will prove below that it is.

In which case, people from the best universities dominating the top jobs is entirely sensible. We want people who are the best educated and best equipped to do the top jobs. Basic Plato, ennit?

Applications are dropping because of the fees, especially among the worse off

They are dropping – I can’t argue with the figures.
The problem is more with the reasoning behind these drops. Virtually nobody pays their fees up front, and they certainly aren’t forced to. The Lib Dems made quite sure that Student Loans would be extended in line with the fee hikes. This means, in effect, that the ‘up front’ costs of going to uni are no different now than they were in 2007. The only difference is that you’ll leave with roughly three times more debt. Sure, that sucks and I’m very much against the £9,000/year fees, but this isn’t so much the point. The ‘fee hike’ should not affect whether any individual/family can afford to go to uni, or which uni they can go to. The debts a graduate will be left with are daunting, yes, but need not be paid until you are earning a significant amount, and are paid back very slowly, rather like an extra tax. Given that a major reason one takes a degree is to be able to earn more, this seems a fair payoff.

The argument makes particularly little sense when applied to Oxford, because a Welsh-American alumnus, Michael Moritz, kindly donated loads of dosh (£75mil), paying for substantial bursaries. These can be offered to the poorest 10% of students to cap their fees at £3,500 per annum, meaning that Oxford’s fees are effectively fairer than any other top 20 university.  [Cambridge does offer generous bursaries too.]

Daniel Knowles argues here that this donation, whilst quite good, is patronising and could be better spent on outreach, which might be true – but the media splash of Moritz made might well be better PR than any outreach programme could achieve. I’m chatting about it, after all, and so was Knowles.

Interviews are elitist/unfair/mean

This Telegraph article actually does a good job debunking this idea. Interviews are basically designed to test two things – your passion, and the nature of your intelligence. Tutors/Supervisors are effectively professional geeks, and they love their subjects. They need to make sure that you have a comparable love, because they are going to give you loads of work. I can only speak for myself – as a history undergraduate, I had roughly three times the workload of historians at other top universities like York, King’s College London, Durham and Bristol. The dons need to know you have the passion to stay the course, and to stay on the course. Drop outs ruin uni stats. Sad but true.

I say the nature of your intelligence because this is an important distinction. Oxbridge teaches in a specific way, through intensive tutorials/supervisions in which a teacher spends an hour discussing work with one-to-three students. Scientists go through problem sheets, artists discuss their weekly essays, linguists compare translations and analyse literature. This method of learning isn’t for everyone – you can be extremely bright, but better suited to lectures, seminars or individual study (not that Oxbridge is devoid of these types).  The interviewers are typically the people who’ll be teaching you for the next three-seven years, so they need to make sure you’re actually the kind of person who will benefit from their style. To reject someone ill-suited to tutorials isn’t mean – it’s quite humane.

Interview questions are eccentric, unpredictable and favour private school students

Whilst the odd academic may well be…uhm…odd, this is not an affliction specific to Oxbridge. In the vast majority of interviews, all the questions will be quite reasonable, designed to test the virtues outlined above. Contrary to the illusion spread by The History Boys and An Education, candidates do not require massive knowledge- indeed, they can do very well simply by having read what their Personal Statements say they have read, plus perhaps a basic knowledge of current affairs. Questions, however bizarre, are simply designed to see how a candidate thinks when stretched, when put in a new situation, when faced by a problem they’ve never considered before.

Admissions statistics show there is no bias towards private school candidates – indeed, a slightly higher percentage of grammar and comprehensive students were admitted than applied in 2011 and 2012 (pp.5). It’s very hard to fake your own thinking. All the preparation in the world can really only make you aware of the issues I’ve discussed above – and a student would be able to find that out from a few hours on the internet, not through a VIth Form Master or expensive coaching session.  

Why, then, is Oxbridge disproportionately populated by Independent School types?

Because of the media.

Yep. Those admissions statistics show that the interviews are perfectly fair. What’s skewed is the applications themselves. Thanks to the newspapers, plays like History Boys, and of course legions of teachers with chips on their shoulders, many excellent candidates from the state sector are dissuaded from ever applying. They are convinced that they won’t get in because they can’t row, can’t catch a rugby ball, don’t know how to use a fish knife (I still don’t) or can’t speak Latin. They are told that a wardrobe full of tweed and a refined appreciation of port is mandatory. Of course, for anyone without all of these tributes, such a daunting array of stereotypes makes Oxbridge seem a rather unattractive place to go, even if they do have the skills.

So they don’t apply. So they don’t get in. So the admissions figures remain skewed. So the newspapers scream and shout.

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