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.
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.
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 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.