It’s unfair to criticise Oxbridge for ‘bias’ against ethnic minorities


9:30 am - February 28th 2013

by Salman Shaheen    


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Every few months, newspapers decide to have a pop at Oxford and Cambridge for institutionally discriminating against a particular section of society that isn’t white, male and public school educated.

This time it’s the turn of the Guardian to criticise Oxford University, presenting statistics obtained under a freedom on information request that reveal that white applicants are up to twice as likely to get a place as applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Having been to Cambridge, I can say anecdotally that ethnic minority students certainly were under-represented there too. My brown face was duly splashed on the front cover of the college prospectus presumably to present a façade of a diversity that didn’t really exist.

But the statistics presented by the Guardian are misleading in that while they suggest correlation, they fall far short of proving the kind of causation asserted by the article.

Oxbridge is being unfairly criticised for discriminating against minority students in the same way it is often unfairly criticised for discriminating against working class students.

The real problem lies much further down the line, with the schooling system and with wider society.

Every now and again stories will emerge about a straight-A student complaining that Oxford or Cambridge didn’t offer them a place. The trouble is, almost everyone applying to Oxbridge is a straight-A student, so much of the final selection comes down to performance at an often gruelling interview.

Public school students tend to be prepped far in advance for these interviews. They know what to expect, what to read around, how to act and most importantly how to project a confidence that will come across well in an educational environment based on supervisions and tutorials which favour the bold.

Students at many state schools, particularly ones in deprived areas that are less likely to attract teachers who were educated at Oxbridge themselves and know the system, cannot provide the same level of silver spoon-fed service.

I was lucky in that the head of Sixth Form at my state comprehensive had been to Cambridge and could give me a punishingly realistic mock interview, as could my Oxford educated father. I suspect that’s not the norm.

It’s a sad fact that public schools are predominantly the preserve of the middle classes. It’s also a sad fact that ethnic minority students are more likely to be from poorer backgrounds with parents less able to pay for them to attend public schools.

State school attendance at Oxbridge remains poor. Last year, state school attendance at Cambridge hit a 30-year high at 63.3%. But considering only 12% of all students attend public schools, it shows that those who have been privately educated remain disproportionately represented there.

The statistics are a negative reflection not on Oxbridge, but on wider society. Oxford and Cambridge can do all they like to encourage more students from ethnic minority, working class and state school backgrounds to apply, but unless inequalities much lower down the chain in the education system and in society are tackled, the problem is not going to go away.

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About the author
Salman Shaheen is the editor of International Tax Review magazine, co-editor of The Third Estate and a freelance journalist blogging here. Also at Left Foot Forward, New Statesman and on Twitter.
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Reader comments


Indeed. I’d be absolutely amazed if race per se (rather than as a proxy for class) had any impact on application outcomes at all.

Totally agree with the article. In my time at Cambridge I found that there was a real pressure to try and get minority and state school applicants to apply, and the interview process wass free and fair (indeed – my College normally had a AAA entry requirement, but in parallel had a EE requirement for some state school/minority applicants).

That problem was, that as a % of total applicants public schools are over-represented and those people are all likely to be very able candidates, well up to speed on their subjects….and Oxbridge to prefer to take the best, regardless of background.

The Oxbridge public/state ratio is not really about bias on the part of the Universities, and more of an inditement on the performance of state schools.

Fascinating that Oxbridge apologists slways seem to have graduated from there.

But the statistics presented by the Guardian are misleading in that while they suggest correlation, they fall far short of proving the kind of causation asserted by the article.

Oxbridge is being unfairly criticised for discriminating against minority students in the same way it is often unfairly criticised for discriminating against working class students.

The real problem lies much further down the line, with the schooling system and with wider society.

I don’t see this generous interpretation extended to race and class bias in the poloce, senior service or cabinet.

4. Michael_Gardiner

Right. Provides a useful, and visible, and self-congratulatory, way to side-step the structural issues.

Shatterface, I also belong to an ethnic minority. You think I’d be defending Oxbridge on this issue if I felt discriminated against or thought for a moment it was discriminating against other people? I happen to have an insight into how the system works and believe that the statistics tell a different story from the one the Guardian is telling.

Oxbridge only exists to educate the spawn of the elites. Over the centuries it’s had bucket loads of govt subsidies. (So much for the fake libertarians who don’t believe in govt hand outs.)

And with tory/lie dem policies it will soon only be the rich who can afford an Oxbridge education. So they won’t even have to bother interviewing the plebs from state schools.

This article is garbage.

If it is true, the only way would be the essentially racist position that those from ethnic minorities are fundamentally unsuited to an Oxbridge education.

I fully accept the position that pretty well ll of the applicants are straight A students. However, for the selection to be as it is the conclusion can only be that they are selecting “people like us” from this pool. And the last point is critical. It is “from this pool”. They are taking what they consider the best and selecting people like us from this pool

but unless inequalities much lower down the chain in the education system and in society are tackled

Right, okay, but what “inequalities” are you referring to here? If you mean that, on average, privately-educated students get higher grades than state-educated students, then sure, that’s mostly not something Oxbridge can do much about. However… even if you adjust for that, private-school students are still more likely to get into Oxbridge than state-school students with the same grades.

And one probable reason for this, you hint at in the post – the interview system. As you say, private-school students are rigorously trained for this. State-school students are generally not. So … yes, state schools could introduce much stronger Oxbridge-interview-technique training … or Oxbridge could replace the current interview system with a different selection process which didn’t, essentially, give candidates bonus points for coming from the “right sort” of school.

That wouldn’t be a complete solution – there are other prestigious universities with more standard application processes which still have far more public-school students than A-levels alone would suggest, and things such as student culture, levels of up-front studying expenses (accommodation, other charges, etc. – not fees!) – but it could be a move in the right direction.

Shatterface, I also belong to an ethnic minority. You think I’d be defending Oxbridge on this issue if I felt discriminated against or thought for a moment it was discriminating against other people?

Yes. I’ve never heard anyone claim their own success was down to anything but merit. You graduated – naturally you don’t feel discriminated against. The people who do feel discriminated against didn’t get in.

I happen to have an insight into how the system works and believe that the statistics tell a different story from the one the Guardian is telling.

Again, I hear the same thing from every elite group from the cabinet down: plebs can’t understand how the system works because we’ve not been there while those who did worked jolly hard in a fair system and we’ll just have to take their word for it.

The main purpose of Oxbridge is to legitimate and perpetuate inequality – claiming it’s the fault of State education is a cop-out.

I don’t have any fondness for The Guardian, much of which reflects precisely the politics and aspirations of Oxbridge graduates anyway, but this is a rare example of elite self-awareness.

MarkAustin, that’s not the point I was making at all. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are as suited to Oxrbidge as people from white backgrounds. But it’s not racist to say that public schools train applicants to get around the interview process better than most state schools. Nor is it racist to say that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and not have the money to go to public school. It would only be racist if I thought this status quo was right. It’s not. And class and racial inequalities at all levels of society – not just at the top of the education system – need to be tackled.

The data is out there – if you believe that this bias is due to BAME students coming disproportionately from state schools, go test it and report back!

For all those like Shatterface, Sally, Michael and Mark who despite having no experience or information immediately assume because Oxbridge is elitist (which, in academic terms, it certianly is) it must be discriminatory and somehow rightwing…..you’lll be pleased to know that Cambridge at least (and I’m sure Oxford do as well) collate very thorough statistics on their admissions procedures.

http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/apply/statistics/

You’ll notice that (from 2011 data) that “White” people (no distinction between white British and White other) account for 77.3% of all succesful applications. This compares to the ethnic make-up of the UK of roughly 83.4% white British with an additional 4.5% white other.

(that data is from the institute of race relations…)

So from that evidence, it looks like Cambridge at least accepts more than a proportionate amount of minority candidates…which slaps the Guardian’s allegations pretty hard in the face.

As for gender, 54% of applicants were male, and 46% female. These same proportions were seen in acceptances – so again, it doesn’t look like there is any kind of discrimination there.

The only time you see some statistical deviation from what is expected is when you compare independent schools against their state school counterparts. This needs to be carefully analysed though, before any cries of discrimination are bandied around.

Firstly, it should be noted that that acceptence rate of any candidate with less than AAAs is almost zero. We also know that, unfortunately, state schools simply do not get enough of their students past that hurdle, when many independent schools have 99% of their students achieving it. It’s hard to read any significance into the data until you know what % of applicants achieved that AAA hurdle. As supporting evidence, Grammar schools performed almost as well as independent schools, and we know that they are comparable in academic performance. So it seems what we can draw from this is that the problem is not discrimination, it is lack of academic performance (in not reaching the boundary AAA grades) from the state sector which is likely to be limiting the number of successful applicants there.

All in all, the statistics don’t lie – and it very much looks like the guardian does.

13. Richard Carey

Well said, Salman, but unfortunately most of the readers here will be forced to reject your analysis and experience as it is contrary to settled dogma.

Hardly elitist Shatterface, I’m arguing for fundamental reform of society to do away with class and race inequalities from the bottom up. I’m brown and went to Cambridge, get over it, it doesn’t detract from my wider point.

If it is true, the only way would be the essentially racist position that those from ethnic minorities are fundamentally unsuited to an Oxbridge education.

If black under-representation at Oxbridge is due to the racism of interviewing dons, what explains the over-representation of Indian, Chinese and White/Asian parentage applicants? More racism?

“Having been to Cambridge”…

Ok. That’s enough… You’re just whinging. Oxbridge graduates have greater access to the mechanisms of power and they control cultural production. What more do you want? The earth? Oh, silly me, you’ve got that too.

@Tyler

“For all those like Shatterface, Sally, Michael and Mark who despite having no experience or information immediately assume because Oxbridge is elitist (which, in academic terms, it certianly is) it must be discriminatory and somehow rightwing”.

Where did anyone say Oxbridge was “right-wing”? That’s a terrible presumption – even from a Cambridge grad such as you. Or is it the case that you’re really referring to your own ideological position?

@12

“All in all, the statistics don’t lie”.

That depends on what one is using the statistics for. Statistics are often the sophist’s best friend.

19. Chaise Guevara

@ 3 Shatterface

“Fascinating that Oxbridge apologists slways seem to have graduated from there.”

Ad hom.

“I don’t see this generous interpretation extended to race and class bias in the poloce, senior service or cabinet.”

Whataboutery.

Do you actually have anything of substance to say about this?

20. Chaise Guevara

@ 15 Tim J

“If black under-representation at Oxbridge is due to the racism of interviewing dons, what explains the over-representation of Indian, Chinese and White/Asian parentage applicants? More racism?”

Uh, number of successful candidates is apples. Number of applicants is oranges.

@ 17 Buddyhell

Cambridge is left of centre.

What I was alluding to is that quite a few left wingers on here equate “elitism” or selection with right-wing conservatism. The Guardian certainly seems to. They allude to some conspiracy that the male progeny of the white upper and middle classes gain some discriminatory advantage at the admissions level….which the statistics tell you simply isn’t the case.

@ Chaise

“Uh, number of successful candidates is apples. Number of applicants is oranges.”

Read my original post, and you’ll see that the *proportion* of aceeptances is roughly *proportional* to the number of applicants….to the ponit that ethnic minorities are *over-represented* with respect to the make-up of the UK population as a whole.

Buddyhell, I’m not sure what mechanisms of power you think I’m wielding. I’m not from an elite background and I don’t occupy an elite position. My argument, fundamentally, is anit-elitist. I’m detecting a lot of anti-Oxbridge prejudice here, rather than any serious attempt to tackle the issue raised – which is inequality in society. Where we came from is less important than where we want to go to.

20, oh, you’re right. My bad. What explains the over-representation of Chinese, Indian and white/asian *successful candidates*?

Chinese students, who make up 0.4 per cent of the secondary school population, win 1.3 per cent of Oxford places. Indians and “white/Asians”, 2.5 per cent and 0.8 per cent, win 2.7 per cent and 2.5 per cent of places respectively.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article3701338.ece

I think the article is pretty much on the button, though cim makes a good point.

If we are to believe that education should be allowed to cost as much as it does at Eton then why do we allow other schools to struggle by on less? A few inner city comps might have better results if students were funded at £30k a term.

The entrenchment of privilege through private schools needs to be tackled.

25. Chaise Guevara

@ 21 Tyler

Well, that suggests lack of racism in either direction, unless minority candidates are notably less or better qualified.

26. Chaise Guevara

@ 23 Tim J

“oh, you’re right. My bad. What explains the over-representation of Chinese, Indian and white/asian *successful candidates*?”

Could be a number of things. Cultural factors, which I admit is vague. The circumstances in which those candidates’ parents/grandparents/etc arrived in the UK: was your average Asian immigrant better off than your average Brit? Or racism, with the idea that these candidates are better suited to Oxbridge becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

26 – that was rather my point. That you can’t look at an under-representation of one specific ethnic minority and say that it ‘proves’ the racism of Oxbridge interviewers. There is always a multitude of factors behind these things.

MarkAustin: “If it is true, the only way would be the essentially racist position that those from ethnic minorities are fundamentally unsuited to an Oxbridge education.”

Oh come on. I mean, if you create a system where ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to go to badly under-resourced secondary schools, then even with a 100% fair admissions system you’d expect that to have quite a big impact on rates of university entry. That is the point being made in the article, and it’s entirely plausible.

Having said that, when I was at Oxford 10-15 years ago I do think there was almost certainly some sort of discrimination, in that individual selections seemed to came down to the unaccountable judgements of a very small and sometimes fairly eccentric group of people.

29. Matthew Blott

Lots of idiotic responses here to a well argued and logical piece. It seems some think Oxford and Cambridge shouldn’t have an admissions policy or should at the very least substantially loosen the criteria. Did it ever occur to them that if they didn’t take in the very best them the institutions would no longer be the very best. As Salman Shaheen says, we need to focus our efforts on ensuring working-class students are better equipped to deal with the admissions process – both academically and socially. It isn’t the universities that are failing poorer students, it’s the state school system.

I have to say that, my son-in-law came from a very modest background. He got a scholarship for a private school, he was gifted at math , and from there, he got a place at Cambridge.

@6: “Oxbridge only exists to educate the spawn of the elites.”

It surely also exists for other reasons. Like to spawn new elites through education.

This obsession about Oxbridge entry is diverting attention from more urgent educational priorities – such as the literacy and numeracy standards of primary school leavers and the 900,000 16-24 year-olds who are not in employment, education or training.

“Government figures show only 15% of white working class boys in England got five good GCSEs including maths and English last year. Among white boys from more affluent homes – 45% achieved that level of qualification.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7220683.stm

There is no point in pushing teens into Oxbridge if they can’t stand the pressures of the tutorial system. Besides, what the Census in 2011 showed was that ethnic minorities amount to 14 pc of the population of England and Wales.

33. the a&e charge nurse

Salman, if you cannot see that the interview process itself is discriminatory then perhaps the Oxbridge elite are not quite as insightful as we thought, privileged yes, but not necessarily the most insightful.

Of the minority of state educated pupils who did blag their way past the middle class dons how many were educated in comprehensive schools – not many, I’ll bet?

Is the take home point we need a higher % of non-white toffs at Oxbridge, or that the Oxbridge paradigm (perpetuation of educational advantage for a privileged minority) is fatally flawed?

@33

Isn’t the point of an interview to be discriminatory? The issue is bias, surely? You really need to unload some of your own baggage before commenting.

35. Chaise Guevara

@ 27 Tim J

“that was rather my point. That you can’t look at an under-representation of one specific ethnic minority and say that it ‘proves’ the racism of Oxbridge interviewers. There is always a multitude of factors behind these things.”

Agreed. It’s lazy stats, trying to scrounge up ‘evidence’ to support a pre-existing viewpoint.

36. the a&e charge nurse

[34] the point of the interview is to play out a ritual favouring those who have been primed for it via a series of rehearsals, or coaching sessions or to tick the mandatory extra-curricular boxes (that invariably require mummy & daddy cash) such as having worked for amnesty for free in the summer ……. do and try and keep up.

@ a&e charge nurse, Cherub is right. Oxbridge interviews should discriminate. They are meant to select on intelligence and ability. This is a good thing. I don’t believe they are deliberately discriminating on ethnicity or class. But I think public schools are skewing the system by training people who can afford to go to them to do better at Oxbridge interviews. This is wrong and needs to be addressed by improving education for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

I’m getting bored of being called elite and privileged. I went to a standard state comprehensive school. Even if that were not the case, you do yourself few favours by attacking me and not the argument.

I’m brown and went to Cambridge, get over it

Laurie Penny used to make the same arguments when she was attacking my ‘male privilege’.

She went to Cambridge, I have a penis, therefore I’m the oppressor.

Is the take home point we need a higher % of non-white toffs at Oxbridge, or that the Oxbridge paradigm (perpetuation of educational advantage for a privileged minority) is fatally flawed?

Or we need a society in which 90% of power and wealth in this country isn’t held in the hands of a tiny minority who were educated in two universities.

There’s no fucking way the politicians and businessmen who run this country represent the best and the brightest of the population just because they sat in the same tutorials and even if they were the Oxbridge mafia is still an oligarchy.

I repeat: the obsession with Oxbridge entry is misplaced and silly.

There are far more urgent educational priorities affecting the life chances of the young than going to Oxbridge instead of another university.

“Fewer teenagers scored at least five Cs at GCSE this year – the first time the numbers have dropped in almost a decade. Official figures show that 58.6% of pupils in England gained five A*-C grades, including English and maths, this year – down almost half a percent on 2011.”
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/first-fall-in-gcse-ac-grades-recorded-8216095.html

The chances of getting to any university, let alone Oxbridge, without 5 GCSEs at A*-C grades are slim.

We need to focus on getting more 16 year-olds through their GCSEs with A*-C grades.

Shatterface, actually she went to Oxford. I’m not attacking you for male privelege or any other kind of privelege. Quite the reverse. I’m saying address the argument, not the person or their background. I want to tackle inequalities in society at all levels. You’ll find I differ quite considerably from certain hardcore feminists in that style of argument – I don’t care where anyone came from, only what they’re saying.

@ 34 a&e charge nurse – by keeping up, do you mean reading the original article in the first place? That is precisely the point I’m making. I think it’s wrong that public school students have access to advantages state school students don’t by being trained to get through the interview process.

43. the a&e charge nurse

[37] ‘They are meant to select on intelligence and ability’ – well if you can’t see why they don’t (and never have) then you have rather missed the wider point about the perpetuation of privilege for the lucky few.

For ‘intelligence’ and ‘ability’ read the sum of cultural advantages that the vast majority of school children are excluded from by virtue of class.

You say ‘I think public schools are skewing the system by training people who can afford to go to them to do better at Oxbridge interviews’ (thus rather reinforcing the very point I am making). but then spoil it all with a worthy sounding platitude “This is wrong and needs to be addressed by improving education for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds”.

So all we have to do is create an entirely new system of education comparable to private schools – do we do this by increasing state spending on education, by lets say 200%, reducing class sizes to 15, and only allowing a child to sit in a class room providing the school is situated in a leafy suburb?

@ 21 Tyler

“Cambridge is left of centre”.

Is it? Have you got some evidence for this assertion?

Shatterface, actually she went to Oxford. I’m not attacking you for male privelege or any other kind of privelege. Quite the reverse. I’m saying address the argument, not the person or their background. I want to tackle inequalities in society at all levels.

No, you aren’t otherwise you’d be tackling the fundamental problem which is the overwhelmingly dominat role two universities play in perpetuating and legitimating inequality.

It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Oxford or Cambridge (I’m sure the distinction means more to you and Penny than to me) take in an ethnic, sexual or class demographic that is exactly proportional to the population as a whole, or even if they genuinely reward ‘merit': the fundamental problem isn’t that they perpetuate any particular inequalities but that the social function of Oxbridge is to perpetuate and legitimate inequality itself – and whenever Oxbridge is criticised graduates leap to its defence.

The problem isn’t just that it churns out generations of privileged white men but that it creates privilege that graduates think they deserve.

What’s your point a&e? Abolish Oxbridge? I doubt that would achieve much in the way of social change.

@22

“Buddyhell, I’m not sure what mechanisms of power you think I’m wielding”.

Did I say you in particular? But if the cap fits. I’m using the word “power” in a non-Foucauldian sense. In other words, it’s the kind of power that influences others or the kind of power that allows one to glide into a job in the media or Parliament.

“I’m not from an elite background and I don’t occupy an elite position. My argument, fundamentally, is anit-elitist. I’m detecting a lot of anti-Oxbridge prejudice here, rather than any serious attempt to tackle the issue raised – which is inequality in society. Where we came from is less important than where we want to go to”.

If there is “anti-Oxbridge prejudice”, you don’t dare ask the question “why”. I take it you are aware of the history of your institution? But I would also ask the question “what do you mean by the word “elite””?

I’ve noticed that you’ve dodged my point about the Oxbridge domination of cultural production. You also realise that political satire in this country from “TW3″ to “The Thick of It” is also produced by Oxbridge types and ex-public school boys.

I’m tempted to lay some Gramsci on you, but I won’t…not yet.

@29

“Lots of idiotic responses here to a well argued and logical piece”.

Define “idiotic” and provide some examples.

@40

“I repeat: the obsession with Oxbridge entry is misplaced and silly”.

“Obsession”? You seem to forget the class-riven society that we have in this country. Or are you like Harry Mount who denies that class exists?

50. the a&e charge nurse

[46] “What’s your point a&e? Abolish Oxbridge?” -ahh, the Owen Jones option?
http://labourlist.org/2011/06/abolish-oxbridge/

There’s a pleasingly seasonal nature to LibCon. Props go to JohnB for not immediately directing everyone here first.

http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/12/08/oxbridge-isnt-racist-but-its-failing-the-working-class/

Some problems with interpreting the statistics both in the OP and other commentators – ethnic and working-class are not mutually exclusive. It might be useful to firstly look at class and then within those classes (socio-economic) then look at ethnicity.

Oh dear, I’ve been compared with Laurie Penny and Owen Jones in one comment thread. Broadsheet career here I come.

Oh no buddyhell, you’re a Marxist? So am I.

For the record, I take your point on cultural production. Getting ahead in the media has a lot to do with who you know, it didn’t help me personally as I hung out with unwashed lefty types like myself, but I agree Oxbridge has a part to play in that. As does the public school system.

buddyhell: “‘Obsession’? You seem to forget the class-riven society that we have in this country. Or are you like Harry Mount who denies that class exists?”

Try harder not to be so totally daft. It is precisely because I care about social inequalities that I worry about the 41 pc of 16 year-olds who don’t get 5 GCESs A*-C grades – who are very unlikely to make it to any uni, let alone Oxbridge – and the 900,000 16-24 year olds who aren’t in employment, education or training.

With some experience of the world, you soon learn that while some very bright teens get to Oxbridge, the average Oxbridge student is not very different from average Russell Group uni students. We really need to worry more about this in the FT in 2010 if we care about social inequalities:

Primary reading standards dip lower

“The National Curriculum test results also revealed that in spite of an improvement in English and maths, more than a third of pupils still left primary school without a proper grasp of the basics in reading, writing and maths.”
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ba881948-9f3f-11df-8732-00144feabdc0.html

Compare that with the comments of the HoC Public Accounts Committee on adult literacy:

“Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school.” [BBC website January 2006]

“Oh no buddyhell, you’re a Marxist? So am I.”

So, you managed to read through The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848? Well done.

The fact is that Marxism is no bloody use in analysing regular economic issues – like explaining why the Euro was doomed to fail in the absence of a fiscal union. And btw its failure for economic reasons was predicted by Rudi Dornbusch in Euro Fantasies in Foreign Affairs of September/October 1996 (pay barrier):
http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/52431/rudiger-dornbusch/euro-fantasies-common-currency-as-panacea

The late Rudi Dornbusch was not a Marxist.

59. Teddy Groves

Much more worrying than ‘having a pop’ are fact-free ‘I went there and am vaguely lefty and isn’t society awful therefore oxbridge is fine ok?’ articles like this one.

The key fact in this case is that interview-based selection leads to discrimination based on race, gender and probably other factors. See page 2 of this essay for references: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6362052/interviews.pdf.

If they were serious about not having a detrimental effect on society, as well as selecting the best candidates, there are a number of things oxbridge could do:

>> Attempt to establish whether academic interviews for 17-18 year olds have any value for predicting degree performance or anything else by collecting and publishing the relevant data.

>> Do obvious things to counteract the discrimination that interviews promote, eg standardising questions, making interviewers evaluate candidates without conferring, giving extra points to people who are likely to be prone to negative stereotyping.

>> Give more weight to other less discrimination-promoting kinds of assessment.

>> Choose at random among equally qualified applicants

As Shatterface points out, the situation is fundamentally quite simple: either oxbridge are selecting the wrong applicants or else certain kinds of people are just dramatically less suited to studying at oxbridge, even controlling for most indicators of academic ability. I find it really bizarre that articles defending the second view without any supporting evidence get published so often.

60. the a&e charge nurse

[59] indeed – just looking at some of the numbers
http://www.ox.ac.uk/about_the_university/facts_and_figures/undergraduate_admissions_statistics/school_type.html

Do commentators think more students from UK comprehensive schools get in compared to applicants from overseas? (which include both schools and ‘individuals’).
Couldn’t find much info on the social background of successful overseas students – are most of them from low income families?

By the way Prince Charles must have extraordinary interview skills?
He got in Cambridge with mediocre A-level grades (back in the day when far fewer people went to Uni).
Perhaps it was down to his cutting edge ideas about homeopathy or architecture – sadly his silver tongue did not translate into impressive final results – he walked away with a disappointing 2.2

I suspect the majority of overseas students who get into any British university are from wealthy backgrounds as fees for them are much higher.

62. the a&e charge nurse

[61] suspect?

Surely Oxbridge publish demographics on social class – that’s what we are talking about here isn’t it?

Unless you are in favour of maintaining the sausage factory of indentikit movers & shakers we have to broaden opportunities for those at the lower end of the social spectrum.
Perhaps if we did former bullingdon club members might think twice before asking the public to accept ‘we are all in this together’.

Such people have no idea how hard some people’s lives, not only do they not know, they do not even know that they do not know – they are blinded by caviar.

the a&e charge nurse

“Unless you are in favour of maintaining the sausage factory of indentikit movers & shakers we have to broaden opportunities for those at the lower end of the social spectrum.”

Absolutely. Resolving this fixation on Oxbridge entry might mean a few dozen teens getting to Oxbridge instead of some other uni but 41 pc of 16 y-os aren’t achieving even the basic 5 GCSEs at A*-C grades so have virtually no hope of getting to any uni and have diminished job prospects. We really need to worry about the extent of adult literacy and numeracy when computer competence is expected in so many employment situations.

Recap: Tony Blair, David Cameron, George Osborne and Ed Balls are all Oxford graduates and they have all screwed up. Roy Jenkins – who was Chancellor of Oxford Uni at one time – said of Blair that he had a second class mind. Are we really so impressed about Oxbridge graduates?

Completely agree Bob B.

Teddy @ 59: they do 1 and 2. I’m not sure what 3 means, and 4 happens in practice.

Couple of more-or-less feasible ways I can think of to address the interview problem (and I suspect it is the problem too).

1. Oxbridge dumps the interview system. Unlikely. The interview is supposed to test whether a candidate is going to benefit from the tutorial system (this is not in itself a value judgement; rightly or wrongly, tutorials are what Oxbridge does and some people will just develop better in a seminars-and-lectures scenario). It also tests thinking under pressure which is what exams are all about, and Oxbridge AFAIK is still more biased towards exams than many other institutions.

2. Schools do more training. Not specifically “training for Oxbridge interviews”, but regularly stretching pupils’ powers of balanced, logical argument under time pressure. Some, of course, would see this as part of the point of education (certainly on the humanities side). Probably won’t happen with the regularity required due to resources, which are naturally concentrated on the exam results without which the whole “training for interviews” enterprise is useless anyway.

3. Oxbridge goes into schools and does the training. Does happen, up to a point. But there aren’t enough bodies to do this at every state school. There might be some mileage in local Oxbridge-educated volunteers working with schools, but the quality of their help would probably be variable. Like the inane pop version of positive psychology that has people sticking post-it note self-esteem mantras on their fridges, some people think “outreach” means repeatedly assuring people they could fit into and flourish in a particular environment, rather than teaching them how to actually go about it.

4. Skype the interviews. Not possible yet, the technology isn’t good enough. But it would remove one massive variable which I suspect has an impact – some people being intimidated by the surroundings, which can unjustly emerge as being intimidated by the interview itself. Also, while accommodation is provided for the interview period, you still have to get there and eat which is going to be a problem for some people and a stressor for a whole lot more. I suppose it would have the negligible disadvantage that the intimidation/stress would just be saved up for the first day of term. But that’s the case everywhere; most universities are physically intimidating to 18-year-olds one way or another, whether it’s for the buildings or the scale of the campus.

5. Dump the tutorial system and the reliance on exams, without which you don’t need the interview system. I suppose this is effectively what Teddy is implying with his point 3 and final para. I suppose you could do this, if you were fine with the fact that you were dismantling Oxbridge completely (and you might be fine with that).

@59 That’s just about the first comment that has actually engaged constructively with the article and talked about what Oxbridge could be doing differently (even if, as @65 points out, some of it’s already being done). Frankly, it’s shocking to see people here leaping up to assert that it’s ALL the universities’ fault and can’t possibly have anything to do with broader societal racism and classism; you’d think supposed left-wingers would at least acknowledge that those exist.

Grade inflation* has made the problem worse. Not so many years ago, it was much easier to take a punt on a promising student who had technically missed the required grades, because far fewer made them. These days, there aren’t nearly enough places for all the straight-A applicants, so it’s much harder to justify admitting students with lower grades. It also makes the interview process that much more important, as it’s just about the only means left of making a distinction between students with the same grades.

It also doesn’t help that stories like this one discourage able students from applying in the first place.

* I don’t buy the myth that exams are getting easier, but regardless of the cause, average grades are going steadily upwards.

Also, while accommodation is provided for the interview period, you still have to get there and eat which is going to be a problem for some people and a stressor for a whole lot more.

They pay the ticket and all food and drink, from anywhere in the UK.

Really? That’s good. Only the surroundings point remains then.

Do they? That’s good. Just the surroundings point remains then.

Pfft.

@ Bob B.
“Try harder not to be so totally daft”.

You could try harder to engage with my point. Or is it the case that you deny the existence of class like so many others?

“It is precisely because I care about social inequalities that I worry about the 41 pc of 16-olds who don’t get 5 GCESs A*-C grades – who are very unlikely to make it to any uni, let alone Oxbridge – and the 900,000 16-24 year olds who aren’t in employment, education or training.”

You seem to be replying to someone else’s comment, dude.

@58

“So, you managed to read through The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848? Well done”.

So? Spinoza’s “Ethics” is much older, yet people still read it. Your point, please?

“The fact is that Marxism is no bloody use in analysing regular economic issues – like explaining why the Euro was doomed to fail in the absence of a fiscal union”.

Why not? Or is it the case that you believe economic theory is produced in an ideological vacuum?

buddyhell: “Or is it the case that you deny the existence of class like so many others?”

You need to try even harder not to be totally daft.

Nothing that I’ve posted even remotely implies that I don’t believe in social classes – but those social classes have relatively little to do with the distinction Marx made between the bourgoisie and the proletariat.

Bankers have been ripping off both their shareholders – which are often pension funds nowadays – and their customers. Even the marketing folk believe in the concept of social classes because that helps in modelling markets so as to boost the sales of the corporates they work for.

“Why not? Or is it the case that you believe economic theory is produced in an ideological vacuum?”

You’ve evidently not been following the continuing clash between economists who go with the keynesian tradition – like Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the IMF – and those who believe in general equilibrium theory with a world populated by rational agents.

“The macroeconomics taught in advanced economics today is largely based on analysis labelled dynamic stochastic general equilibrium. The unappealing title gives the game away: the theorists are mostly talking to themselves. Their theories proved virtually useless in anticipating the crisis, analysing its development and recommending measures to deal with it.

“Recent economic policy debates have not only largely ignored DSGE, but have also been remarkably similar to the economic policy debates of the 1930s, although they have been resolved differently. The economists quoted most often are John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky, both of whom are dead.”
http://www.johnkay.com/2010/04/14/economics-may-be-dismal-but-it-is-not-a-science

Recap my post @57. The fact that only 58 pc of 16 year-olds can manage to achieve 5 GCSEs A*-C grades is a far more potent source of social inequalities than teens of any ethnicity missing out on getting to Oxbridge and going to some other university instead.

Students need straight As to get to Oxbridge but compare that with Nobel laureate Sir Peter Mansfield FRS, who failed his 11+ and left school at 15 to become an apprentice book binder. I’ve met several professors who virtually boaster that they failed their 11+ in those times before most of the grammar schools got transformed into comprehensives.

Professed Marxists here might like to try Karl Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies – especially volume 2:
http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/WS06/pmo/eng/Popper-OpenSociety.pdf

We don’t have to invoke any institutional bias. As one sane contributor has pointed out, it’s all about primary and secondary education. As chair of curriculum committee of my local bog standard comp for 5 years and then chair of governors, I spent many hours poring through school and national data. The poorest outcomes nationally have been for socially disadvantaged (= free school meals) and Afro – Caribbean boys although in our case, we were struggling to serve a local Bangla community. We always came off worse in absolute terms than the other local schools served exclusively by a white, educated “middle” class. There was no way we could get our school to get our students to achieve the sort of grades necessary for entry to Oxford or Cambridge. The other schools could. So, racial and social bias begins with the poor performance of the state school sector. We need to fix the schools for all sorts of good reasons, Oxbridge entry being a very minor one.

I’ve an uneasy suspicion that the issue of Oxbridge entry bias is periodically dredged up to deflect public attention from more pressing educational priorities – such as concerns that only 58 pc of 16 year-olds achieve 5 GCSEs grades A*-C, which is a rather modest bechmark anyway, especially if the 5 subjects don’t include maths and English.

“Government figures show only 15% of white working class boys in England got five good GCSEs including maths and English last year. . . Poorer pupils from Indian and Chinese backgrounds fared much better – with 36% and 52% making that grade respectively.” [BBC website January 2008]
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7220683.stm


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