Man walks into a column no.27: Oxford

Research published today by the Sutton Trust shows that just five schools (four independent, one state-funded) account for as many Oxbridge entrants as 2,000 other schools put together. The findings also show that independent school students are seven times as likely as their peers in comprehensive schools to be accepted into Oxford or Cambridge, and that 100 elite schools (a mere three per cent of sixth forms) account for just under a third of Oxbridge admissions.

The Sutton Trust says that this can largely be explained by differential exam results: kids in independent schools simply have a much better chance of getting the necessary grades. But in its coverage of the research the BBC notes the view of a professor from the Institute of Education whose own data suggest that choice of subject is important too. She admits, however, that ‘In our research, not all of that gap disappears even when you account for subject and choice at A-level’.

So what does account for the overwhelming preponderance of top schools amongst Oxbridge entrants, if not just getting good enough grades in the right subjects? Based on my own experience of applying to Oxford I can exclusively reveal that it’s because being interviewed there is fucking terrifying. You heard it here first. Students from bog standard comps are simply not prepared (often naturally, certainly not by their school) for the kind of onslaught that one encounters at interview.

This is a personal view, but I’m not so arrogant as to believe that the tutors who interviewed me – first at one college and then, when I was passed up there, at the college that eventually decided to accept me, despite my appalling performance – were singling me out for special treatment. At the first college I was interviewed by a political history academic who barked questions and, when I gave a tentative answer, replied with ‘are you asking me or telling me’. Let’s just say I’m not surprised they passed me over.

At the second as I waited outside for my turn I was handed a piece of paper with a series of ten statements of logic (complete with symbols) and told I would be asked for my comments on the validity of the final proof. During the interview itself, this time in front of a panel of three, in an intimidatingly large, book-lined office, I was handed another piece of paper by the economics tutor and asked to solve an equation which, it must be said, may’ve been Mickey Mouse stuff: by that point, after three exhausting, bewildering days feeling completely and utterly out of my depth, being probed and examined as if I were a member of a recently discovered Amazonian tribe; I was beaten.

On the one hand I get why the interviews have to be tough: admissions tutors only have a relatively small amount of time to ‘road test’ a student they’ve never met before and who is one of very many candidates. Oxbridge colleges are spoiled for choice, and so can afford to be picky.

The problem is, though, that a sixth form college like the one I went to in Swindon is simply not set up to replicate the experience of the Oxbridge grilling. Mine tried: I had a ‘mock interview’ with my politics teacher, who asked me predictable questions in a friendly and encouraging way. But with no real history of sending students to Oxford or Cambridge, and teachers who are much less likely to be Oxbridge graduates themselves, it’s hardly surprising that it lacked the capacity or resources of an independent school with a long track record.

This is the basis of my problem when Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford says (in the BBC piece linked above) that the selection process flags up students with excellent results from disadvantaged backgrounds and, in some cases, fast-tracks them to interview. That’s all well and good, but it’s ludicrous to expect a teenager from LIDL’s Academy – however bright – to be anywhere near as capable in interview as an Eton boffin whose debating skills have been honed, polished and tested time and time again. I got lucky; thousands do not.


“Dad, who was Nick Clegg?”

Today’s tuition fees vote will make for an interesting bit of history in 20 years’ time.

Before I say why, here are a few (probably unpopular) thoughts on the issue of tuition fees:

  • I agree in both principle and practice with tuition fees. A university education is a choice, and something to be valued by the individual who makes that choice. Once the principle of fees had been established by the Labour government the politics of funding higher education was always going to be about where the cap on fees was, not whether there were fees.
  • I don’t happen to think of any education in the utilitarian way politicians seem to think of it – utlitarian as demonstrated by the fact it’s the responsibility of the Business Secretary and not the Education Secretary. Thus, if a higher education is valuable in its own right (whilst also having an economic benefit to the individual and the economy), it should be paid for (at least in majority part) by the individual.
  • Admitting the possibility of fees means a market will, and probably should, develop. Yes, this effectively makes it a US-type model, but I’m comfortable with that. A University Fund for young ‘uns in a family is a good idea.
  • A graduate tax is a nonsense because an individual would never stop paying it and their repayments could be more than the cost of the fees. It has elements of progressiveness in it, but it’s also a disincentive on social mobility.

Watching the Lib Dems struggle on the topic of university tuition fees has, I’ll be honest, brought me some pleasure. Their position was and is a nonsense, as follows:

  • Their position on tuition fees was pretty much the most distinctive and best-known domestic policy they had. They’ve traded that at the fist sniff of power; either that, or they knew their policy was a nonsense but had worked on the basis they would never need to implement it. (This is partly supported by the idea Nick Clegg privately urged his colleagues to drop the position.)
  • I don’t know that anyone had anticipated Clegg’s “New Politics” being the explicit reneging of a personal and party pledge to oppose not just a rise in tuition fees, but the removal of tuition fees.
  • Clegg has tried to defend the move by saying previously 1 in 7 people went to university and now it’s 1 in 3. What is that if not a huge rise in opportunity for people from a wider range of backgrounds?
  • That government ministers even considered not voting for their own policy (even if they end up doing so) tells you what an incredibly ridiculous position the Lib Dems got themselves in.

All things considered – and even taking into account the short memories and fickle nature of the British voting public – the tuition fees debacle as applied to the Lib Dems makes me think they may never in a generation or two be thought of as any sort of credible, governing force at a national level.

When the future comes and I potentially drop my one-year-old as 18-year-old off at university, I’ll think back to today and mention to him the peculiar time when a small party called the Liberal Democrats, led by a pub-quiz question politician called Nick Clegg, abandoned their policy and principles because they happened to have a bit of power.