Reading David Lammy’s report, “Seven years has changed nothing at Oxbridge. In fact, diversity is even worse” has finally convinced me that you have to try something drastically different in your admissions processes and that his work should be regarded as a watershed rather than finding flaws in his arguments.
I’m not going to repeat anything from Lammy’s report on what’s going wrong, but I will briefly recap the things that matter in the Oxford and Cambridge Admissions process! Then I will make my own case for why Oxford and Cambridge Colleges are guilty of hypocrisy.
And I’m not coming to this as someone who bears a grudge against the Oxford and Cambridge Universities admissions staff. Admissions staff at these universities are genuinely nice and helpful people, trying their best in a system that they can’t seem to change internally.
I’m personally ambivalent about getting into Oxbridge colleges. As a professionally qualified Careers Adviser, I think it is ethically wrong to think this is a more important route than someone wanting to do an apprenticeship or go to other universities. I came to write the GRIST framework, which helps applicants prepare for the Oxbridge Admissions process, as a Careers Adviser trying to deconstruct the Oxbridge Admissions process and debunk the whole industry that surrounds this issue for my school students.
Understanding Oxbridge Admissions: the issues that help with getting in – GRIST
GCSEs, A Levels and relevant subjects
Understanding that wider reading away from syllabus is essential in arts, humanities, social sciences subjects. More stretching work for maths and Sciences.
Not about learning knowledge and regurgitating it. The interview is essentially an “exam out loud”. Having mock interviews and setting up a system to make them happen, are essential here so that the potential applicant realises what will be in store.
Not so much about your personal statement. More about having an obsessive/love/nerdy interest in what you are applying for.
Preparation for tests is not about regurgitating knowledge but “learning through doing” and becoming aware of what the tests will ask from you. Practising the tests can help with reducing stress levels because you know roughly what to expect.
Now think about attempting to go through this without social, cultural and school support on top of trying to get really high grades!
We have systems for this preparation in my schools and they do help. Clearly, they are not being universally applied nationally, and I can see that there are many barriers for someone from my hometown of Portsmouth even getting to the 3 A’s at A Levels stage (actually you need to be A*AA/A*A*A), compared with many of the students I can be working with now in London.
To be fair, this is an admissions process that is more broad-ranging than other selective universities, which just use grades and personal statements, and occupational psychologists will often say that the wider range of testing you do, the better the quality of successful applicant. It is a reasonable process for a subset of the school leaver population who are “in the house”*. If you are not “in the house” you might as well forget it.
So why the charge of hypocrisy?
If you ever meet staff from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, they relentlessly say that the uniqueness of their courses and research comes from their ability to question, to analyse, to challenge assumptions and to relentlessly interrogate the safe or traditional path. My charge is that they are not applying this uniqueness to admissions**. If they had applied the same intellectual rigour that they would normally use in their courses and research, to admissions, they would have had a control group (say half of their colleges using the old admissions system) and a new system (for the other half) where (for example) applicants can only apply after they have received their A Level results with A*A*A/A*AA required normally and AAA/B if on free school meals/location criteria, and then successful applicants are drawn by lottery. No other information would be required! In this half of colleges all courses are 4 years with an exploratory year at the start (just like the Scottish system), to help choose the specialist subject and get acclimatised to the tutorial/supervision system. Experiment to run for 5 years and the two groups to be compared. I’m sure my ideas will be regarded as ludicrous, but something needs to change. For me as a Careers Adviser this endless Oxbridge debate is getting incredibly tedious and Lammy’s work is a welcome boil-lancing exercise.
I’m absolutely certain admissions staff at Oxford and Cambridge will have explored this sort of option, but logistical issues, the Daily Telegraph, existing relationships and funding will have got in the way.
If Oxford and Cambridge Universities were researching a new lithium battery, and whatever they did wasn’t yielding good enough results, they wouldn’t endlessly and pointlessly try to tweak the research. They might keep some staff on the existing Lithium battery research and have some trying something new or move all staff onto something different.
Oxford and Cambridge Universities, you are not practising what you preach. I still think you are fantastic, wondrous universities and for certain passionate/obsessive students totally the right place.
But, because you are not applying the same intellectual rigour to admissions as you would apply to your teaching and research, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and Colleges, on the question of being guilty of hypocrisy?
In my view, guilty as charged!
*In the House – right family, right school, right class, right location or wrong etc……….
**With admissions processes, stuff has clearly happened since the Laura Spence saga in 2000, but it is just a tweaking of the existing system