What are snubbing and shunning?

by Harry on December 5, 2007

A very peculiar BBC report here, about the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge refraining from sponsoring Academies:

Oxford and Cambridge universities are snubbing the government’s flagship academy schools project. The government is urging universities to use their academic resources to support academies as part of the drive to raise standards in deprived areas. But the two famous universities have declined to commit themselves to sponsor an academy.

Just to be clear, I have no inside knowledge on this so there may be something going on that I don’t know, but nothing in the report justifies the use of “snub” in the headline, or “shun” in the text. It would be plain wrong of either University to commit to sponsoring an Academy unless it already had the relevant expertise on hand, and people with the enthusiasm to carry out the task. Cambridge might well have such resources, but I’d be surprised if Oxford does, and refraining from making a commitment until such resources are to hand seems perfectly sensible.

Another source of irritation. The article implies a connection between non-involvement in Academies and the fact that Oxford and Cambridge have high proportions of undergraduates coming from private schools.

This autumn the Universities Secretary, John Denham, urged universities to take an active role in secondary education by sponsoring an academy – with 20 universities already signed up. In particular, he highlighted the importance of such projects for universities which have an intake of wealthier students. Only 54% of students at Oxford University and 57% of students at Cambridge are drawn from state schools. “It is clear that the universities that recruit the vast majority of students from a small minority of society are missing out on a huge amount of talent,” said Mr Denham.

But involvement in Academies in deprived areas would — or should — do nothing to change this. Take the Academy which Oxford University might reasonably be asked to help with — the prospective Oxford Academy in Littlemore which serves the nearest deprived area to Oxford University (its about 3 miles fom the centre of town and I should declare an interest here — I attended Peers, the “failed” school on whose site the Academy will located, many years ago, though the catchment area hasn’t changed much in that time). Like most schools serving deprived areas, this prospective academy is unlikely to deliver many future Oxford undergraduates — the urgent issue for that school is raising the achievement of children who won’t go to University at all.

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12.07.07 at 9:29 am



Katherine 12.05.07 at 4:21 pm

Well, you’re right that the reporting using the words “shun” and “snub” seems to be based on very little actual evidence. But, as someone who went to Cambridge and came from what would probably be called by some a “failed” state school, I got the very distinct impression whilst there that all the talk about getting more people from state schools into Cambridge was little more than lip service. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Cambridge was actually snubbing the idea.


harry b 12.05.07 at 4:33 pm

Come on then — lets see the admissions tutors respond to katherine! (My impression, katherine, is recent, and completely based on a single Oxford college, and is that that college does make considerable efforts, for what that is worth).

I should have said this — but I can’t tell whether the report is implying criticism of the Universities, or using their “snubbing” to denigrate the academies. What do you think?


john b 12.05.07 at 4:58 pm

My impression from 8-10 years ago was that even then, Oxford (or at least, some Oxford colleges including mine) made very strong efforts to encourage state school applicants – far more so than any of the leading non-Oxbridge universities.


Matt 12.05.07 at 5:09 pm

Harry- Why might Cambridge have the necessary expertise and resources on hand to run an academy but not Oxford? I really don’t know enough about either place to have any idea about this so would find it interesting to hear. (I’m happy to take your word for it, but am courious as to why this is so.)


Richard J 12.05.07 at 5:18 pm

As I recall from looking at the stats when I was doing Oxford entrance[1] (Christ, 12 years ago now, but I don’t think it’s changed much) – state and private school students are admitted pretty much in proportion to the applications received – which suggests that the problem isn’t a bias among admission tutors themselves, but the institutional policies of both schools and the universities (and of course the damned mystique that surrounds the places).

[1] Adolescence was a difficult time for me.


Katherine 12.05.07 at 5:33 pm

Well, Richard J, the issue (or it was in my time) was not so much the proportions of admissions received to students admitted, but the actual admissions from state schools, which were much lower than they should have been, looking at the grades that were actually got. So yes, I’d say the issue was institutional rather than individual. There was a LOT of talk, and not much actual change/improvement.


Katherine 12.05.07 at 5:35 pm

Sorry, I mean “the actual applications from state schools”…


cambridgefellow 12.05.07 at 6:05 pm

I help with admissions interviews at Cambridge, so I should be very careful here, but I think that nearly all of these debates miss an important point. Increasing state school representation at Oxbridge is a bit of a red herring if what we care about is education and social justice. Most state-school educated people you meet at Cambridge are like me: they have parents who are teachers (or work in a similar profession) and who were unable/opposed to send their children to private school. However, they rarely come from really deprived backgrounds (there are, of course, exceptions, but this seems a general rule). Therefore, I suspect that increasing the state/private ratio would have little effect on the underlying issues about educational inequality. Incidentally, the low ratio of state school students based on A-level grades (katherine at 6) overlooks a very frustrating issue. Some A-levels seem more difficult than others. State schools tend – I worry for league table reasons – to enter their students for the “easier” A-levels. I know this is a big issue, and someone will shout at me, but there is a serious issue lurking here. Unfortunately, no-one really has any interest in making much political running on this issue.


Nasi Lemak 12.05.07 at 6:17 pm

Since this is actually admissions fortnight in Oxford, I suspect we are as a group too busy to comment; I am sitting in the calm between interviews for the two subjects I teach/admit in. So luckily I can download for you all my tired thoughts on having done this for a decade.

i) there may be some biases in the admissions process, but they’re probably not vast in the sense that different applicants get treated differently – that’s the point about the success rates of applications being reasonably similar.

ii) this is Britain (well, England) – class is the basis … all else is embellishment and detail. This is to some extent clouded by the fact that many middle-class, even upper-middle-class, children go to state schools, and unfortunately the debate is centred entirely around the state/private school distinction rather than the more meaningful question of class. It would be absolutely shocking if any elite institutions in the UK didn’t in general reflect the distribution of life-chances according to social class, no matter how much effort they made in recruitment. I’m sure it’s even true coming from the other side – anecdotally, family background is a good predictor of career success even among Oxbridge graduates.

iii) Contrary to what I think is the media stereotype concerning differences between the Ox and the Bridge, I was less impressed in the couple of years I taught in Cambridge than in the years I’ve taught in Oxford by the amount of effort put in, but:

iv) the amount of actual effort put in is very bloody large, thank you, (including by me!), both by academics in general and by specialist staff, but given (ii) I think it can only be expected to have limited success, though limited success is not to be sniffed at.

v) Driven partly by political pressure, and partly by fear of lawsuits from disgruntled rejects (and partly by legal advice on the Human Rights Act) both universities have moved towards more bureaucratic, more regularised, more uniform procedures which are designed to give every applicant a formal procedural guarantee of equal treatment, such that only specified criteria concerning individual academic ability can be used to make (and defend) decisions. Govt has set vague targets which are, I think, largely unenforceable, and in any case I think largely unreachable given the direction procedural reform has taken.

vi) My preferred option, which I think is ruled out by the current legal environment, would be to have an explicit aim of diversity (of class background, race, gender) among admitted students. I would be very keen on setting quotas; I think that if we were made to do so we would find ourselves with more talented students. However, I do not think that this is going to happen.

vii) There are lots of arguments about further procedural reforms – pre-interview tests or not? admission by departments rather than colleges? – which get a lot of media play but which seem to me completely irrelevant and distracting.

viii) The whole question is horribly distorted by the (laughable) importance of Oxbridge entrance to schools, whether state or private, hoping to appeal to middle-class parents, and of course to said parents themselves.

Now that I’ve let all that out, I’m also surprised by the view that Cambridge could, but Oxford couldn’t, run an academy – why? (I think it would be silly for either to do so.)


Richard J 12.05.07 at 6:33 pm

I agree entirely – it’s been a long and busy month at work, so my English may not be the clearest at present…


harry b 12.05.07 at 7:30 pm

Just to be clear, of course I think that either Oxford or Cambridge could put up the money to hire a management team to run an academy. I presume that’s not what Denham is calling for, because its silly — he can just put the money from his department into hiring the same team. What I was speculating was that Oxford probably doesn’t have the expertise and energy already in the University to do this. I guess that because it has a small Dept of Educational Studies, which is not well integrated into the rest of the University, and which doesn’t have, as far as I know, many former school managers in it. 20 years ago, sure, it would have been obvious to get Harry Judge to spearhead the whole thing, but I doubt he feels like doing it now… Cambridge, in contrast, has a large Dept, with a good number of former school managers and lots of school-based expertise, and is well connected throughout the university. So, from a small knowledge base, I make a broad, but tentative, conjecture, that’s all.


harry b 12.05.07 at 7:32 pm

Oh, and I don’t think it would necessarily be silly to do so — running an academy physically close to the university would provide an excellent place to base research, to train teachers, and to do actual experimental research, so if the University had the expertise and the will, it could be perfectly sensible.


Nasi Lemak 12.05.07 at 7:33 pm

Cambridgefellow, is there meaningful evidence that some A-levels are harder than others? (not that some conception of “physics” is harder than some conception of “media studies”, but that actually existing syllabi/examinations/grading combine to make it easier for the typical candidate to get a given grade in some subjects than others?) I worry that this argument about “harder” or “serious” A-levels is a bit of a cop-out, really.

(Possible exception of subjects where the exam is often taken without much teaching – general studies, for example)


Nasi Lemak 12.05.07 at 7:36 pm

Harry – that’s not really what’s proposed, though, is it? it’s not going to be the educational studies equivalent of Wytham Wood; it’s going to be a successful example of an academy (successful because at least some parents will see it as a route into Oxford/Cambridge, and so the school will get middle-class students and good results) for the government to put on the mantelpiece.


Katherine 12.05.07 at 7:42 pm

I’d suggest a good start would be removing the requirement for a photograph on the admissions form. The UCAS form doesn’t require one and it always seemed to me a perfect tool for unconscious bias to creep in. At least the question of whether any members of your family have been to Cambridge before has been removed from the form.

Regarding the point made at 8 about whether state schools choose the “easy” A-levels because of state schools: I was applying for 1994 admission before league tables started and the numbers of applicants from state schools were way off then.

I don’t have any knowledge of the admissions process from the inside, so I don’t how much weight is placed on the reference, but I also suspect that the private schools with plenty of practise of the Oxbridge admissions process might be giving their students a bit of a leg up here. That and the fact that they probably have a system of mock interviews and admissions form advice/help. That’s not Oxbridge’s fault, but it would be good to know that people involved in the process are aware of the extra help that some students might get over others.


harry b 12.05.07 at 7:59 pm

To be fair, I was always convinced that my admission to Cambridge (didn’t go, actually) was a direct result of the fact that I went to Peers, which was very obviously the kind of school it was.

nasi lemak — yes, I’m sure that’s right. Just saying that it could be worth doing anyway. Though after I wrote that I realised that there is a very good reason not to — the derision heaped on them for sponsoring a failing academy (which they know is the most likely outcome, because it is) will be huge, and the praise scattered on them for running a successful one will be negligible. A no-win situation, it seems to me. So I withdraw my comment!


Rob 12.05.07 at 8:21 pm

I also raised an eyebrow at the language in that BBC report. It’s real tabloid writing.

I’ve always thought that the main thing obscured by state school/private school ratios is the proportion of students from comprehensive schools getting in to Oxbridge. I don’t know the statistics, but in my college it seems as if grammar school students make up most of the state school intake. I’d be very interested to know from admissions tutors whether that perception is accurate.


cambridgefellow 12.05.07 at 8:22 pm

In response to Nesi Lemak’s question at 13 as to whether some A-levels really are “easier” than others, I should stress that there was a reason why the “easier” was in inverted commas in the original comment!

Certainly, however, two points seem to hold true: first, there is a very strong sense among those who do admissions that certain A-levels are “easier” than others, such that, even when interviewing for humanities or social sciences, all else being equal, history, english, physics would be viewed as a “better” combination than history, english, media studies. Even if this view is mis-guided, it is certainly prevalent (and I would be shocked if it were not also wide-spread at Oxford, and in Russell group universities more generally). It is a great shame that this information is so difficult to get into the public domain.

Second, the terms “harder” and “easier” may be misleading here, because difficulty has many aspects. What really makes an A-level count during the admissions process is that it is viewed as a strong predictor of final class mark. There might, then, be some reason not to treat all A-levels as equal, even if, in some sense, they are all equally hard. Of course, the claim that certain A-levels are good predictors of class mark would be extremely hard to prove, because there are too many confounding variables. However, if Oxbridge colleges are expected to choose candidates on the basis of their expected results, and if some A-levels are better predictors than others, then there seem to be good reasons not to treat the raw statistics about A-level grades versus Oxbridge entry as evidence of systematic discrimination.

To be fair, matters are more complex here, but the complexities work in both directions: admissions tutors regularly admit students from “bad” schools with “bad” A-levels, but they also regularly offer places to bad students who can row, play rugby or sing in a choir because the alumi expect this to happen, and students with those talents tend to be from the private sector.

Sorry – this is all off the topic of academies. Interviews must be getting to me!


harry b 12.05.07 at 8:36 pm

cambridgefellow — this:

they also regularly offer places to bad students who can row, play rugby or sing in a choir because the alumi expect this to happen

surely cannot be true. Is it? I know it used to be, but I find it incredible that it still is. Am I hopelessly naive?


DC 12.05.07 at 9:16 pm

I am also in the middle of admissions at a Cambridge college. I have interviewed in a number of colleges over a number of years. Although i wouldn’t be surprised if explicitly dodgy admissions practices occasionally happen – letting in below par rugby players, for example, as opposed to forms of unconscious bias – i have never come across them, and i do not think they are at all common. So no, Harry, i don’t think you are being hopelessly naive.

I agree with the comments in 9 about the class issue underlying admissions – the distinction between state and private school pupils is often woefully misleading. The general problem of class inequality unites Cambridge and Oxford – not “Oxbridge”, whatever that is! – with virtually all of the other Russell group universities. Indeed i suspect that some other elite universities – Durham and St. Andrews spring to mind – have even worse figures than we do. The obsession with Cambrige and Oxford is rather depressing; there are other excellent universities in the UK.

And contra Katherine, very significant resources (human and material) are spent on encouraging applicants from non-traditional backgrounds, and this is growing year on year. To lay the blame primarily on the universities – as the government and the media are fond of doing – serves to deflect attention away from the main problem: the continuing impact of class inequality on educational opportunities across the system.


Nasi Lemak 12.05.07 at 9:17 pm

Oxford has very consciously not made a statement about there being “good” A-levels (as opposed to those which are pre-requisites for particular courses) – obviously the question is debatable. Again, I’m very dubious that there is real evidence that, aside from specific prerequisites, particular A-levels are in general better or worse predictors of finals results. I would be happy to be shown evidence of that, of course.

I’m really, honestly, disturbed by cambridgefellow’s remark about rugby, singing and rowing; decisions like that really would be absolutely unacceptable (and I’ve never come across anything close, at either Cambridge or Oxford). If you have specific examples in mind, I really hope that you take them up either inside the university or if necessary in the press.

Katherine – of course we know that some people have better preparation for interview etc. Admissions training pays a lot of attention to that, and on how to e.g. interview in ways that minimise the benefits of preparation. (I have always found the photo thing very odd, too.)

Harry – of course the 1%, I think it is, of people who turn down Oxford or Cambridge places are the smartest of all; they get all the signalling benefits of being offered a place, without any of the attendent draughty medieval rooms, drunken tutors, fen/swamp-ridden climate, etc.


cambridgefellow 12.05.07 at 9:29 pm

OK, OK “bad” is too strong a term!

A fairer way to put it would be that students who are marginal cases can be helped significantly by rowing, rugby-playing or singing, arguably sometimes to the detriment of candidates who seem likely to be academically better. I can see good reasons against this, but there are also reasons for it (not only because old college members seem to give money on the basis of such considerations but for reasons of community, etc, etc). It is, however, relevant to the debate over state versus independent school applicants: independent schools tend to scream loudly about social engineering, but conveniently overlook that certain kinds of “social engineering” might, in some cases, work in their favour.
To prevent the Cambridge Evening News hounding me, four caveats: no college would offer a place to a student who was clearly not up to the course on the basis of other talents. I also know of colleges which actively try to avoid taking such issues into consideration. Third, I suspect that this doesn’t happen in any systematic way. Finally, I think this kind of thing is far less widespread than it would have been even ten years ago.


James 12.05.07 at 10:34 pm

As someone who has been involved in Oxford undergraduate admissions for several years now, I’m also shocked (and very surprised) by cambridgefellow’s remark (at 17) that rugby, singing and rowing ability might be taken into account. I’ve never encountered the slightest hint of this in the undergrad admissions process. I’ve never been involved in an admissions interview or meeting where there was even the slightest suggestion that we should be considering anything other than the candidates’ academic ability and potential. I’d be outraged if anyone suggested otherwise, and I’m confident that my colleagues feel the same.

Still, it’s depressing to hear. If cambridgefellow thinks it goes on, no doubt some prospective applicants do too. And they’re surely wrong.

On the question of photos – that’s odd. I’ve never seen photos of candidates on the UCAS or other application forms that I’ve worked with. Maybe Oxford (or my college) removes them.


Chris Bertram 12.05.07 at 10:46 pm

I’m afraid that I too have to be cautious in what I say on this subject, because of institutional role etc. But I would say this: that at my university (like many others) we’ve made real efforts over the last ten years or so to “widen participation” (as the jargon has it). This has earned us the hostility of the conservative press and the private schools’ PR machine and just about zero credit or recognition from government. The numbers haven’t changed much either – and one reason for this is that after ten years of Labour government they’ve made essentially no progress in improving the stock of eligible candidates from state schools for university places. Much more convenient then from Denham to wag the waggy finger at the universities than to examine his own government’s record.

* This is the same Denham, btw, responsible for the shocking ELQ decision which will seriously damage the OU and Birkbeck and deprive thousands of adults of educational opportunities.

On another matter on the thread: universities aren’t just machines for learning, research etc. I’ve got no problem with the idea that it might be reasonable for a university to admit talented rugby players, singers, concert pianists etc., just so long as they are _good enough_ to cope with the academic demands. In my experience, such people tend to be pretty rewarding – they certainly aren’t slackers.


Chris Williams 12.05.07 at 11:22 pm

Reading all that lot, I can conclude:

(1) Seems about right to me (Hertford, 1987-90, from an ex SecMod Comp . . . but firmly in the ‘teacher parent’ category ). I think that the point about class is the crucial one here.

(2) Come and work for the OU – there’s none of this tedious admissions nonsense if you admit everyone – remember also that in some respects admissions to Oxbridge are easy, in that 99% of places get taken up. Most other places have to run the risk of giving out too many offers in order to fill their quota.

Shame about Denham’s latest wheeze – there’s a petition about it here:

for any UKnians who agree with me that the OU is worth saving. Actually, it will kill Birkbeck first – we’ll get by with a thousand or so redundancies.


differentcambridge 12.06.07 at 7:37 am

Are people really so shocked by the crew/rugby/choir thing? I do interviews for an American university, and I more-or-less expect that deadly mediocrities who can hurl some sort of ball exceptionally fast will get in. Are things so different in England?


Chris Bertram 12.06.07 at 8:05 am

I think what is different in England is that the college sports thing doesn’t really exist. No-one is going to admit a “deadly mediocrity” just to boost the university’s league prospects. But since we’re looking at the whole person (with appropriate weighting and thresholds for academic ability), I don’t see why being good at sport or classical violin or whatever shouldn’t count somewhat in someone’s favour.


Nasi Lemak 12.06.07 at 8:08 am

There is actually a literature, I think, on the use of “character” in admissions in North American universities. For whatever reason, the Oxbridge thing at least has been to regard ourselves as a machine for learning, in CB’s phrase, and to select only on academic potential. (And thus to e.g. pride ourselves on trying to assess obnoxious or rude applicants solely on their academic.) I agree with DC above – if anyone mentioned non-academic activities as a reason for admitting someone ahead of an applicant with stronger academic potential, I’d be outraged. I’d be rather negatively surprised if it were suggested as a tiebreaker, even.


Chris Bertram 12.06.07 at 8:20 am

Things must have changed a bit since my days (20 years ago) as an Oxbridge insider then Nasi. My memories may be dimming, but they appear to include the admission of a number of persons whose main distinguishing characteristic was their genetic proximity to major benefactors or leading politicians (to name but two).


RS 12.06.07 at 8:38 am

“I don’t know the statistics, but in my college it seems as if grammar school students make up most of the state school intake”

Last time I looked (say 5 years ago) they were indeed over represented. And certain ethnic groups had less chance of getting in even with good A levels, and people from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g. colleges), and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. State school represented less of a disadvantage.

“I’m also shocked (and very surprised) by cambridgefellow’s remark (at 17) that rugby, singing and rowing ability might be taken into account.”

Have you ever heard of the academic subject known as ‘medicine’? There all your worst fears will be confirmed.

In my first week at Oxbridge (at a trendy non-traditional college) I was berated by drunk Etonians for daring to come to Oxbridge, and told by my tutor that ‘it must be so much harder for you being away from home than it is for the others’ (the reference being something about not having boarded at private school apparently). Ah, Oxbridge, heady days.


RS 12.06.07 at 8:51 am

This may interest people – I have certain reservations about these sorts of studies because they often use confounders to explain away inequalities (I note in this analysis GCSE results ‘explain’ why state school applicants do worse, whereas it was predicted total number of A-Level A-grades in the last analysis).


ben saunders 12.06.07 at 10:31 am

When I had my Oxford interview, late 1990s, one of the dons made quite clear they wouldn’t be asking about anything non-academic in the interview – I can’t quite remember whether he went as far as to say it wasn’t taken into account at all, but I doubt it (after all, I got in).

Having been involved in admissions for three years now, I can say it’s certainly not something we’ve ever looked at. I’m sure there will be plenty of people in the college who can sing/act/kick a football/row/etc and don’t feel it’s my responsibility to boost the numbers. We do, I think, try to take account of different school backgrounds and A level subjects though.

Oh, and someone mentioned photos – students are required to bring a passport photo to their interview. I’m not really sure why, but I think it may be helpful in remembering who was who after interviewing 9:30-6 (or longer).


Alison P 12.06.07 at 10:38 am

‘it seems as if grammar school students make up most of the state school intake’

Certainly at my state school we were told not to apply to Oxbridge because they only considered candidates from private schools and grammar schools. I wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway, if that’s their attitude.

Also, aren’t there private companies who charge big fees to get your child into Oxbridge ahead of the rabble? If the system is so transparent and fair how do they make a living out of this?


Chris Bertram 12.06.07 at 10:52 am

Ben, if interviews are an important part of the selection process, all kinds of non-academic criteria (visual cues, unacknowledged assumptions about cultural correlations with intelligence etc etc) will impact on the decision. Why does Oxbridge interview? Why not simply rely on the academic performance data?

Answers own question: because simply relying on the data would not select for academic potential but rather would select those who went to the best schools (which they often paid for).

Responds to own question: but why not just weight the data then, giving more weight to performances from “bad” schools?

Reponds to own response: Because then we’d be accused of “social engineering”, people would want to know our exact criteria, there’d be legal challenges and articles in the press. Interviews mean that we can exercise our “judgement” and magically discern “potential”

Comes back: but isn’t that all a bit random and subjective ….?

My own view, fwiw, is that if you really want to widen participation a lottery for all candidates who meet an objective performance threshold would be the way to go. And that threshold would not have to be set too high, either. Of course any such proposal would be howled down by the press and neither ministers nor academics would have the courage to defend it.


chris armstrong 12.06.07 at 11:27 am

I’d defend it. So you can be in a minority of two, if you like.


ben saunders 12.06.07 at 11:32 am

Having been on both sides of the interview, I’m well aware that you can take other factors into account. And, indeed, one of the advantages is that we can distinguish a nervous and unprepared state school applicant who can actually think from a highly polished and well-coached private school applicant who can’t.

Of course, interviewers can make mistakes, but I’d prefer to rely on interviews along with A-levels. That’s why I’m distrustful of reports (like at #31) that focus only on grades. These days, many people can get 3 As. The Oxford admissions process requires you to pass both an interview and A levels, and those are separate tests not necessarily meant to simply duplicate each other (i.e. people may pass either one but the fail the other).

I knew that Harry B and Alan Ryan have both come out in favour of lotteries, I didn’t realise you were a supporter too.


Stuart White 12.06.07 at 12:38 pm

Returning to the original issue about Oxford and Cambridge not sponsoring any of the ‘academies’ the government is keen to promote, there is also the problem that if universities were to sponsor such schools it could create a conflict of interest in admissions (e.g., there would be an incentive for Oxbridge to take more candidates from such schools to boost the Oxbridge performance of the schools).

As an Oxford interviewer, who has been busy this week, I’d also like to echo Ben’s views about interviews (at 36). If they are well-constructed, interviews are probably the best way we have of getting at potential that may not be reflected fully in academic performance. (Incidentally, I’m not sure why Chris at 34 puts potential in scare quotes.)


Chris Bertram 12.06.07 at 2:12 pm

I’m not sure my scare quotes were helpful, Stuart, so imagine them dropped. But I’d be amazed if you had any actual evidence to support

“If they are well-constructed, interviews are probably the best way we have of getting at potential that may not be reflected fully in academic performance.”

Studies? Surveys? Comparative data?


Rob 12.06.07 at 2:30 pm

I think most, if not all, of the Oxbridge sport admissions go on at graduate level. There are a couple of masters programmes which are basically markers for being a rower.

Interviews do seem to me useful. It’s difficult to know how successfully coached exam results are, whereas in an interview you can see someone thinking on their feet. This strikes me as pretty important, since one of the major differences between school and university is that you have to learn to work without having frequent contact or your hand held.


Chris Bertram 12.06.07 at 2:45 pm

“in an interview you can see someone thinking on their feet.”

Or you think you can … Even leaving aside the effect of the overconfidence of interviewers in their own forensic powers, this remark seems to me to highlight the problem. Many (not all) very bright working class applicants will fail to give the right signs of “thinking on their feet” in the totally weird environment of an interview in an Oxbridge College. “Thinking on your feet” is hardly the same as having the capacity for independent study anyway.

Come on, you guys _know_ this.


guano 12.06.07 at 2:46 pm

My children are actually at an Academy, because it is the only accessible secondary school, and after 4 years I still haven’t worked out what the Academy model is supposed to achieve. There are many challenges in an inner-city secondary school and in my experience the only important features of an Academy (it isn’t under the LEA and there is a sponsor) do nothing to address those problems. I don’t think that the sponsors have the knowledge and skills to meet the challenges of inner-city secondary schools: in the case of our school the sponsor made some clear errors that were only dealth with after the parents made a big fuss, but which showed a lack of appreciation for the challenges of running such as school. If LEAs were failing in running such schools, then the answer is to sort out LEAs not by-pass them.

I find the Oxford and Cambridge link-up idea to be a gimmick. I don’t think that Oxford and Cambridge necessarily have the skills to deal with the challenges of schols in such areas: Oxbridge is a very different aspect of education from a Peckham or a Middlesborough secondary school. It is far from clear what these Universities are supposed to bring and, if it isn’t clear, then I don’t think that it will make any difference.

I have been told that Academies are supposed to attract back middle-class parents and get schools out of a vicious cycle. Maybe the Oxbridge link-up is part of this idea. But as a midlle-class parent of chidren at an Academy I am rather insulted by this: I’m much more interested in how a school eals with the challenges of inner-city education than whether it has a link to Oxbridge, is run by a provate contractor or is called an Academy.


Stuart White 12.06.07 at 4:19 pm

Chris, no, of course I don’t have the evidence you rightly want on this, and my view is completely skewed by having just devoted the best part of a week of my life to a very intensive interview process. Its hard to think that all that effort might actually be pointless. All I would say by way of mitigation is that I genuinely think the interview process today is not at all like the way you pictured it as being 20 or so years ago – though that is a point about good will and good intentions rather than the ultimate efficacy of the process.


Alan Peakall 12.06.07 at 4:49 pm

Chris @ 40,

I think that, to be fair to rob, “thinking on your feet” may be being used as a shorthand for “responding intelligently to a problem within your subject area which has significant qualitative differences from any problem which which you have been presented before”. Of course, it is true that a candidate who has been drilled more intensively will have seen a larger variety of topics and it will be harder for the interviewer to find a novel area, but the interviewer may still invoke the honour code and ask if the material is familiar to the candidate.

This observation is from my own personal experience of being asked about Koch’s snowflake curve when interviewed in maths at Cambridge in September 1982.


Nasi Lemak 12.06.07 at 5:06 pm

Chris @ 29: things really have changed. I’ve done admissions for a decade in Oxford and Cambridge in five different colleges in three different degrees and never heard a whisper of anything beyond academic potential. (Perhaps the odd worry that extra-curricular activities, if very extensive, might interfere with an applicant’s ability to handle the workload.)

Chris @ 40: there just *aren’t* many working class applicants, I think, so it’s hard to say much about their chances. We obviously don’t have parental occupation data in front of us, but I think that e.g. the applicants from “worse” schools tend to be the offspring of teachers, librarians – people with college degrees. Indeed I think that’s what Harry B described above about his own offer? Class is almost entirely acting (“acting”) prior to admissions rather than in place of it, I think.

Interviews, I think, are terrible (and very demanding of time), albeit carried out with the best of intentions by well-meaning people, usually themselves from middle-class backgrounds. I am not convinced they are worse than the very clear class biases that obtain in e.g. examination results.

Allison @ 33: there are all kinds of dodgy product that get sold, aren’t there? I think this is one of them. None of these firms produce much evidence that their advice improves the chances of applicants (from what I’ve heard their advice doesn’t seem worth paying for), but they sometimes do things like offer a refund if the client doesn’t get an Oxbridge offer. Which means that as long as a decent number of applicants buy their advice, and some of them get in, the firm does OK regardless of how good that advice is. I would like to see universities do more to try to provide good advice for free.

Look, quotas, it’s the only solution.


Nick Barnes 12.06.07 at 5:37 pm

Any generalities about “Oxbridge” are hopelessly broad. Even “Oxford” or “Cambridge” covers a multitude of sins.

When I went through this mill, I had been warned by my teachers and my parents of the public-school bias I might encounter. Admittedly I spent those years with my head perpetually in the clouds, but I was struck by the almost total lack of it. Maybe I was helped by my youngest-sibling ability to bluff (hand-waved the 3D ham-sandwich theorem for the maths tutor, had a good-natured argument about politics with the admissions tutor).

This was in 1984, in the CCE days, so by the time I came to interview they were inclined to admit anyway.

When actually at Cambridge, I found that parts of it were more rabidly class-riven than others. So maybe my cruise through admission is down to the guidance I received on college selection, from the one teacher in my sixth form who had any experience of Cambridge.

[State comp, Clare ’86, Maths, I].


Katherine 12.06.07 at 11:48 pm

PS my comments about admissions and applications are now 13/14 years out of date – so if they are genuinely now inaccurate, then I’m very glad. However, I do remember that a lot of things were being said to be done then too, but it didn’t seem to be making much discernible difference. Individual efforts weren’t adding up to institutional change.

But for every individual trying to make things different there is one who is barely going through the motions. AAt the very first supervision I went to, the tutor went round the room asking people where they came from geographically, and then named the major private school in that area and asking to be remembered to so-and-so teacher. He went conspicuously quiet when I said “Teesside” and ignored me entirely thereafter. I hope to god that he had nothing to do with admissions at his college.

And it is avery relevant point that has been made about admissions from state schools absolutely not necessarily meaning admissions from working class backgrounds. I’ll wield my class credentials by saying I was from a crappy (Middlesbrough) comprehensive school, not a grammar school, and then spoil it entirely by ‘fessing up that my parents were university educated teachers and I have several generations of Cambridge attendees amongst my forebears (I wore a 100 year old hood to my graduation for goodness sake) – and I still felt lower class than most of my college companions who went to grammars or private schools.


Nasi Lemak 12.07.07 at 9:04 am

Katherine: there is no doubt some variation (half of us are below the median in admissions effort!, etc). At least in Oxford the new Admissions Framework is the culmination of a longish effort to regularise admissions, require more and better training, etc, all of which may have some negative consequences but should certainly reduce the variation. I think also that there has been a really large turnover of academic staff in the past few years – the retirement of the large generation first appointed in the 60s – with the consequence that there are a lot of new people doing admissions & they should have been trained and socialised into doing admissions in more modern ways. Probably 80% of the tutors in my college started doing admissions less than 20 years ago, e.g.

I think I had exactly the reverse perception of “class” at university: I am a working-class – not even respectable-working-class – child from a not very nice council estate in a very depressed (in the 80s) northern town, my parents being unemployed for the whole of the 1980s after my dad was made redundant (and he never worked again), but I went to a local private day school on the old Assisted Places scheme. I got very fed up, in the early 90s when I was an undergraduate, of meeting people who were nth generation Oxbridge but who thought they were the vanguard of the revolution because they’d attended state schools (usually, in their case, rather nice schools in leafy suburbs). I like to think I’m slightly calmer about this nowadays.


chris armstrong 12.07.07 at 2:40 pm

It’s reassuring to think that things have changed here, but also slightly depressing to consider that few kids with no university-attending-family-history are succeeding even now.
My own experience was very disheartening – but this was about 15 years ago, and I like to think / hope that things have changed. I’m from a non-university-attending, council estate, poor comprehensive school background, and my Oxbridge interview went pretty badly – to put it simply, I’d never even met anyone anything like the tweedy old guy I found in front of me, he didn’t seem to know what to make of me either, and we had a very unsuccessful attempt at a conversation that was full of the kind of awkward moments that come from sharing utterly different milieux (is that the plural?), language and experiences. I felt that any potential I did have remained pretty much ‘unexposed’ by the process. I hope this doesn’t happen any more, but what DO you interviewers do with the kind of awkward, unconfident fish-out-of-water working-class types you must still see from time to time? Or are some interviewers just better at this than others?


Tracy W 12.07.07 at 3:22 pm

It’s difficult to know how successfully coached exam results are, whereas in an interview you can see someone thinking on their feet.

You can coach and prepare for interviews too.

I remember interviewing for a job in my last year at uni. One interview, I did so badly I would not have hired me. A very similar interview two weeks later I aced it, and got the job offer even though they couldn’t get in touch with my referees (who had both decided to go on overseas trips at the same time).

The difference was that I was more prepared and had had some practice.

The number of human activities that can’t be coached for are very small, I can’t think of any once I leave out behaviours that are outside our conscious control, like digesting food.


harry b 12.07.07 at 3:46 pm

There’s also the fact that you don’t need to be coached for interviews if you have the sort of upbringing in which you frequently meet people like the people interviewing you in you social circle, and feel at ease with such people because you are used to having conversations with them about grown up matters. You could use the interview differently — to figure out the social background of the interviewee (hard to fake) and use that as a consideration. Do you use them that way. My sense (and people who know the literature on interviewing tell me this is true, but I don’t have direct knowledge of it) is that interviewing candidates is one of those activities in which people overestimate their own effectiveness (like driving). From the outside it looks as if the Oxbridge interviews are at best a massive waste of time. (The Cambridge college to which I was admitted did so without an interview). I do remember someone a long time ago (who will remain nameless) telling me that he found interviews a good way of finding out which students (the pompous self-important ones) to avoid as tutees).


Nasi Lemak 12.07.07 at 3:48 pm

Chris Armstrong: there is strong encouragement towards clearly structured interviews with identified sequences of questions, starting off relatively easy and then getting harder and harder so that at some stage everyone struggles. The idea of this, I suppose, is to ensure that everyone gets going in the discussion – by answering an easy question – and then is sort of pulled along as the problem develops. That said, it’s clearly an imperfect solution (there are perhaps no perfect solutions within the current framework) and there are still some tutors starting interviews with “So, what have you read that you would like to talk about?” which strikes me as sub-optimal in lots of ways (in that it puts the conversational burden on the applicant, perhaps advantages applicants from highly literate households, etc) but is I guess debatable.


Nasi Lemak 12.07.07 at 3:53 pm

Harry – I think my initial response is that it would be against the rules of the current system to dig into the social backgrounds of students, or to use same as an explicit consideration, and that we wouldn’t be able to defend doing so. It’s ok to compare the academic achievements of an applicant to their educational background, but not to pursue anything that looks like diversity as a goal. (The provision in the near future of “first generation” information from UCAS is going to be very interesting in this regard, but I think it’s unlikely to be seen as politically possible to advantage first-generation applicants in any non-minimal way.)


PJ 12.07.07 at 6:36 pm

The current semi-structured interview format seems to me to have the disadvantages of an entrance exam combined with all the disadvantages of the old freeform interviews on top.


PJ 12.07.07 at 6:41 pm

I’d also point out that Oxford colleges strongly resist centralised admissions – this is a major hurdle to providing equality of access.


Nasi Lemak 12.07.07 at 6:57 pm

I really love the quaint old tradition of providing reasons for views expressed.


bleh 12.07.07 at 9:17 pm

the interviews that I have just had were indeed very structured, and almost entirely avoided calling upon applicants’ prior knowledge. but i still didn’t find them entirely satisfactory as a selection procedure. without wanting to give proper credit to the intelligence of oxford tutors, it seems to me that the more confident and assured – but not necessarily more intelligent – candidate still has an edge in this kind of situation.

nevertheless, people should remember that it is only one aspect of the application, or so we were told. all the paper parts of the application are still being considered; they’re not just a preliminary hurdle to pass over in order to get an interview. although it varies by subject, oxford does, in addition to interviews, gather extra information about candidates from tests and written work. all of this one hopes would allow them to make a more accurate judgement about who is the *best* candidate.

i would at least have to say that it is a better than the system used by almost all other universities, where the only factor is the quality of your ucas form. extremely competitive unis like LSE then have to differentiate between excellent candidates on the basis of the most trivial differences in their personal statements or references. well, that or just ip dip doo :/

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