Is it time for Oxbridge interviews for all?

Johnny Rich has a look at the latest higher education policy idea to emerge from Liz Truss' campaign

Johnny Rich is Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push, and of the Engineering Professors’ Council, and a consultant.

It is not impossible that a scandal or gaffe may derail Liz Truss’s path to be our next prime minister in less than 6 weeks.

But, given that Conservative Party members don’t seem to mind what would otherwise be such disqualifying revelations, it’s perhaps unlikely.

Interviews for all

Over the weekend, she revealed her policy ideas for education, and one on higher education access deserves fair and serious consideration: everyone with 3 A*s at A level will be guaranteed to be invited for an Oxbridge interview.

The aim is to bolster fair access and opportunity by ensuring that high attainment is rewarded by the best that UK higher education has to offer regardless of school or background. The intent is honourable, but the policy is flawed for many reasons – most obviously that attainment itself is not something that happens regardless of school or background.

Extending this offer only to those with three A*s will indeed select many enormously able students (around 12,000 last year and probably more like 9,000 this year), but they will be overwhelmingly from private or selective schools or privileged backgrounds.

Contextual admissions

If the policy is intended to promote social mobility, it’s very badly targeted. As Steve Gorard, Vikki Boliver et al. have shown, if you want fairer access, you need to consider attainment in context. A privileged student with three A*s is great but may not have the potential of a student from a deprived background who climbed a higher mountain to attain three Bs.

Of course, we need equal opportunity for attainment in all schools, but until we get that, we need contextual admissions.

Pushing Oxford and Cambridge to (offer to) interview all these students with three A*s will undermine their resources to interview other suitable candidates from more diverse backgrounds with (slightly) lower grades.

Surely not PQA again?

This raises an issue about the practicality of the proposal. For this to be about interviewing candidates with 3 A*s (rather than merely predicted), we will need to switch to post-qualification admissions (PQA). PQA rears its head every few years because, on the face of it, it looks sensible, but the moment you ask questions about how to implement it, it becomes clear it would be more difficult and less fair than the current system unless you dismantle far more than just the application timetable.

As the sector knows, PQA has only just had its latest stroll along the catwalk before the then Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi reversed his predecessor’s decision and sent it marching back again. This was the right decision. PQA is a case of the tail wagging the dog. If it’s what’s needed to allow 1-2 per cent of all A level students an Oxbridge interview, then that’s a hair on the tail wagging the dog.

In any case, such a cliff-edge approach of A*s will create huge pressure on all able candidates that only the best will do. That will be exacerbated by high-stakes interviews which, according to research, often favour the same kinds of students (in terms of background) who Oxford and Cambridge have always favoured.

More than one kind of excellence

The next problem is the assumption (promoted in this case by an Oxford graduate) that only Oxbridge can possibly confer the advantages in life that the best deserve. Oxford and Cambridge are wonderful universities, but their range of courses is quite narrow, their learning approach is not suitable for all, they almost exclusively require full-time, in-person study and paid work is even largely banned.

There are literally hundreds of other universities that are more suited to a diverse range of candidates, and saying that isn’t some compromise. It’s about matching students with the institution where they will best thrive.

This policy would undermine the ability of the rest of the sector to attract the “best” candidates and, for a Conservative government, it’s extraordinarily anti-market, amplifying the already privileged status of a duopoly.

Autonomy

I am sure the admissions teams at Oxford and Cambridge will say the same about the need for students to find their best fit university. Indeed, I’m confident they will be very opposed to the prospect of the Prime Minister interfering in their autonomy over admissions, legally enshrined in HERA.

It could be argued that this is not actually against the law as the decision would still be the unis’, but it’s a clear incursion and a cost. (One that reminds me of the affronts to scholars’ rights by the Magisterium in His Dark Materials.)

Institutional autonomy is one of the secrets to the success of UK higher education. We diminish it at our peril, but this is about more than how two universities should have autonomy over its admissions. Of course they should, but my point is that undermining it for this just isn’t worth it for the hoped-for gains.

The nudge

The gains are worth hoping for though. This proposal reminds me of a Nudge Theory-inspired experiment during the coalition years in which students from disadvantaged schools who got good grades at GCSE received personalised letters saying “top universities want people like you”.

The hope was to expand their horizons, just as I imagine Truss thinks her plan might. But the notion that all that’s holding back the poor-but-able students is a lack of aspiration is, to put it generously, problematic. I never heard whether the experiment resulted in a measurable impact on the recipients’ admission to those so-called “top” universities. Suffice to say; the experiment was not scaled up.

Truss is, however, right to want to open Oxbridge up. Part of the advantage of Oxbridge is the brand value and social capital gained by its graduates. We do need to find ways to break this golden ticket approach to opportunity, but there are better ways than this.

For fear of this turning into a book rather than a blog, I won’t list more than one: if Truss really does have an appetite to intrude on admissions, she might consider imposing a requirement to recruit a certain percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds for OfS registration.

In any case, her proposal may end up as less popular with Tory members in the long run than she hopes. Oxford and Cambridge are among the least able universities to absorb more students. By placing all her focus on access at these two institutions, the scope for progress without a cost to her base is limited.

13 responses to “Is it time for Oxbridge interviews for all?

  1. In her evidence to a hearing of the Education Select Committee held on 2nd September 2020 to get to the bottom of the ‘mutant algorithm’ fiasco, Ofqual’s then Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, stated that exam grades “are reliable to one grade either way” (Q1059, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/790/pdf/).

    That statement was unqualified and so applies to all grades in all subject at all levels.

    A*A*A* might therefore be only AAA; likewise AAA might be A*A*A*.

    Unreliable grades are a menace.

  2. It’s disheartening that as often happens, when politicians make comment on UK HE, the focus falls on Oxford and Cambridge.They are wonderful universities, doing great things in research. However, we have over 130 HEIs in the UK, not just 2. Any political comment on improving access to the HE sector in the UK, probably needs to focus on the 99%, not the <1%, of HE providers.

  3. I want to know who is going to do all these interviews, and in what time. Is the gov’t going to provide Oxbridge with the funding to pay the huge increase in staff necessary to do these interviews?

  4. If these two universities are the primary pathway to success in the UK, that is the problem to be fixed. Looking at the US, for example, many universities have graduated people who have played leading roles in enterprises and society. The UK is run by a bunch of Chums, as the recent book of that title explained. Simply changing who gets into the gang doesn’t fix anything important.

  5. Excellent article Johnny – and I look forward to the book you say this blog was in danger of becoming!

    Really is hard to see how our social mobility problems can be fixed by a measure that would surely only help handfuls of relatively privileged students who currently probably end up at Manchester, UCL, Edinburgh or similar Russell Group destination, to get to Oxbridge instead.

    1. What proportion of ‘disadvantaged’ students (whatever metrics you prefer) currently get As or A*s?

      Then what proportion could that be if attainment was raised, per current Governmental objective?

      I don’t like Truss’ idea, but I think being against something because it doesn’t have broad impact is a tad unhelpful. For example, the Nudge letter writing intervention Mr. Rich seems to disapprove of helped an estimated 322 additional students into more selective universities; this isn’t to be sniffed at, even if not all 322 come from ‘disadvantaged’ groups.

  6. Politicians would do well to consider the evidence before jumping to snap policy direction announcements. I am all for reform for the right reasons using the best evidence to inform direction. However, it is more likely to succeed if we all work together to co-create the solutions that are deliverable, sustainable and in the best interests of students. Access, participation, opportunity and progression and social mobility are all critical to ‘levelling up’, the economy and future skills and knowledge base of the UK. This is about the future and we need a long-term plan that works and is owned and supported across Parliament.

  7. I agree this an excellent overview article – I also look forward to the book.

    But let’s also be frank: this is just a headline-grabbing bonkers initiative by Truss, not a serious education policy.

    Two slightly important omissions from Johnny’s points and arguments:

    1) ‘education, education, education’ in the world of the Westminster village means: ‘Primary & Nursery Education in England, Secondary Education in England, Further and Higher Education in England’….

    Sorry to break it so bluntly to the unaware, but … shock, horror … there ARE universities and higher education providers in other parts of the UK … covering some 20% of the population no less, whose policies are not overseen by Westminster politicians but by other very different political tribes.

    What happens in relation to the universities and higher education outside England if Truss decides to try to turn the entire system upside-down in gaining the votes of 160,000 Party members, who are mainly in England? And particularly, what effect does she think her reforms would have on universities in Scotland, where A levels don’t really exist for the vast majority, degrees are four years long, and school and university term dates follow a somewhat different calendar? I’m sure in reality her view is ‘I don’t care about Scotland’ … but she cannot come out and say that … surely? She’s certainly going the right way to make sure the Union sinks …

    2) What happens to those institutions that don’t select primarily on the basis of examination results? I’m mainly talking about music conservatoires, drama schools and the performing arts in general, though there are also widening participation issues like HE in FE, and some professionally related courses like Social Work shunned by Oxbridge but somewhat important to society. It’s an unresolved conundrum of PQA as to what happens to the longstanding selection cycle by audition/interview and the processing of offers, if the whole thing is thrown up in the air. As Johnny points out the whole of the higher education system should not be disrupted just for the sake of concerns about widening participation at two universities and about 2% of the student body. It was certainly my experience when I worked in the sector that the institutions that could possibly provide an alternative option to Oxbridge in the hierarchy for some of the best students were the top flight music conservatoires. For such institutions, it doesn’t help you find your next Oboe or Viola players who have prepared for 10 years, if there’s such great uncertainty in the couple of weeks run-up to entry.

  8. I was interested in the comment that PQA would be less fair. Never heard that argument before. Discounting this latest specific bonkers Oxbridge fixated idea from Liz Truss, in what way would a PQA system be likely to be unfair?

    1. PQA wouldn’t be unfair, if designed properly. The only matter stopping it is a lack of interest in change from those with the ability to crush the idea.

      What we’re left with is a lot of hot air about caring for social mobility, while refusing to move terms dates and assessment periods around a little, and increasing admissions/admissions-adjacent capacity for a slightly longer and busier period.

  9. How would Oxford and Cambridge know that a student has A*A*A* to invite them for interview? The invitee is likely to have won places at good universities by that time, is it wise to turn down those places for the sake of an Oxbridge interview that might or might not be successful? Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be able to afford taking a year out. What about the extra workload for Oxford and Cambridge admission staff. Should these students be invited for interview by other universities too, or are Oxford and Cambridge the only universities worthy of this proposal? What about medicine and dentistry courses, which are arguably at least as competitive as Oxford and Cambridge admission. Liz Truss’ proposal lacks thinking.

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