The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler


11:20 am - May 21st 2010

by Paul Sagar    


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Dave Osler wrote a piece attacking the “Oxbridge Mafia” yesterday. I thought I’d take it upon myself to offer The Family’s response.

So, cards on table: I graduated from Oxford in 2008 with (horror of horrors) a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics – the very same degree that Dave singles out for particular disapprobation.

But for the record, I was also educated at a normal state comp and attended the local state sixth form college.

Firstly, I’d like to note something odd about one of Dave’s initial concerns: that the top level of politics is over-represented by people with Oxbridge degrees.

This is often put forward as a self-evident problem. But I’m not sure that it is. Oxbridge has the toughest admission standards (high grades, written tests, plus at least two interviews in most cases) and has built its standing on giving people the very best education available (hence, when my mates at other Unis were doing three essays a term, I was doing two a week).

It’s thus not altogether surprising that people who are educated at Oxbridge end up at the top. And it may not be obviously undesirable, either; I’ll proceed to make myself no new friends and question whether it really would be better if 70% of the cabinet had degrees in Events Studies and Sports Tech from Popleton Met.

However, Dave Osler is right to point out that there is a problem with Oxbridge: the admissions are heavily skewed towards the privately educated. 93% of UK schoolchildren are state educated, yet they accounted for just 53% of Oxford and 57.6% of Cambridge students in 2008.

There is most definitely a problem here. But what exactly is it, and what’s the solution? Dave thinks we need positive discrimination, targeted at the Oxbridge end. I beg to differ.

Let’s be clear: Oxbridge accepts, roughly, the same proportion of state school applicants as apply. The problem therefore is that not enough bright state school kids are applying, not that they are being discriminated against once the UCAS forms are in.

But there is another major problem: vast ignorance in the state system about Oxbridge, and an ingrained prejudice against applying. As an undergraduate I did outreach work, going to state schools and trying to encourage bright kids to just apply.

The two most common experiences were bright kids from modest backgrounds saying “people like me don’t belong in a place like that”, and teachers – yes teachers – putting-off bright kids with similar (false) memes, or simply giving them insane advice about applications, which usually stemmed from basic ignorance about the applications system.

The net result? Not enough bright kids from the state sector apply to Oxbridge hence not enough bright state kids get in to Oxbridge. It really is as simple as that. So stop taking pot-shots at Oxbridge and start asking why the Government isn’t doing more to sort out the state sector.

———-
cross-posted from Bad Conscience

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Paul Sagar is a post-graduate student at the University of London and blogs at Bad Conscience.
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Reader comments


The Oxbridge figures are twisted in the case of the proportion of applicants to those given interviews and offers. This is from indirect experience from someone who used to work there.

Yes, exactly, thank you. It’s a category error to conflate Oxbridge with places like Westminster and Eton, access to which is genuinely is dependent on income.

It also become a viscous circle. If people dismiss any bright working class kids that get to Oxford as “just another part of the Oxbridge mafia”, then how can anyone ever demonstrate that world isn’t closed to huge chunks of the populace?

3. John T. Capp

I would like to apologise on behalf of all the scruffy oik’s who are creating this massive inequality and propagating this elite by not appyling to Oxbridge. Forgive us for sneakily choosing to study degrees in Events Studies and Sports Tech from Popleton Met in order to spoil your admissions figures, and make you look like plummy toff’s. God forbid, some of us don’t even bother with University, instead realising that doing an apprenticeship, unskilled work or even lounging around on the dole will really make you look like snobby, priviliged brats.

I completely agree with this. I was at Cambridge myself and it was evident the admissions tutors at most colleges were delighted to welcome more state school applications and every college was engaged in access programmes to encourage such applications, with the students’ union and the university in rare accord over the matter.

On a related point, one of the main reasons our political (and journalistic class) is reverting to elitist type is the internship route. The Sutton Trust did a few reports in 2006 (see an Indy write-up here: http://bit.ly/cXHd2Y) showing that the school you went to was a better predictor than university of your earnings capacity and likelihood to ‘make it’ in law, politics and journalism.

Why? Because if your parents have the cash to spend on Eton or Cheltenham, they are also likely to be in the position to fund your way through the unpaid internships that fuel the media and politics while locking out those without independent means. (As private school types are overrepresented at Oxbridge, people tend to see that – with all its elitist baggage – and miss that wider point.)

As a failed Oxbridge interviewee from a state school, I could blame elitism, expect aren’t most academics (who make the choices) actually liberal, with a strong Marxist tendency? I could blame cultural problems, if my school hadn’t expected me to try for Oxbridge, and given the small group of us who did special guidance on preparing – not lessons, just letting us know what to expect. I could blame my education, if I hadn’t had excellent and dedicated teachers who were determined to teach.

I could also blame me for messing up the interview. Which would be fair – I did. Perhaps if I had gone to a school which trained me for such things I could have done better, but considering I have in the past messed up an interview for the job I already was doing very well, I think it best to put it down to me. But whilst the narrative Paul presents above seems to allow for this to happen, Dave’s original narrative of elitist institutions seems to suggest it would not be my fault that I came across badly and probably as lacking commitment, but the people who were interviewing me…

Two posts on this in two days? Really? Now, fair enough, evidently Laurie and Paul are irritated enough to go posting about this elsewhere, but two articles on a subject that is really a minor tangent to much bigger debates about education seems excessive.

PS @Watchman – the vast majority of Oxford academics I’ve ever come across have no Marxist tendencies whatsoever. cf. Vernon Bogdanor and all the other crotchety old men up that direction. Or the go-get-em young bloods (relatively speaking of course) like Tim Garton-Ash.

Dave,

I’ve obviously met different Oxford academics (I must say I seek out the Marxists as they’re generally good for an argument, often good fun (have to have it before the revolution I presume) and I am in favour of preserving endangered species). Certainly they were more prevelant when I applied to universities than now though.

Of course, Oxford also houses David Starkey, which kind of counterbalances any number of Marxists.

9. John T. Capp

#6

There’s so many posts because of the old Left-wing tradition of solidarity with oppressed people. In this instance, some nasty people wrote some nasty things about Oxbridge grads, and so we all must rally round to defend these marginalised, voiceless people. *sob*

Of course, Oxford also houses David Starkey, which kind of counterbalances any number of Marxists.

No, it doesn’t.

I totally agree Paul but it’s not just the perception of state school children and teachers about Oxford. There’s a lot of silly arrogant stereotypes which, regrettably have been trawled-out on LC recently, and reflect a general view of state schools and particularly northern state schools.
On Dave Osler’s last thread, a poster received all sorts of derogatory remarks about going to Oxford and being a Labour supporter. Apparently those who have a good salary and wear suits couldn’t possibly support a party like Labour.
At the other end of the scale we have the stereotype that anyone with a northern accent coudn’t be well educated, I often visit a local doctor’s practice headed by Arthur Scargill’s daughter who happens to be a G.P.and retains a Barnsley accent.
If the so-called educated people on LC can’t see beyond these stereotypes, how can we expect children from working-class households to do so?

“The two most common experiences were bright kids from modest backgrounds saying “people like me don’t belong in a place like that”…”

I went to a state school (albeit a grammar school) and applied to Oxford. I was invited to interview, probably more on the strenght of my grades (AAAA) than anything else.

Before the event, I ate dinner alongside cloaked masters (there were no women, that I recall) in some lofty hall, with portraits of various alumni on the walls. We had a mock tutorial in a room whose furnishings would have fetched an easy £100,000 at auction.

Then I ascended the stone steps to the tutorial room, in which every imaginable cliche was present… Old, jowly scrotes sat in front of a ‘roaring’ fire; a half empty bottle of port on top of dusty old tomes from the last century – and accents from the leafy part of Surrey.

I’d never felt so isolated. It was total bollox and I went home certain of two things: that I’d never be invited back (totally fucked the interview, anyway), but more importantly, that I’d never willingly return!

My fault for choosing history, of course. I don’t know why I imagined it would be any different…

‘has built its standing on giving people the very best education available (hence, when my mates at other Unis were doing three essays a term, I was doing two a week).’

Is that really what we mean by ‘the very best education available’? Writing more essays? I ask as an Oxford graduate who has taught in higher education for over thirty years. If I was asked about the quality of teaching on the course I am in charge of now, I don’t think it would be enough to say ‘they write lots of essays’, would it?

I agree about Oxbridge admissions. But I think there are still reasons to be a little concerned about overdominance of Oxbridge graduates in politics. However hard they had to work to get there, whether they got their via Bog Standard Comp or whatever, they’re still people who have probably had a very very successful life since childhood. Indeed, perhaps all the more so if they got to Oxbridge against the odds. It would be nice if a few more people in politics are people who’ve not merely had to struggle to succeed in life, but who’ve actually failed, learnt from that, picked themselves up and tried again.

Hopi Sen makes the case for this better than me here: http://hopisen.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/in-praise-of-failure/

15. Oliver Beard

As a failed Oxford applicant from an independent school, many years ago, I think it’s all about preparation – rather than it being a simple state/paying argument. There are both state and independent schools which take Oxford and Cambridge as seriously as they take themselves, and provide a superb service to their pupils in preparing them for the application process. There are many other which don’t. Let’s see an analysis of which state schools have a disproportionately high hit-rate.

In my case, the school (a gimcrack late-C19th foundation, and thus not a real public school at all) was so focused on its primary task keeping the barely-literate sons of Surrey farmers off the streets, and out of trouble, for 5 years that it did not foster intellectual rigour or daring. There was little or no effort to prepare the few of us who had applied to Oxford or Cambridge. Of course, a couple of the staff tried to help, but there was no sense that the school had any duty to encourage our ambitions. We were seen as an awkward distraction from the next year’s clutch of A-level pupils. The interviews were a profound shock. None of us got to Oxford or Cambridge, despite there being a couple who were (in my objective view) far more ‘natural’ than I.

16. Rogue_Leader

“I’ll proceed to make myself no new friends and question whether it really would be better if 70% of the cabinet had degrees in Events Studies and Sports Tech from Popleton Met.”

Clever little reductio ad absurdum, but here’s a thought: what would be wrong with, say, a DEFRA minister with a natural sciences degree from Manchester (and ministerial staff similarly qualified) or a Home office minister with a background in criminology and\or constitutional law?

The problem, as I see it, with ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’ is that it prepares the graduate for a career in nothing but politics.

And it is absolutely true that cliques formed in public schools, and carried through to elite universities, exert too much influence on British public life.

17. Cheesy Monkey

Here’s a thought – Parliament needs less Oxbridge grads. If the PLP weren’t so stuffed with careerist upper middle class people with this background, it may have made a better fist of things these past 13 years. Yes, we do want good, bright parliamentarians, but what university you went to is not necessarily a good guide. How many ‘ordinary people’ are discouraged from working in politics because they have the impression that their education is ‘not good enough’?

[University of Bradford, 3rd in Peace Studies]

The problem, as I see it, with ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’ is that it prepares the graduate for a career in nothing but politics.

From Oxford’s Politics dept’s website:

*** PPE offers a good preparation for a wide variety of careers, many linked to subjects studied at Oxford. The careers most commonly chosen are in banking and finance, politics, journalism and broadcasting, law, industry, teaching, social work, accountancy, business management, advertising, and the many branches of the public service, including the civil and diplomatic services and local government. ***

This is almost certainly drawing on data compiled by the Careers Service at Oxford.

And turning from data to anecdote, I taught PPE students for nine years, 2000-2009, and it’s just not the case that they all – or even more than a fraction of them – think that they want to be politicians. (Far, far too many of them ended up in banking.)

@John T. Capp

“There’s so many posts because of the old Left-wing tradition of solidarity with oppressed people. In this instance, some nasty people wrote some nasty things about Oxbridge grads, and so we all must rally round to defend these marginalised, voiceless people. *sob*”

No, that’s not it.

There is a problem with social mobility in this country. A big problem, that it’d be quite nice to solve.

You can’t solve a problem unless you can diagnose it properly. The problem is not the dominance of Oxbridge. It’s the dominance of the public schools, and the rise of a professional media-political class.

Those three categories overlap, but they’re not the same thing. You could turn Oxbridge inside out, and still end up with a political system dominated by old Etonions and Fettes boys who’d never had a real job.

Assuming that anyone who ever set foot inside an Oxbridge college is of the same ilk as Gideon Osborne is not only unhelpful, it’s also fucking rude to those of us who come from other backgrounds.

20. Luis Enrique

(this comment is not directed at you Paul)

before we can know anything about whether Oxbridge’s admissions procedure is biased, we need to have some idea of what the state-educated / privately educated acceptance rates would look like under an unbiased system, so we can compare actually observed rates with this benchmark.

it is quite extraordinary that people would write articles about how we need to democractise (is that really the right word?) Oxbridge without saying something about this basic preliminary step.

If you make the assumption that the (distribution of) quality of applicants from state schools is the same as the quality of applicants from private schools (“applicants from” as distinct from “pupils at”), then in an unbiased system you would expect to see the same rates of acceptance as you see in rates of application, so Paul’s claim “Oxbridge accepts, roughly, the same proportion of state school applicants as apply” is exactly the sort of thing we need to know.

If you think the distribution of applicants differs (are private school kids who apply stupider that state kids who apply, on average?) then we have evidence of bias.

When it comes to data like this: “93% of UK schoolchildren are state educated, yet they accounted for just 53% of Oxford and 57.6% of Cambridge” if you want to know whether that indicates a problem with Oxbridge entry procedures, you need to know the distribution of ability in pupils at state schools versus pupils at private schools (“pupils at” as distinct from “applicants from”). Does anybody know that? I don’t. So how do people know what these statistics say about that? As Paul writes, these statistics tell us about something other than Oxbridge’s entry procedures.

If you wish to assume that Oxbridge does have a roughly meritocratic admissions procedure, then you could interpret the 93/7 at school but 50/50 at Oxbridge statistics as saying something about the abilities of kids at state versus educated schools. But even then, how do you know “there is most definitely a problem” here? The difficulty comes from the fact that (some) private schools use entrance exams. If these exams result in the average ability of kids at private schools being, say, 10% higher than at state school, then if Oxbridge takes say the top 5% of ability country wide, you could quite easily end up with a 50/50 state/private split in the top of the national ability distribution. Whether that – the existence of some schools that use entrance exams – is “most definitely a problem”, I couldn’t say (the bigger problem, of course, is that private schools require ability + rich parents, not merely ability)

which is a very long winded way of saying that I’m buggered if I understand why so many people see Oxbridge private/state rates as obvious evidence of injustice at the university level. A symptom of earlier injustice, sure.

of course the idea of ability itself is a problem – you can get super bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, but if they don’t like reading books/writing/arguing about intellectual stuff by the time they are 18, they’re Oxbridge-relevant-ability is low. So the “most definitely a problem” is that we think that your social background is much too great a determinant of your “realized” ability … and this kind of thing may solidify surprisingly young. The focus should be less on whether the system is unmeritocratic / biased in favour of posh kids once ability is determined, and more of what determines ability in the first place.

see: http://www.heckmanequation.org/heckman-equation-slideshow

if we’re looking for evidence of inequity in our society, we need to be looking at the relationship between ability and social background at the age of 5, and less at how universities sort individuals once most of the cards have already been dealt.

[none of this is to say that a whole host of unfair advantages aren’t conferred on private school kids]

21. Rogue_Leader

@18 – That’s interesting. If I have misunderstood, I apologise, but what is the content of the degree and what is it that seems to make its graduates so especially suited to high political office? Is it just that people who graduate in this particular discipline tend to be those with greatest access to the corridors of power anyway?

I have a feeling that if the cabinet was almost entirely composed of Dave Sparts with community college diplomas in Politics ‘n’ That, there would be a call-to-arms by the national newspapers. Why is this so different?

I suspect that there is a subconscious acceptance, even on the left and among the less well off, that moneyed, well-educated people like Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Blair are naturally at home in power and that their reigns are only briefly interrupted by the profane.

“In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement”
–George Orwell

In my case, the school (a gimcrack late-C19th foundation, and thus not a real public school at all)

There only are three Public Schools in any event. The rest are a hodge-podge of crammers, church schools and railway stations.

The Sutton Trust’s research shows that 100 schools – 3 per cent of the total – take one-third of Oxbridge places, and of those 78 are private schools.

Nearly 50% of students come from private schools, despite making up only 7% of total school population

As Carole Cadwalladr (an Oxford graduate) wrote in the Observer “It’s hugely disproportionate. If you can afford to send your child to private school, you significantly increase their chances of going to Oxbridge; and from there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to vast swaths of British public life”.

And yup, nearly all Observer & Guardian columnists are Oxbridge educated.

Perhaps you’d like a butchers at a list Oxbridge graduates in plum jobs

It’s a very long list….

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/mar/16/highereducation.careers

Is it desirable that so much of political and cultural life is influenced by the graduates of just two universities?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/mar/16/highereducation.news

I’ll proceed to make myself no new friends and question whether it really would be better if 70% of the cabinet had degrees in Events Studies and Sports Tech from Popleton Met.

Even 70% coming from the ‘Russell Group’ universities beyond Oxbridge would be an improvement – but maybe the people who studied at LSE or Birmingham are just really thick by comparison.

PS: If Paul Sagar is going to blame the state schools for not trying hard enough to get their brightest kids into Oxbridge, then the simplest solution is to make it mandatory for them to apply.

I have to say that I agree with you – I don’t think increased positive discrimination is the way forward as it ruins too much of a risk of undermining the higher standard of education that Oxbridge stands for.

I also went to a state sector school (albeit a faith school, but it was entirely state-funded nonetheless) and I did apply to Cambridge at 18 – however, had I not had the encouragement to do so from my English Literature teachers at the time chances are that I too would’ve been one of those kids who said that “people like me don’t belong in a place like that”. I was very fortunate that I had two members of the teaching staff on my side who saw things differently and who genuinely did believe that people like me could belong in a place like that.

I also agree that the issue isn’t just about getting state sector students to apply in the first place. The advice that many schools give to the young people that want to apply is insane and ranges (in my experience & from the experiences of other people I know) from teachers telling kids to out & out lie in their personal statements to telling them to make grandiose claims about their family’s wealth/background. None of this sort of advice helps when it comes to Oxbridge and the former is particularly unhelpful if you are lucky enough to make it through to the interview round and then left trying to explain and support a personal statement made up of bullshit that you don’t believe in (or know anything about) but which sounded like what the Oxbridge admissions team might want to hear. Too few state schools understand that encouraging a young person to apply for Oxbridge goes beyond simply ticking all the right boxes on the UCAS form, it’s also about preparing these young people for what is likely to be the most intimidating interview process they will have ever undergone and giving them the skills & encouragement to feel that they really are worthy of that place at Oxbridge and that they can deal with this process calmly & confidently in a way that lets their potential shine.

I didn’t get my place at Cambridge in the end, largely because I wasn’t given the encouragement & skills relating to the interview process mentioned above and I only hope that the government starts to do more to support state schools to provide the kind of help that is really needed to their bright young people.

I have a feeling that if the cabinet was almost entirely composed of Dave Sparts with community college diplomas in Politics ‘n’ That, there would be a call-to-arms by the national newspapers. Why is this so different?

Because PPE is a degree offering Politics, Philosophy and Economics and not just Politics? It’s one of the broadest-based degrees around. There’s a qualitative difference between a degree in PPE from Oxford or Cambridge and a diploma in politics from a community college.

If Paul Sagar is going to blame the state schools for not trying hard enough to get their brightest kids into Oxbridge, then the simplest solution is to make it mandatory for them to apply.

Ah, that’s the proper Liberal Conspiracy note again. Everything that is not mandatory is prohibited.

27. Luis Enrique

NB, anybody interested in the stats angle should definitely take a look at Simpson’s Paradox, particularly how data on admission bias can be misleading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simpson%27s_paradox#Berkeley_sex_bias_case

28. Rogue_Leader

“Because PPE is a degree offering Politics, Philosophy and Economics and not just Politics? It’s one of the broadest-based degrees around. There’s a qualitative difference between a degree in PPE from Oxford or Cambridge and a diploma in politics from a community college.”

Presumably, ‘dodging the point’ is part of the syallabus of this degree that, uniquely, produces people capable of leading nations?

Did you teach Abhisit too?

29. CharlieMcMenamin

As a secondary modern oik who acquired a passable degree from a university of glass and steel in the 1970s I’d quite like my kids to aspire to Oxbridge. But no doubt that’s as much about me as about them. & I can’t fault the higher education I actually did receive.

Mrs Charlie, on the other hand, a 1980s graduate of Cambridge, felt the actual education on offer was pretty lousy in her subject at that time, despite her acquiring a first. So she’s far less keen on the kids following her experience.

These are ancient memories of course and I’m not claiming they reflect current reality. But, my, wouldn’t it be interesting if someone invented a metric for higher education similar to the’ Contextual Value Added’ used in primary and secondary education. Then we might judge if the elite status of these institutions is actually derived from the simple business of selecting the most promising young people or whether they actually made a real difference.

What is the content of the degree and what is it that seems to make its graduates so especially suited to high political office?

The content of the degree is, well, Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Students study all three subjects in their first year, and usually continue with just two of them into their second year and beyond. I’d guess, but I don’t know, that most of the recent Cabinet Ministers who took the degree continued with Politics and Economics, and that they took option papers like, for example, Public Economics, Social Policy (for the more wonkish), Modern British Government or International Relations in the Era of the Cold War during the second half of their course. At least one of the Milibands took the Marxism course (for which he had to read his dad’s books).

In the old days, all the people who wanted to be politicians seem to have taken Labour Economics, as they thought that being a politician meant dealing with the trade unions the whole time — I’m pretty sure William Hague took this paper, for example, with my old colleague Derek Robinson at Magdalen.

And the key thing, I think, is that it’s not that PPE graduates are more likely to end up as politicians per se, it’s that people who think they want to be politicians are more likely to want to do PPE. The course has always had an orientation towards problems of British government — people study British political institutions in their first year, and may very well study twentieth century British political history in their second — and it can be a good training in learning how to think like a technocrat, if that’s what you want to acquire.

If you’re interested, I republished Trevor Pateman’s classic pamphlet “The Poverty of Philosophy, Politics and Economics” on my blog not so long ago — and that’s an interesting critical discussion of the course from a late-60s New Left perspective. The course has changed quite a bit since then, but it’s still recognisably the course that Pateman was being so rude about. You can start here, and get to the rest of the pamphlet by following the links to the next post along on the top right of each page (though you have to move past a post in the middle that pokes fun at Margaret Hodge).

31. John T. Capp

#19

Of course it’s a much bigger problem than that, which is why I’m not really engaging with this debate short of taking the piss out of the valient, downtrodden Oxbridge grad’s who claim to be on the Left and yet are willing to bend their principles to defend their alma mater. Good job those mental gymnastics were instilled well in your Undergraduate days.

Maybe if you all weren’t trying to justify and downplay your elevation into a life of much more opportunity than everyone else, people wouldn’t be so fucking rude towards you. Maybe.

“Firstly, I’d like to note something odd about one of Dave’s initial concerns: that the top level of politics is over-represented by people with Oxbridge degrees.”

I don’t think this is a fair characterisation. Dave wasn’t arguing that the distribution of oxbridge degrees at the top of politics shouldn’t be higher than among the general population. Obviously oxbridge degrees correlate with other desirable qualities. The point is that there is no good reason to expect them to be over-represented to the weird extent that they are.

If you combine the claim that the over-representation is normal given oxbridge graduates’ well-suitedness with the facts about how uncommon such people are and how drastically over-represented they are in politics, the level of well-suitedness implied is absurd.

If Paul Sagar seriously believes this he either hasn’t thought about it or has an incredibly low opinion of non oxbridge graduates.

Or was he just making a snappy point that he didn’t really believe?

33. Luis Enrique

what case could be made for positive discrimination?

if it’s harder for state kids to achieve a certain level of ability, then you ought to set the Oxbridge entrance ability bar lower for them to take advantage of their on average superior non-cognitive abilities, like motivation etc.

if kids from state schools know things that are useful to society (i.e. experiences that you don’t have within the gilded private sector) and if Oxbridge confers ability and puts you on a path to top jobs, then we want to set the ability bar lower for state kids, to ensure that knowledge gets into high places

if Oxbridge adds to ability, increases human capital, then it might be a good idea to raise up some lower ability kids and let some already high ability kids look after themselves elsewhere, not just to compensate them for early disadvantages (justice) but this could also be efficient if the marginal returns to Oxbridge “investing” in lower ability state kids are higher than investing in higher ability private school kids.

what’s wrong with those arguments?

Too few state schools understand that encouraging a young person to apply for Oxbridge goes beyond simply ticking all the right boxes on the UCAS form, it’s also about preparing these young people for what is likely to be the most intimidating interview process they will have ever undergone and giving them the skills & encouragement to feel that they really are worthy of that place at Oxbridge and that they can deal with this process calmly & confidently in a way that lets their potential shine.

Hmmm…reminds me of watching Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, where the ‘Oxbridge Coach’ is brought in because it wasn’t enough for the boys to be bright; they had to be – how can I put it? – ‘Oxbridge Bright’, which is completely different to getting a university place anywhere else. Is there a budget for that sort of thing to be extended to all schools, or are we going to continue to hope that state schools ‘get the message’ and do it voluntarily? (Tim J: what would your proposal be to increase the number of state school applicants?)

35. Rogue_Leader

@30

Thanks Chris. So do you see the dominance of PPE graduates in government as a shift in political ideas, or is there a cargo-cultish aspect to it, that PPE has become the campfire around which future leaders congregate? Not wishing at all to disparage the course as I’m sure it provides an excellent frounding to anyone considering a career in politics, diplomacy or journalism, but it seems unusual that this one course has attracted so many future senior politicians.

Dave Semple: I wrote this response because it’s an important issue regarding social mobility, and one of the main problems with improving social mobility re access to Oxbridge – and therefore later influence in politics, industry, media etc, as well as income-expectations – is incorrect impressions and misaprehensions. So it needs to be shouted loud and clear that there is not some Oxbridge bias against the poor.

Luis: that’s a really interesting comment, thanks for that. You are of course right. Similar points, and consequences, being explored over at my place:

http://badconscience.com/2010/05/20/the-truth-about-oxbridge-admissions-a-reply-to-dave-osler/#comment-3403

Tim J:

1. You can’t do PPE at Cambridge.

2. There are 5 Public Schools, everybody knows that. Rugby counts, even if you don’t want it to.

Redpesto:

Hmmm…reminds me of watching Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, where the ‘Oxbridge Coach’ is brought in because it wasn’t enough for the boys to be bright; they had to be – how can I put it? – ‘Oxbridge Bright’, which is completely different to getting a university place anywhere else. Is there a budget for that sort of thing to be extended to all schools, or are we going to continue to hope that state schools ‘get the message’ and do it voluntarily? (Tim J: what would your proposal be to increase the number of state school applicants?)

That’s why I HATE that film.

Why bother going to do outreach work when stupid twatting Alan Bennett comes along and tells kids that it’s also about faking whether you’re actually clever and interested, and anyway you’ll get in if you can play rugby.

What a load of cock.

38. Flowerpower

Critical mass also has something to do with it. Schools like Eton and Westminster typically send 50 or so pupils to Oxbridge per year. That’s something like 30% of their upper sixth roll.

Many comps, by contrast, may have 3 or 4 particularly academically gifted sixth formers that teachers might (or might not) encourage to think about going to Oxford and Cambridge.

Luis @ 33

It basically already happens like that with regards to making allowances for kids from worse schools. Not sure you could get away with debarring the brighter privately-educated, if your criteria is ability, a) on basic grounds of fairness vis-a-vis the candidate themselves and b) it would surely be illegal under EU law.

Chris Brooke:

Bob Hargrave always used to say that PPE was, in its basic form, just a technocratic course of induction for people who wanted to become civil servants. Indeed, in my year out I learned that in fact processing huge volumes of information and turning it into an essay very quickly was exactly what a lot of employers were interested in.

Of course, for some people PPE can be an intellectual pursuit as well. Those people go on to become academics, mostly. But for the majority it’s what you do to get the grade to get the job in banking/whitehall/westminster/the magic circle/whatever else is paying well these days.

“Not sure you could get away with debarring the brighter privately-educated, if your criteria is ability”

The criterion shouldn’t be ability, it should be potential. And that means the context in which the applicant achieved what they’ve achieved is important.

You can’t do PPE at Cambridge.

Chuh. Typical fenland incompetence. Although the Cambridge economics degree does include a substantial measure of politics.

There are 5 Public Schools, everybody knows that. Rugby counts, even if you don’t want it to.

Railway station. I hold to the Wimsey definition.

(Tim J: what would your proposal be to increase the number of state school applicants?)

Beyond what is being done already – encouraging current undergraduates and recent graduates to go to state schools and tell them what the place is like, and encouraging state schools to push Oxbridge applications – I don’t really know.

Maybe the best way (in Arts courses at least) would be the re-introduction of a syllabus-less entrance exam. You’d have to avoid this being a pass/fail type exam and use it as a way of seeing how students think and write. That way dons would have a better chance of detecting real promise and talent over and above the polished independent school product. On the other hand, from what is being said about the standard of first year essays these days, this might actually be counter-productive.

43. Ken McKenzie

But the thing a lot of people are feverishly trying to avoid is that whilst it is true that Oxbridge take some of the very smartest people in the country, another key mission of the institutions is that they have always had the role of trying to turn very dim scions of very influential and wealthy families into people who might be vaguely capable of contributing something useful to their country. Thus we have the paradox that Oxbridge simultaneously has the smartest and the dimmest people currently at large in the HE system – and such is the skill of the system at coaching amiable dimwits into being formidable bluffers that it is not always apparent at first blush who is who, and why especially people from very wealthy backgrounds with Oxbridge qualifications engender suspicion.

I don’t know who was it who said, but the quote goes something like ‘If you turned Oxbridge 100% selective on ability, it would decimate the Church and the Diplomatic Service’

44. Ken McKenzie

tl;dr version: If you’re poor and mediocre, you’re screwed
If you’re rich and mediocre, our ‘best’ institutions are there to make sure you can get pulled up to the leve more appropriate to your family name. That’s always been partly what they’re there for.

“The problem, as I see it, with ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’ is that it prepares the graduate for a career in nothing but politics.”

This is not so. From personal experience, there are many PPE grads in the civil service, including more than a few economists in the govenment economic service and, like Chris Brooke, I suspect, any number go to work in financial institutions in the City. Under the currently prevailing PPE degree structure, it is possible, although not obligatory, to almost entirely specialise in P, P or E to the virtual exclusion of the other two subjects.

My son, who attended one of those schools down the road, emerged from Oxford with a good PPE degree. At the time, he was barely computer literate – word processing stuff and computer games and not much more – but now has a flourishing career to do with producing stuff for the web for huge, mostly American company clients and that despite having no technical qualifications whatever. He attributes this to the excellent grounding he had from the pressured discipline of writing regular tutorial essays on topics in analytical philosophy, mostly on the basis of wide reading (effectively self-tuition), a cultivated analytical sense and developed précis skills, all of which have been extremely valuable in learning about developing and scripting web software.

Discussions about the pre-eminence of Oxbridge in Britain’s system of higher education are missing something fundamental if they don’t pick out the skills developed by the Oxbridge tutorial system and the personal capacity to withstand that pressure.

46. Watchman

“PS: If Paul Sagar is going to blame the state schools for not trying hard enough to get their brightest kids into Oxbridge, then the simplest solution is to make it mandatory for them to apply.”

God, just when you think you’ve heard all the stupidity for the day…

You do know that universities have to consider all applications the same, don’t you? So every application would have to be received at Oxford or Cambridge, then inspected by academics (because admissions decisions are made by academics not bureaucrats), who might otherwise be doing research (fitted in round other duties normally) into unimportant things – cancer drugs, solutions to climate change or whatever.

And how would mandatory application help – it would no longer be an aspiration for good pupils, but merely something that has to be done (and as Oxbridge applications have to be in to UCAS earlier than other ones, it would reduce the time for applications to be made to universities as a whole). Would it not be a better solution to teach children to have aspirations, to encourage them that there is more to life than their own (generally narrow – lack of experience) horizons, and they should strive for it? Perhaps that might increase the application rate. Stupid and ill-thought-out attempts at social engineering like this will achieve nothing…

47. Watchman

Tim,

“Maybe the best way (in Arts courses at least) would be the re-introduction of a syllabus-less entrance exam. You’d have to avoid this being a pass/fail type exam and use it as a way of seeing how students think and write. That way dons would have a better chance of detecting real promise and talent over and above the polished independent school product. On the other hand, from what is being said about the standard of first year essays these days, this might actually be counter-productive.”

Since even at A-Level, most arts subjects are not assessed by essay anymore (short answer exams in history!), I doubt an entrance exam would benefit students who did not come from a rigourously academic school already. The solution has to be cultural – change the entire culture of the education system to stop teaching for test and to start testing for learning, not for the attainment of curricula.

Rogue_Leader asked, “So do you see the dominance of PPE graduates in government as a shift in political ideas, or is there a cargo-cultish aspect to it, that PPE has become the campfire around which future leaders congregate?”

We’re in the realms of guesswork here, but I think a bit of both. The Tory party used to recruit its MPs heavily from the old rural squirearchy, and the Labour party used to recruit a lot of MPs from the ranks of trade union officials. Both parties have turned away from these populations, for whatever reasons, and now are fishing in the same pond, recruiting professionally-oriented, very well educated people into their ranks. And as the ideological distance between parties’ manifestos shrinks, politics and government do become more wonkish and technocratic, and the parties increasingly recruit wonks and technocrats.

But the cargo-cultish point is a good one — and there’s also the networking effect, of course. If you go to Oxford, and do PPE, and join the Labour Club or the Conservative Association or hang out at the Union, you’re much more likely to rub shoulders with people who’ve trod that path in the past: they come and give talks, or whatever, and it’s easier than it would be at other places to get the internships and the recommendations, or to be pointed in the right direction by a friendly tutor. And if you’re a think-tank recruiting interns or a trade union looking for researchers, you just might think that someone who has studied public policy and political institutions will do better than someone who’s done English Lit or Biology at university – and that’s how a lot of people get a start in the post-university political milieu.

49. Rogue_Leader

“The solution has to be cultural – change the entire culture of the education system to stop teaching for test and to start testing for learning, not for the attainment of curricula.”

Without doubt, the most sense anyone has displayed in this discussion.

Unfortunately, education culture usually reflects wider social culture. The current education system is adequate for a workforce heading predominantly into call centres, tourism, retail and low-skilled administrative and technical work.

The question is, how do we change that?

50. Rogue_Leader

Displayed?

Ah, it’s too hot for me today…

Well folks – I decided not to apply to Oxbridge, in fact I didn’t apply anywhere.

However it does not seem to have restricted my rise to glory as I sit at the pinnacle of my industry earning more than I can possibly spend for doing less than I have ever done before.

…and they say this is a Meritocracy?

Well I might be gifted, but on paper I am merely a ‘comprehensive dropout’ – not much worth to anyone.

There are 2 problems with our educational system

1) Anyone who goes to Oxbridge is assumed to be ‘bright’ – this is perpetuated by the media who don’t want to appear dumb, and therefore must be able to ‘spot other bright people’. This is why so many turn up in Government – it’s not tangible actions which get them there, but a mis-guided belief that they are somehow superior to us – which is coincidently why half the country actually believes they know what they are doing! The most frightening thing for me is their lack of understanding of Economics.

2) Those who didn’t go to Oxbridge (or higher education) are portrayed as inferior by the media. Some of the brightest people I have met were not university educated. Practicality and initiative are large parts of an intelligent make-up, something which the chattering classes have drilled out of them whilst at University.

Sadly for the highly educated – the meek shall inheret the earth, so your regurgitated ‘learning’ of facts and figures will not assist you when the time comes. Catching rats and cooking them on an open fire will become the necessary skills in the future – not working out volumes of revolution or knowing faraday’s left hand rule

52. redpesto

@PaulSagar – so what do you make of Kim’s point (at 25) that I quoted? Is there a difference between being prepared for being university interviews and being prepared for an ‘Oxbridge’ one?

@TimJ: If it’s not to be mandatory, then it would have to be a ‘default’ position, if only to increase the level of competition against applicants from public schools, otherwise we could be waiting for a significant shift in the proportion of state school Oxbridge undergraduates for a very long time.

53. Hibernica

“Let’s be clear: Oxbridge accepts, roughly, the same proportion of state school applicants as apply. The problem therefore is that not enough bright state school kids are applying, not that they are being discriminated against once the UCAS forms are in. “

Yes, Oxford gets around 50% of its applications from state school pupils, and 50% of its intake is from the state sector. The article implies this is necessary causation, when I see only correlation.

Sure, more state school pupils should apply. But to say that because only 6000 state school pupils are applying for 3000 places Oxford cannot accept more than 50% of its intake from the state sector, is simply nonsense.

“Those who didn’t go to Oxbridge (or higher education) are portrayed as inferior by the media. Some of the brightest people I have met were not university educated.”

Researches ranging across most affluent economies show graduates (or the professional equivalents) have lower unemployment rates and higher employment rates than non-graduates and graduates, on average, are paid more than non-graduates.

55. Rogue_Leader

“Researches ranging across most affluent economies show graduates (or the professional equivalents) have lower unemployment rates and higher employment rates than non-graduates and graduates, on average, are paid more than non-graduates.”

You’ve missed the point there, haven’t you?

56. redpesto

Watchman – of course I know that making it mandatory would massively increase the number of applications…but so would raising the aspirations of thousands of state school kids to think that Oxbridge is ‘for them’ in some way, whether that is done by government and/or by the colleges themselves (and would it count as ‘social engineering’ if it was done by government?). And given the special status of Oxbridge (e.g. your reference to having to apply earlier), encouraging them to have aspirations isn’t enough (the recent Sutton Trust report indicated that potential students need to be identified as early as 14, which implies some form of identification and selection, let alone coaching and support). As it is, the data indicates there’s an issue, and yet the best strategy seems to be a continued policy of the same kinds of exhortation that already exist…and progress on that front appears to be slow.

>But there is another major problem: vast ignorance in the state system about
>Oxbridge, and an ingrained prejudice against applying.

Bang on. I hadn’t a clue why I’d want to apply to Oxford – “after all it’s just a Uni, right? It’ll be the same as anywhere else but full of massive dickheads talking about how clever they think they are”, I told myself – and nobody corrected me until I was, like, 23 or something. The facts just aren’t in the public consciousness.

The solution has to be cultural – change the entire culture of the education system to stop teaching for test and to start testing for learning, not for the attainment of curricula.

Well, absolutely. Spot on. Might be a bit of a stretch for the admissions dons at Oxbridge to handle though!

@TimJ: If it’s not to be mandatory, then it would have to be a ‘default’ position, if only to increase the level of competition against applicants from public schools, otherwise we could be waiting for a significant shift in the proportion of state school Oxbridge undergraduates for a very long time.

Not necessarily. The proportion of independent school undergraduates was substantially lower in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s been the (relative) decline in standards in state education that has driven the decline in state scholl representation at Oxbridge more than anything else.

@redpesto – 34

Regarding your question about budgets – personally, I would like to see some sort of funding stream for this open to all schools so that they can apply for it to bring in such people if the staff can’t/don’t understand the system enough to give this to the young people in-house. Whether that will actually happen in reality I don’t know, the pessimist in me doubts it will though.

To follow on from my last comment re: bright vs Oxbridge bright.

In my experience, it’s not necessarily about dropping in golden words like “I play rugby” or “I row for my county” into the interview – it’s more about giving young people the confidence to deal with that level of interview which most of us who go to ordinary state-funded schools don’t have because we’ve never been in an even vaguely similar situation.

61. skidmarx

When I was leaving my PPE course, I was told that what had most impressed one of my entrance interviewers was that I thought about the questions he asked before answering them.

When I was leaving my PPE course, I was told that what had most impressed one of my entrance interviewers was that I thought about the questions he asked before answering them.

Absolutely. And it’s a much more unusual quality than one might expect. In interviews, people often appear to saying the first thing that comes into their head, no matter how much you tell them beforehand that they should think about what they’re being asked, take their time, etc. My not-entirely-frivolous advice to interview candidates would be to pause from time to time and try to look thoughtful (even if you’re mind is entirely blank) as it does come across really well to the interviewers.

(Something similar is the case with written exams at university. So many of the scripts have this rather thoughtless, rushed quality to them, and you strongly get the impression that people would have done significantly better if they’d written quite a bit less, but thought about what they were writing quite a bit more.)

Firstly, I’d like to note something odd about one of Dave’s initial concerns: that the top level of politics is over-represented by people with Oxbridge degrees.

There seems to be an obvious point being missed here, or being taken backwards: the sort of people who wind up in the top levels of politics are highly, highly ambitious characters, whatever else they may be. It’s unsurprising then that they would wish (and try very hard) to attend what are seen to be the best universities around.

It doesn’t matter for this argument whether Oxbridge actually is better than everywhere else, merely that it is seen to be.

64. CharlieMcMenamin

@ Larry Teabag

Well, yes: didn’t someone up-thread ask whether the education provided at Oxbridge is basically a cargo cult rather than the epitome of Western learning ?

Presumably very ambitious people living in cargo cult orientated societies end up with, ahem, a lot of cargo. Or at least strive mightily to obtain it.

I’d be interested in the views of people who have attended both an Oxbridge college and another university as to whether they feel the old universities are actually any good at educating young people.

65. Mike Killingworth

Is there any evidence that Oxbridge provides a better education than other Russell Group universities?

I think it may well provide a higher quality of networking for those whose morals are so slack as to allow them to indulge in that sort of thing, but I am not aware – and I speak as an old Dark Blue – of any other advantage. The teaching I got there ranged from the deranged to the abysmal. Admittedly, that was a very long time ago.

Teaching standards will be pretty high across all Russell Group institutions these days.

The key difference with Oxbridge, it seems to me, is that students get more individual attention, as the teaching groups are so much smaller (including, from time to time, individual tutorials / supervisions), and – crucially – that the students are being required to do a lot more work.

Since at university level in particular, what you get out of your course is generally a function of what you put into it, more work = a better education overall. The norm in PPE, for example, is still to write between twelve and sixteen essays during each eight-week term, each essay being 2,000-2,500 words long, maybe (or to do the equivalent in Economics problem sets, Logic exercises, or whatever). Outside Oxbridge, courses don’t tend to require anything like that volume of work.

And – just as a footnote to my previous comment – I think the local atmosphere is important. I can’t comment firsthand on life in UK higher education outside Oxbridge, but one of the things people say to me who come in to do postgraduate courses from elsewhere (including other Russell Group institutions) is that they are struck by the way in which it’s normalhere to work hard at your academic work — which means that people who want to work hard aren’t made to feel socially awkward, and so on, and that makes it significantly easier to act on their intentions. And the Colleges (for all their faults) are good at being spaces — a library! a place to eat! a bar! rooms to sleep in! — in which a few hundred people can do their academic work alongside one another in a fairly intense fashion for a couple of months at a time.

68. Rogue_Leader

Aren’t we fiddling while Rome burns here?

The dire state of student funding these days prevents a lot of bright kids from going to *any* university. I don’t know what the average age is on here, but I am guessing that a lot of you benefited from student grants and free tuition. It’s just not feasible now for anyone from a poorer background to stop working for four years and conculde that period without income with a debt in the tens of thousands.

Far more pertinent than the admissions policies of elite universites is the fact that a degree from any well-regarded university is now economically out of reach for around half of the school leavers in the country. Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have mattered so much, but now degrees are being mandated for jobs that clearly do not require university-level education.

It’s not hard to understand why this is seen as a land-grab by those already monied. It’s no use quoting Oxford admissions statistics to support the view that Oxbridge is becoming somehow more egalitarian (as though that were ever the point!) when over half of the people in this country stand no chance at all of ever getting ahead in what has revealingly become known as the ‘jobs marketplace’.

Oxford and Cambridge admissions policies are a tiny breaker against the tide of increasing inequality.

In order to win a place at Oxford you need a high IQ, one at the extreme right of the bell curve. People with these very high IQs are not evenly distributed between the social classes. They are significantly clustered among the 7% who are educated at independent schools. If you are looking for the top 2% in terms of IQ, you would find a great deal of it among the cohort of independently educated pupils. No big mystery then why Oxbridge admissions are skewed towards the privately educated children of rich and/or professional parents (who have relatively high IQs).

Rogue_Leader: since the introduction of top-up fees, the number of students from poorer backgrounds has not only been increasing, but has been increasing faster than the number from middle-class backgrounds.

71. Paul Sagar

Thy last point is actually really important, Chris. At Balliol everythig was made so convenient: books, food, bar, friends, tutors, space to read quietly, place to sleep were all in a 5 minute radius. That meant I could do 10hours in the library and still see other people, get a beer etc.

This year in London it’s like I spend half my life on the bloody hammersmith and city line, chasing books around North London and only seeing course friends once a week because we all live in different places and spontaneous socializing is made very hard.

There’s a lot to be said for the physical benefits of an Oxbridge college and a small university town.

72 – I found aberystwyth uni similar, and another point is that smallness makes networking far easier, which may well explain the disproportionate amount of aber international politics grads in welsh political life. (the Taffia)

73. Rogue_Leader

@Tom

Where is that reported? Do you have detailed figures?

Not trying to be a trolly pedant about this, I genuinely am interested.

On a similar note, the administration and finance stuff is made so much easier at Oxbridge. Lots of my friends at other universities have had hassle with their fees or accommodation or whatever and have had to fight the bureaucracy of their university fees offices, giving them stress, distracting them from their courses… At Cambridge if I had a problem with accommodation or finance I could just walk a few minutes to the door of the individual whose responsibility it was, and they’d sort it out on the spot.

75. Rogue_Leader

@Paul_Sagar

“This year in London it’s like I spend half my life on the bloody hammersmith and city line, chasing books around North London and only seeing course friends once a week because we all live in different places and spontaneous socializing is made very hard.”

I spent 10 years working in London, and that’s pretty much everyone’s experience of it. Interesting contrast with @27 above.

77. Charlie 2

As people have pointed out, the top public schools send 20-45% of their pupils to Oxbridge and many comprehensives may only a one or two pupils per year with the potential. Therefore have Oxbridge teachers for each LEA and start extra tuition at the beginning of A levels: additional courses can be run in the holidays.
Oxbridge classes would be after school and voluntary. Public speaking an debating courses courses could be run. Why not run additional classes for bright children from the age of 11 onwards and have after hours extra curricular classes to develop minds.

If we want to reduce inequality bring back apprenticeships and evening study at the local poly. If someone can passes Council of Engineering Exams Part 2, equivalent to a degree and they can become a chartered engineer e.g. Mitchell /Spitfire, Chadwick/Lancaster and Vulcan/ B Wallis/ R100 airframe, wellington, Bouncing Bomb, Tallboy and swept wing technology led to F111.

78. Rogue_Leader

Thanks @Tom. I’ve saved it for later, but this did jump out at me:

“”It remains the case that young people from disadvantaged areas have a one in five chance of progressing to higher education compared to one in two from the most advantaged neighbourhoods.””

Progress is being made, but I hope the cuts that we’re about to see won’t stall or reverse it.

As was pointed out earlier, there have long been colleges at Oxbridge which specialise in kicking the less able prgeny of the rich and powerful into a shape that won’t enrage or horrify the proletariat. I think the cosistent thread here is that there is still a huge gulf in the work and luck required for those who aspire to Oxbridge, depending on the student’s background:

“As people have pointed out, the top public schools send 20-45% of their pupils to Oxbridge and many comprehensives may only a one or two pupils per year with the potential.”

Either a huge selection bias is at work here, or pupils at top public schools are just inherently better than those who aren’t.

Anyone going to argue in favour of the latter?

Thought not.

@78 Either a huge selection bias is at work here, or pupils at top public schools are just inherently better than those who aren’t.

I’d agree with this, but I dont think they are inherently better, just better because they have been to a better school.

Either a huge selection bias is at work here, or pupils at top public schools are just inherently better than those who aren’t.

Have you actually read the article?

Oxford and Cambridge admit state/private students in proportion to the numbers that apply. You can find the numbers on their websites.

There is no “selection” or “admissions” bias. There is simply a dearth of state school applicants.

Inasmuch as there is a problem, that is the problem which needs to be solved.

81. Rogue_Leader

@80

Yes, I agree. The bias is institutional and cultural (as already discussed countless times above) not generally applied at UCAS or university admissions level, however while there are colleges happy to waive academic selection criteria on behalf of less-able but wealthy and influential families, I don’t think you can argue that there isn’t an inherent selection bias.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the argument that state schools need to do more to encourage their students to apply and train them for the interviews. I was fortunately enough to go to a sixth form college that did. In our first year those of us who were considered “Oxbridge potential” were sent to some event in London organised by Oxbridge encouraging people to apply (I can’t remember if it was specifically targetted at state school pupils or a general event) .

We were also taken on a trip around an Oxford college on another occasion – not sure whether this was part of an access scheme or organised by our college but it was a worthwhile experience. When it came to interviews I was given advice and training by my history tutor (an Old Labour type who was nevertheless prooud of getting students into Oxbridge). I passed the interviews and got in. The chances are I would have applied anyway (parental encouragement) but I’m not sure whether I would have got in without the interview training and practice.

I don’t think you can argue that there isn’t an inherent selection bias.

There may well be the odd dimbo who gets in, I don’t know.
But the fact that admissions and applications are proportionate suggests prima facie that there isn’t a systematic bias.

Most private schools have selection exams for kids entering in Year 7 that rely on stuff that isn’t taught in Key Stage 2.

I literally wouldn’t have gotten into my school without my parents paying to ensure I knew long division a full six months before my primary school got round to teaching it.

Thing is, long division isn’t tough. They could have taught us it years before, instead of making us cut out and colour in pictures of Tutenkamun or making posters about the Tudors. It would not be difficult or detrimental to repurpose our state curriculum, stage by stage, to teach many more useful techniques, and teach them earlier.

Either a huge selection bias is at work here, or pupils at top public schools are just inherently better than those who aren’t.

Better educated certainly. That’s rather the point.

Better looking too, of course.

85 – in the case of girls this does seem to be the case…

87. Flowerpower

Paul Sagar

If you look at the Oxford website you will see that in 2009:

6485 applicants were from state schools.

Of these, 1456 got places. That means that 5,029 applicants from state schools were turned away.

You argue that if only more state educated pupils would apply, then more would get in. But for your solution to work, the extra applicants would have to be BETTER than the 5029 currently applying but being turned away. But would they be? Are state school heads and teachers really failing to promote Oxbridge to their cleverest, while pushing forward the second best? Seems unlikely.

88. Watchman

Flowerpower,

The extra applicants would have to be better than some of the c. 1 400 public school-educated pupils to increase the number of state-schooled pupils. There is no quota system.

And the point is not that headteachers are sending pupils (are you public-school or grammar-school educated?), but that pupils are chosing not to apply, which may mean there are better candidates not applying. It may be no other candidates apply from their schools (I know of schools in Birmingham which have never sent a pupil to Oxbridge), not that the second-best are put forward.

But in all honesty, if the second-best is more confident or has a background where Oxbridge seems achievable (university-educated parents are a great help) then the second-best may apply whilst the best lacks the confidence to do so.

89. Charlie 2

87. flower power. From personal experience , yes. From about 1977 many public schools realised they they had to increase their academic standards to justify their fees. Eton had a common entrance pass rate of about 50% , which has steadily increased to 65% and Westminster’s is 70%. Winchester has a separate entrance exam and probably is the most rigorous academic school in the World. Public schools have been increasing their standards for 30 yrs.

The scholarship exams at the top public schools are very tough. The papers taken at 13 for CE and/or scholarship include 2 English, 2 Maths, Science , French, History, Geography , RE, often Latin and even Greek. Prep schools justify themselves by their pupils passing into public schools.

The reality is that those passing through the grammar and public school systems are being rigourously taught from the age of 9yrs, 11yrs at the oldest. As they say in boxing “train hard, fight easy”.

If we are to reduce social inequality, then state primary and comprehensives are going to have to develop a much more rigorous form of of education for pupils above 9 yrs of age. Many public schools are dropping GCSEs and even A levels because of their lack of rigour and instead using IGCSEs ( similar to old O level), IB and Cambridge Pre-U.

If pupils choose unsuitable GCSEs at 14, then they are unlikely to be able to enter the top universities. Many children at comprehensives appear to lose interest in education from the age of 13. If one’s GSCEs are poor but one decides to start A levels one is often at a disadvantage compared to those who have top marks, as one has less thorough grasp of the subjects.

90. Flowerpower

Watchman @ 88

The extra applicants would have to be better than some of the c. 1 400 public school-educated pupils to increase the number of state-schooled pupils. There is no quota system.

No. I’m assuming that all successful applicants, whether from state or independent school, ‘deserve’ their places and that the rejected applicants were deemed not up to scratch. (One could debate this at the margin, but let’s give them all the benefit of the doubt.) Therefore, any new cohort of gifted and talented applicants yet to be discovered in the country’s comps would have to perform better than than the >5000 currently rejected.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the independent schools (although educating only 7% of the population) account for 35% of all those getting 3 A grades at A level.

91. Soho Politico

Firstly, I’d like to note something odd about one of Dave’s initial concerns: that the top level of politics is over-represented by people with Oxbridge degrees.

This is often put forward as a self-evident problem. But I’m not sure that it is. Oxbridge has the toughest admission standards (high grades, written tests, plus at least two interviews in most cases) and has built its standing on giving people the very best education available (hence, when my mates at other Unis were doing three essays a term, I was doing two a week).

It’s thus not altogether surprising that people who are educated at Oxbridge end up at the top. And it may not be obviously undesirable, either; I’ll proceed to make myself no new friends and question whether it really would be better if 70% of the cabinet had degrees in Events Studies and Sports Tech from Popleton Met.

This, to me, is a weak argument. You would have a point, in saying we have no reason to regret the preponderance of Oxbridge graduates in politics if, in electing our representatives, we were looking merely for competent technocrats. But most people want something other than that. They want representatives that genuinely *are* representative. We do not have a representative political top tier if it is overwhelmingly composed of Oxbridge graduates. I think your post could have done with acknowledging that – as many people believe, at least – many of the key qualifications for being a good elected representative aren’t academic.

Soho Politico

We do not have a representative political top tier if it is overwhelmingly composed of Oxbridge graduates.

I dunno. Boris Johnson to Paul Sagar via David miliband and Diane Abbott. They seem a pretty diverse bunch.

Indeed Oxbridge offers a fantastic education, it totally removes awareness of privilege for a start.

94. Charlieman

@18 Chris Brooke wrt PPE grads: “Far, far too many of them ended up in banking.”

Can you illuminate on why banks find them attractive? I consider banks to be places where maths and stats wonks go to work, not political philosophers. Plus I have a mental bias that PPE UGs are going to be the ones that struggle with the first year econometrics exam that is mandatory to pass.

I disagree somewhat that Oxbridge are the only places that deliver rigorous assignments. That rule may be true for arts, humanities and law. The other week I chatted with a colleague in the engineering department at my red brick about teaching hours. They still deliver 22+ hours of lecture/seminar/laboratory per week in years one and two, and the assignment requirement demands another 20 hours. Allegedly medicine is much lighter in the early years of education than 30 years ago, but it is still graft.

“Can you illuminate on why banks find them attractive? I consider banks to be places where maths and stats wonks go to work, not political philosophers.”

Under the currently prevailing PPE degree structure, it is possible, although not obligatory, to almost entirely specialise in P(olitics) or P(hilosophy) or E(conomics) to the virtual exclusion of the other two subjects. Older degree candidates were obliged in their final exams to take 2 papers in P, P and E plus two additional options, making eight papers in all.

I’m not placed to know the subject choices made by PPE graduates who take up careers in banking. Possibly, the banks tend to select graduates who have opted to take more economics and stats papers in their finals.

By reports, PPE is one of the most popular Oxford degrees so there is an awesome rejection rate of applicants to read for this degree and that may impress banks.

A couple of points:

(1) I think Soho politico made a very important point above, that the point of politics should not be the election of the most highly qualified technocrats. It’s actually a very disturbing aspect of our society that this is so. It’s the more modern form of class rule.

(2) I’ve studied/worked at both Cambridge and other universities, and my conclusion is that you can’t talk about ‘quality of the education’ as if it were a single thing. Oxbridge pushes their ablest students very hard, and this helps them to succeed beyond what they would do elsewhere. I suspect that this accounts for almost all of the positive aspect of Oxbridge (although the individual tuitition is also very helpful). Unfortunately, it also has the effect of making their weaker students more likely to fail. In fact, weaker Oxbridge students would in many cases have done much better at other universities. Incidentally – weaker doesn’t necessarily just mean academically – it can mean less able to handle the macho aspects of Oxbridge culture (for example, the late night, last minute, crazy essay writing which fortunately I didn’t have to be involved in as a maths student).

(3) My feeling, as someone working in academia, is that Oxbridge graduates are less dominant in academia than they are in, for example, journalism. I’d conclude from this, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, that the reason that journalism is full of Oxbridge graduates is not to do with their academic skills, but more because of networking (and anecdotal evidence bears this out).

(4) I’d always more or less assumed that if Oxbridge were accepting state/private school students in proportion to how many apply, this was evidence that they were unbiased, but actually I’m not sure. If you assume that the selection process is entirely random, then this is unbiased and would lead to that conclusion, and this may indeed be the case. However, if you imagine that the selection process takes into account more information about the candidate, and you observe that it is much more difficult for a state school student to apply (because of various issues like parental or school support, confidence levels, expections, etc.) then you ought to be accepting disproportionately many state school pupils than private school ones – the very fact that they managed to get to the point of applying means they are probably better. In other words – if you had to choose between two seemingly equally qualified students, one from a state and one from a private school, then you should rationally choose the one from a state school, because he has demonstrated more talent to obtain those equal qualifications. So in fact, if Oxbridge are taking state and private school students in proportion to how many apply, this is evidence that either the selection process is random, or that it is biased in favour of private school students.

“I think Soho politico made a very important point above, that the point of politics should not be the election of the most highly qualified technocrats. It’s actually a very disturbing aspect of our society that this is so.”

The House of Commons may or may not be overrun with graduates nowadays but I need convincing that it’s overrun with “the most highly qualified technocrats”. I really can’t believe that highly qualified technocrats would say and do the sort of things that politicians do.

And btw economists hereabouts regard Osborne’s understanding of economics as distinctly downmarket – certainly as compared with Vince Cable and David Laws.

@94 Charlieman Can you illuminate on why banks find them attractive? I consider banks to be places where maths and stats wonks go to work, not political philosophers.

Bob B is basically right. If you did Economics all the way through your course – as a majority of PPEists do – then you were more likely to be recruited by a bank. Though I did teach a few people political philosophy who weren’t always doing Economics, and who still ended up in management consulting and things like that.

I disagree somewhat that Oxbridge are the only places that deliver rigorous assignments. That rule may be true for arts, humanities and law.

Yes – I think you’re right about this. Subjects where there’s inherently more structured group work in labs and the like are going to have a different pattern at work. Though my point isn’t so much about whether assignments are rigorous or not — it’s a point about the *volume* of work students are required to do.

@96 Dan’s point (4) is a good one.

@97 Bob B: And btw economists hereabouts regard Osborne’s understanding of economics as distinctly downmarket – certainly as compared with Vince Cable and David Laws.

The obvious reason for this is that Osborne studied Modern History at university, whereas Cable and Laws both studied Economics.

99. Nick Cohen is a Tory

The problem is a lack of diversity.
We are making the assumption that the brightest should only go to Oxbridge.
Take the States, the most prestigious university for my field of science is MIT.
They have their best going to their business schools and therefore they create wealth.
We should diversify as a nation.
We should look at systems that allow us to create wealth and progress human knowledge.
Perhaps we need to look at different educational systems at all levels such as Holland and Germany, where there is little class snobbery.
If we have grammar schools then we make sure that we don’t returm to secondary moderns but have schools that will help all students.
Teaching should a be a profession like the medical profession, it should a apprenticeship, like the primary trained teachers.

I suppose because I’m an Oxbridge reject, I don’t think it’s the end of the world not to get accepted – such students will still, almost certainly, have a good undergraduate experience elsewhere. I’m more concerned by the fate of those going to schools where hardly anyone even does A levels and where subject choices are limited/dumbed down. I’m also more concerned by the huge difference I’ve seen between the experience of students at the ‘posh’ universities I’ve worked at and the post 92s – differences which have more to do with the background of the students than the teaching at the universities. At the latter it is the norm to do paid work, often many hours a week. At the kind of universities dominated by privately educated students – and where even the state school students are largely middle class – the situation is quite different. No criticism of Oxbridge intended – the students there work hard and the teaching is excellent. Although – wrt the points about hard work – although Oxbridge students do many more essays, the essays done by students at other universities are nearly all continually assessed, from year 2 in any case, which means that there is pressure to make each one very polished.

@96

– if you had to choose between two seemingly equally qualified students, one from a state and one from a private school, then you should rationally choose the one from a state school, because he has demonstrated more talent to obtain those equal qualifications.

Not always. In fact, hardly ever.

A huge proportion of the ‘state school’ applicants who are successful come from Grammar/selective schools where the standard of teaching, the supportive learning environment and the detailed preparation for Oxbridge is often as good as it is in independent schools.

Second, the fact that someone went to a state school doesn’t mean they come from a deprived background. Plenty of middle class parents (indeed, most middle class parents) send their kids to state schools. I know a couple of families where one child is privately educated while the other(s) go to the local state school. Why should children from such near identical backgrounds be differently treated?

100
That’s a good point Sarah, in fact, in my area, a considerable number of students are choosing universities that are within travelling distance from their parent’s home simply for financial reasons. I assume this also happens in other less afflluent areas. I also know two students who have to work as well as travel a fair distance daily, even in education the environment is biased towards the more affluent. This may be, in part, the reason why many students from working-class backgrounds fail to choose Oxbridge, along with other reasons that have been mentioned.

Dan @ 96 – “So in fact, if Oxbridge are taking state and private school students in proportion to how many apply, this is evidence that either the selection process is random, or that it is biased in favour of private school students.”

The admissions tutors will never admit it, but I wouldn’t rule out that it is to some extent random. Obviously not entirely, but once you’ve got it down to 10,000 kids all of whom have straight As, all of whom have glowing recommendations from their teachers, and none of whom have totally cocked up the interview, there’s only so much more you can do to decide between them rationally. Then it comes down to ‘instinct’.

Steveb @ 102 – Agreed. Far too much focus is placed on tuition fees when up-front payments for accommodation and living costs are much more important. I think that’s probably why the situation has improved since top-up fees, because with top-up fees came significant grants for poorer students – both centrally and at individual universities. Oxbridge is probably better than most when it comes to this though – shorter terms and accommodation in college makes living costs lower, and both offer decent bursaries (Cambridge’s Newton Trust now gives £3,400 to anyone with a household income under £25k – combined with the available loans and central government grants, that’s just under £10k a year). But at universities without decent accommodation for all students, they often end up having to pay rent the whole year round, and bursaries are much smaller.

Do either Oxford or Cambridge charge higher tuition fees than the Russell Group universities?

Do they receive more in public funding, or in private donations?

If they don’t have significantly more money, then perhaps the question should be: what is it about them that they make the students work harder and consequently set them up for high-flying careers?

Is it structurally impossible for other good universities to adopt some of the work and teaching ethic of Oxbridge? If we had, say, 15 universities of their level in the country, it would be much harder to paint them as a “small” elite.

105. skidmarx

94. Plus I have a mental bias that PPE UGs are going to be the ones that struggle with the first year econometrics exam that is mandatory to pass.
It was called “Maths For Economics” when I did it, but you’re right – most of those admitted had taken three arts A levels, and so had done no maths for three years, and so struggled with a course requiring nothing more complicated than simultaneous equations.

69. Lawson – your argument assumes that IQs are a characteristic we are born with, and further that it is inherited. I think that you have things back-assward. Professional parents/ those with high IQs may be more likely to encourage their children to learn at a younger age, and those children may see more potential benefit in learning, but the analytical abilities that IQ tests imperfectly measure are precisely learned abilities not ones passed down through genetic transfer.

@steveb and tom – yes, poorer students definitely shouldn’t be put off Oxbridge because it’s expensive – the colleges offer masses of support and accommodation is cheap.

@blanco 104 – afaik the students pay the same but the government pays more money per student because there is a separate college fee. Also many colleges are extremely wealthy of course, owning lots of land etc.

The students there work harder because of self-selection and because they will have a tutor or director of studies breathing down their neck because they want their students to do well.

Much of the teaching is actually done by p/t hourly paid people – who may be independent scholars or graduate students. The same is true of other places but not, I think, to such a great extent. This makes it cheaper to offer personal support.

One way of emulating an Oxbridge ethos at other unis would be to have a systematic clampdown on absence from classes. There was a discussion about this a while ago elsewhere – some people said that would represent unacceptable nannying and I sympathised – but it’s what happens at Oxbridge, in my experience, and seems to work well! Except – students from poorer backgrounds who are overrepresented at post 92s tend to have far greater work and family commitments and may be dependent on public transport to make a journey of 20 or 30 miles – all of which makes it less easy for them to have a perfect attendance record.

@Sarah AB

One solution could be more part-time UG degrees.

My preferred option is that all full-time UG degrees last only two years. That gets them focused on the work, because in most universities the first year is spent getting drunk – that was certainly true of most students at my alma mater.

Attendance is usually dependent not on other commitments (like family and work) – I know students who have those commitments but have decided that the best way to fulfil them is to ensure they get a good education, which I agree with – but it is dependent on attitude. If you don’t care what grades you get, why would you be bothered about not attending classes? Making lecture attendance compulsory, with a register of attendees, would force students to attend: frankly, given what I’ve seen, they need to be forced or they’ll just stay in bed till 1pm/get drunk.

The 1-to-1 supervision you get at Oxbridge must help a lot. As do the more regular essays students are required to write. Just bring these things, along with compulsory attendance, into other universities and quality will improve. It doesn’t cost anything extra to make students work harder!

I’m not keen on two year degree for various reasons – one of them is again a social mobility issue. I am sure that whichever institutions, in whatever subjects, bring these in – they will be chosen by those from more disadvantaged backgrounds while those from better off families go the traditional three year route – which will probably be more highly regarded. Of course *some* students are simply idle but if you live 20 miles away from campus, are perhaps a single parent, and have to work p/t to support yourself then you are immediately going to find it more difficult to attend all classes than a ‘traditional’ student who lives in College, or on campus.

Over the last thirty or forty years, universities have been squeezed a lot by government.

On the one hand, the staff-student ratio has been transformed for the worse as more and more people go through the university system, meaning that classes are bigger, there are many more people taking the courses, etc., and one way universities have responded (to keep the marking burden tolerable for the staff) is to reduce the number of assignments students are writing each term.

On the other hand, the funding models (including the Research Assessment Exercise, etc.) have meant that universities have financial incentives to get their staff members spending more time on research and less on teaching.

Oxbridge has been less vulnerable to these pressures, partly for financial reasons, but also because the staff are, in general, willing to keep working away at what is a very labour-intensive form of teaching (the one-on-one or one-to-two tutorial), because they find it rewarding in various ways (and, with very good students, it is a rewarding way of teaching, in my own experience).

But if you want more rigorous university education in the Russell Group or more widely across the HE sector, you just need a way to pay for it. With more money, we could easily return to a world of smaller classes, more demanding courses, and so on. The problem of the last thirty years is that governments of left and right have not only chosen not to fund this kind of university sector, they’ve also (whether you think this is for good reasons or bad ones) prevented the universities raising their own funds via freeing them to set their own fees. Hence the present situation.

@Sarah AB

What I meant was for all UG degrees to be 2 years long. 3 years is superfluous.

@98: “The obvious reason for this is that Osborne studied Modern History at university, whereas Cable and Laws both studied Economics.”

I was aware that Osborne is a history graduate but then so is Gordon Brown, all of which spoils the claim made above here that governments in Britain are being run by “highly qualified technocrates”. A much stronger claim can be made regarding French governments with the ascendancy in politics there of graduates of École Nationale d’Administration (ENARCs):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89cole_nationale_d%27administration#Recruitment_and_exit_procedures

President Sarkozy, who is not an ENARC, is an unusual exception. His principal opponent in the presidential election, the socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, conformed with the more usual template.

There’s a good case for Chancellors in Britain knowing more than a little about economics in order to keep up with Treasury mandarins.

Btw according to press reports, the current MD of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, may seek nomination of the socialist party in France to run against Sarkozy in the next presidential election in France. Dominique Strauss-Kahn goes even better than being an ENARC, he was a professor there. That’s what I call a highly qualified technocrat.

“My preferred option is that all full-time UG degrees last only two years.”

There’s certainly a case for making that the general norm for graduate entry posts but note an increasing formal or informal practice for promotion in some professional posts to require a master’s degree or a doctorate.

If you recall the press reports about Belle de Jour last year, her financial problems developed out of the costs she incurred in funding graduate studies to gain a doctorate which she had to have to secure a more-or-less secure post as a research pharmacologist. No doctorate = no job in her chosen career.

113. Charlieman

@104 Blanco: “Do they (Oxbridge) receive more in public funding, or in private donations?”

The ancient wealth of Oxbridge is significant and also encourages new private contributions. Both universities are surrounded by hi tech companies involved in computing, aerospace, motorsport, bioscience etc which invest locally. Thus, I learn from former colleagues, that Oxbridge is a nice place to work: the additional money isn’t just spent on improving teacher/student ratios but is used to create a positive working environment.

I’m sorry, but three year degrees is a silly idea. If a typical applicant can study a course in two years, it doesn’t merit the title of a degree. Thirty years ago, the Finniston report advocated four year engineering degrees which has been accepted to some extent; there is too much to learn for it to be delivered in three years.

Across disciplines, teachers complain that there is already too much cramming in order to bring students up to scratch in maths and physics. I don’t see how you could provide that in a two year degree system without cutting some essential biology, geology or whatever.

Two year degrees would seriously reduce the appeal of UK universities to overseas students (without whom many UG courses could not survive). Three year degrees are already regarded as sub-standard in some countries, and we have a push in the UK towards a taught Masters degree being the entry qualification to some jobs.

@113

You ignore the reality of student life, which is to piss thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money up the wall in their first year getting drunk and not going to lectures. Yes, for science and engineering degrees, you need more than 2 years. But for politics, English lit, history of art, media studies and sports science even 2 years is hard to justify. Get a job sooner, join the real world sooner.

See from my comments @111 that the French evidently have a strong observed preference for technocratic aptitudes among their leading politicians. Being a mere university graduate is seldom enough.

We have a Sorbonne graduate in the regular offline discussion group I belong to. During the last French presidential election, she was very dismissive of Sarkozy because he was not a graduate of one of the elite “grandes ecoles” in France, which are seen as superior univerities for which students have to pass competitive entry exams – Ecole Nationale d’Administration and the Sorbonne are both examples of grandes ecoles, as is the École Normale Supérieure:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandes_%C3%A9coles

In Japan, I discovered, the upper ranks of the civil service there are largely recruited from among graduates of the law school at Tokyo university, a state university for which student have to pass highly competitive entry exams, highly competitive because the fees are subsidised, unlike with the many private universities of varying degrees of academic distinction.

In comparison, entry into the civil service in Britain is comparatively open, believe me. We need to worry far more about the finding of a recent OECD report – see the Figure 5.1 posted in the OECD report: Going for Growth:
http://www.oecd.org/document/51/0,3343,en_2649_34325_44566259_1_1_1_1,00.html

“The chances of a child from a poor family enjoying higher wages and better education than their parents is lower in Britain than in other western countries, the OECD says”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/mar/10/oecd-uk-worst-social-mobility

So much for the egalitarian achievements of the New Labour government.

Btw @114: “You ignore the reality of student life, which is to piss thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money up the wall in their first year getting drunk and not going to lectures.”

Only means tested poorer students get support from taxpayers nowadays for their living expensives and for all the high life supposedly lead by students, some get better classes of degrees than others. What’s more, that tends to show up later. The disciplines of the Oxbridge tutorial system, which promote self-tuition, are a more effective teaching method than attending lectures for those who withstand the pressure and benefit from the system.

We need to stir and examine the social entrails in Britain more closely IMO:

“Though white children in general do better than most minorities at school, poor ones come bottom of the league (see chart). Even black Caribbean boys, the subject of any number of initiatives, do better at GCSEs” (subscription barrier)
http://www.economist.com/world/britain/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14700670

The Telegraph headline has it correctly: “Britain is no place for the white, working-class male”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/labour/6990777/Britain-is-no-place-for-the-white-working-class-male.html

Why is it that the majority of undergraduate students are now young women? Sadly, it wasn’t like that when I was a student.

117. Professor Yaffle

One important overlooked point seems to be that Oxbridge resources per student are considerably higher than for other universities – this (and not higher academic standards and intellectual ability) is why it is possible for Oxbridge students to write two essays a week, not three per term: because there are the staff with the time to assess and comment on them. In any other institutions – including Russell Group institutions – staff-student ratios would make this an impossibility.

So, the 64,000 dollar question is: can providing this level of resources to institutions catering for the already academically able – many of whom have had these abilities developed because they go to socially exclusive private schools that only the better off can afford – get an enhanced level of funding?

The answer is, I think, from most reasonable centre-left perspective that they should not.

I also wonder why those who opt out of the state system at primary and secondary level should be allowed to opt in at tertiary level. Perhaps privately educated university applicants could be charged market rate tuition fees similar to that current levied on non-EU students and the money – alongside some resources diverted from Oxbridge – could used to improve the universities most students attend.

Of course, the chances of that happening would the same as that of a snowstorm in July because – notwithstanding the meritocratic but elite red herring arguments dangled in front of us in the article – Oxbridge still basically functions a bastion of class privilege catering for a wealthy (but no doubt academically able) elite who can buy their children a better education. If some are put off applying (I was) it is because – cosmetic outreach and widerning particpation initiatives aside – this truth is intuitvely understood by them.

It’s a pity that some of the radicalism about breaking up the banks can’t be shown towards a university sector in which Oxbridge and its paler Russell Group imitators are the tail that wag the dog.

Some of the discussion on this thread seems to be drifting off topic. I’d say the discussion about what (if anything) makes Oxbridge good (if it is) is a bit of a distraction. I don’t think this thread is a particularly good place for random speculations about how many essays per term students ought to be doing and whether or not students should be forced to turn up to lectures, even though these may be a subjects dear to the hearts of people currently or recently studying at university. (On the other hand – discussion of the exact sense in which an Oxbridge education is ‘good’ seem pertinent.)

Bob B,

The House of Commons may or may not be overrun with graduates nowadays but I need convincing that it’s overrun with “the most highly qualified technocrats”.

Fair point! Let’s drop the “highly qualified” then. 😉

Seriously though, my point was rather to dispute the argument that had been put forward that we ought to expect the government to be run by people from Oxbridge because they are the most intelligent/competent/whatever. That’s the argument for technocratic government, and it’s a bad idea.

Tom,

The admissions tutors will never admit it, but I wouldn’t rule out that it is to some extent random.

I even know some people who have been responsible for admissions that would admit exactly this.

… there’s only so much more you can do to decide between them rationally. Then it comes down to ‘instinct’.

Yep, and that’s where bias comes in. I’m actually in favour of people being given more discretion to exercise their own judgement, but I also think that the highly intelligent Oxbridge academics should be able to see by the effects that their own judgement is ineffective and biased, and consequently choose to use a different system.

Jaylaw,

A huge proportion of the ’state school’ applicants who are successful come from Grammar/selective schools where the standard of teaching, the supportive learning environment and the detailed preparation for Oxbridge is often as good as it is in independent schools.

If this is true then my argument would still extend to non-selective versus selective/private schools. If Oxbridge admissions were unbiased we should expect applicants from non-selective state schools to be chosen disproportionately to the number that apply. Is it true? (I don’t know – do we have the numbers for that?)

Dan – I think the number of essay a student does and whether or not s/he has to turn up for classes *are* – or at least could be – factors determining how much you get out of a place and thus in a sense how good it is.

I tentatively agree with your point about how one might expect applicants from non-selective state schools to be proportionately more successful than others – I also agreed with jaylaw’s challenge to your original more simple state/private point.

But I suppose a non selective state school’s most Oxbridge-likely candidate – because the pool to choose from is so much smaller in a school where only 50% get 5 GCSEs or whatever – might still not compare that well with the average private school candidate.

Some of these issues rest on two questions – what are you trying to achieve from admissions and what happens to all these students after three years?

Are you trying to choose students who are ‘the best’ right now or who might be the ‘best’ in three years? Are you trying to do even more than that, and look especially favourably on someone who probably still won’t be the best in 3 years but who will progress the most maybe?

I’ve read conflicting accounts of what happens to students from different backgrounds at Oxbridge – I’ve certainly read one which suggested that students from less advantaged backgrounds tend to outstrip the others, whereas something else I read – maybe looking at the stats in a different way – found that this was only true in maths whereas in other subjects those from a less advantaged background never caught up.

120. Nick Cohen is a Tory

“Writers and directors were so consumed by loathing, they did not think about how union militancy and the Marxists’ attempts to take over the Labour party forced much of the electorate to the right; they passed over or mocked the pride in Britain Thatcher undoubtedly gave to millions.”
Nick Cohen
Just one thing why does Oxbridge produce so many right wing journalists like my moniker.
Then again they did educate the sublime Stephen Fry

Fry went to Cambridge.

@120 – did not read your comment properly.

123. Nick Cohen is a Tory

I said Oxbridge

“Then again they did educate the sublime Stephen Fry”

And most of the the Footlights and Monty Python crews. Try this sketch about Four Yorkshire Men from the Secret Policeman’s Ball:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYtYBI6eZ3E&feature=related

Sarah AB,

I still feel that once you’re getting to the fine detail of things like how many essays people do, it’s a little bit tangential to the political questions about Oxbridge. I agree though that some of the questions you’re asking are important ones to ask about Oxbridge, and they relate to the question more generally of what we want our education system to be like. Are we training people? Are we trying to produce research excellence? etc.

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do feel that (whether or not it should be so, and I rather think it shouldn’t) Oxbridge is a gateway to many (most?) high ranking positions in many organisations (civil service, journalism, politics, academia, …), and that therefore it’s necessary to address the way that entrance to Oxbridge is dependent on social class (because this perpetuates the class system).

The political signifiance of this is so deep that it actually overrides the academic function of Oxbridge. Whether it means to or not, Oxbridge is taking part in this perpetuation of the class system and it’s not good enough for it to stand back and say that it’s just taking the best students (or whatever). It may even be that the social function of Oxbridge is actually the determining factor in what makes it be considered the best. IIRC, in several of the league tables for example (and I don’t want to suggest that these are a good idea or that they give particularly meaningful results, it’s only a suggestive thing) Oxford comes lower than other places like Imperial.

126. Charlie 2

When it comes to engineerig, breadth and depth of knowledge is important. Consequently high workload is important, that is why IC is so highly prized by many employers. When it comes to engineering /applied science many employers look at department; Southampton is very good for electronic engineering. The best engineering/science depts receive the highest funding from industry and therefoer the best funded. I think Shell used to ask those who had read Engineering Science atOxford to complete a masters at ICc or Cranfield to obtain the practical expertsie.

Historically many engineers many engineers were apprenticed from the age of 16 and studied at night school. Engineering requires theorectical and practical expertise. The top apprentices were sent to university were they completed a 2 years degree. Icannot understand why we cannot return to the old apprenticeship scheme whereby people study up to degree level at the local university. If someone needed a masters , then they could take a year off at a Russell Group university.

There is no reason why people cannot train to be bankers, lawyer or accountants via being apprenticed and then combining with night school.

The apprenticeship nightschool route has the advantage of no debt and a far more practical education. It also allows people to develop more slowly. Someone who didi not sparkle at school can suddenly find they have an aptitude for engineering and the start to study for their academic exams at night school.

If the apprenticeship /nightschool route was increaseI think far more people from an unskilled background would have the interest in becoming a professional. In addition, many employers and especially foremen have become concerned about the lack of practical awareness from many graduates.

Many of the engineers of the 18-mid 20 century never went to university. I never heard of Brunel worrying about the class system.

I think it is less simple than it first appears. I, personally, would include top grammar schools with private schools in saying that they are brought up ready for Oxbridge applications. I am not just referring to interview prep in the sixth form, but debating in year 7, public speaking in year 8, positions of responsibility such as prefect or head boy, the chance to spend a summer teaching children in Africa etc.

I don’t mean to sound bitter, and I should admit I was rejected from Oxford being from a state school and state sixth form, but I do genuinely think this as I’m at Durham and am constantly amazed at the chances other people have had in school. I would also highlight the varying levels in the state school sector. When statistics, and Durham is the same, is 50% state that actually makes it look much more diverse than it is, because an endowed grammar school or excellent catholic school is not the same as a standard inner-city comp.

I don’t think Oxbridge and other top uni’s are intentionally biased against state-educated applicants; in fact I think alot of the widening participation work is commendable and there may be some positive discrimination towards ‘state-educated pupils’. However, this is not your ordinary comp pupil who never really had a chance to become a realistic Oxbridge applicant, and no matter how much work they do outside of school and how many A’s they get at A Level (I apologise for sounding big-headed to give myself as an example: I got seven) will ever have a real chance.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler http://bit.ly/aJt4mK

  2. Tory Reform Group

    Great piece on @libcon http://bit.ly/aJt4mK Instead of criticising Univ we shd stop schools advising pupils to make poor GCSE/Alevel choices

  3. John West

    RT @libcon: The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler http://bit.ly/cHYdov

  4. Elizabeth Eva Leach

    RT @libcon: The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler http://bit.ly/aJt4mK

  5. Tory Reform Group

    RT @libcon: The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler http://bit.ly/aJt4mK

  6. Tweets that mention » The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler | Liberal Conspiracy -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy and Tory Reform Group, Tory Reform Group. Tory Reform Group said: RT @libcon: The truth about Oxbridge admissions: a reply To Dave Osler http://bit.ly/aJt4mK […]





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