This week, as the curtain closed on the Oxford and Cambridge University applications for entry in 2015, opened newspapers were awash with comment. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine on Saturday (“Confessions of a white Oxbridge male”) makes some very interesting and candid observations about the Oxbridge recruitment process.
His somewhat tongue-in-cheek analysis, taking into account his own personal journey, touches on a number of key issues. Backed up by statistics from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, he points out that the majority of the British Establishment, that is judges, senior politicians and captains of industry, is comprised mainly of Oxbridge-educated white males; this is a legacy of a world of nepotism which was rife, underreported and unchallenged back in the 1970s and 80s.
His own situation provides anecdotal evidence to back up the in-built biases, as he says his father had been to Cambridge and he feels this ‘badge’ opened doors both socially and when applying for jobs, as if he was a member of an elite private club of, as described by Grayson Perry of the New Statesman, “Default Man”.
A glance at the statistics demonstrates that entry to this ‘club’ is ever more difficult, much harder than previous generations. The number of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge, according to the Times, has increased almost tenfold over the past decade to about 18,500 for Oxford and 16,500 at Cambridge for 2014.
However, the number of places available has remained more or less static at about 3,500 for both universities. As any undergraduate reading Economics would deduce, the basic principles of supply and demand mean that there is a higher and higher price to pay for entry. And that price is your soul.
So is it worth putting yourself through the process when the stats are against you? Well, just like applicants to the TV show the X Factor, the lure that the next star might just be you is enough. David Cameron, Stephen Fry, Fiona Bruce; these ex-Oxbridge scholars had the X factor, which led to fame, riches or power, and, therefore, it could be you.
So you bust a gut and hope for the best.
These universities are no longer satisfied that top grades at A-level are sufficient indication of academic prowess and are not interested in extra-curricular activities. Just passion and depth of knowledge at that point in time in the subject one has arbitrarily chosen to study is all that matters.
In ‘Oxbridge applications; a don’s guide’ by Andrew Marszal in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Claus, an Oxford college don, states that “Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond…” Being an all-rounder is no longer relevant and little acknowledgement is granted to extra-curricular activity, things like sport which enhance inter-personal skills, teamwork and communication skills; just the ‘life’ skills employers are crying out for.
The focus and intensity means that Oxbridge graduates are potentially less well-rounded and, as a consequence, less attractive to employers. Only time will tell.
To be accepted you have to jump through hoops. Hoop 1, you have to show an exemplary academic record. Then, hoop 2, many of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge set their own supplementary tests to assess ‘capability’; so, for History applicants, it’s the HAT (History Aptitude Test) test, for Economics and Management or Geography it’s the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment).
Colleges which don’t impose extra tests expect incredibly high scores in AS levels. Then, if you’re lucky, the dreaded interview awaits where you might be tossed tricky questions, like ‘why are you sitting in this chair?’ Don’t laugh, it’s another hoop, a filter and if you don’t perform, you’re out. You might as well toss a coin.
The whole process is very reminiscent of the X Factor. What exactly are the judges and the public at home looking for? Just like the X Factor, it might be easy to dupe Louis but Simon Cowell will dismantle you! Look at Stevie on the latest X Factor show, he got through to the next round by putting on a good show and yet he can’t sing; he’s destined for failure. Choosing one person over another is fraught with injustice; Louis should have won the Great British Bake Off for goodness sake!
The system benefits those in the know, those with teachers and parents who have the experience of how the system works. Another killer stat, according to the Sutton Trust, is that 100 schools, out of a total of around 3,500 in the country, account for 30% of the Oxbridge places on offer.
It is a club alright, but entry to that club starts much earlier than university. Oxford has recently published example interview questions to help candidates, but generally this aids the better-briefed candidates from public and private schools. More transparency doesn’t lead to fairer choice.
Looking closer at the admission statistics (from Paul Bolton’s Oxbridge ‘elitism’), there is a strong regional bias, if you are white and hail from London and the home counties, you have a much better chance of acceptance than any other group. You walk the walk and talk the talk.
If you are Welsh, though, forget about applying.
Although a diminishing number, 80% of applicants are white and they have a much higher success rate at 1 in 4 than any other group. However, one of the main positive changes is that women now account for about 50% of the intakes as opposed to 13% in 1970.
Does this all matter? Just because it’s hard to get in and the entry process is shrouded in mystery, isn’t a reason for wanting to go. What are the benefits?
The Oxbridge ‘rejects’ are nowadays more numerous and of a higher calibre than ever before and go on to form part of a cohort of other universities which are benefiting from the competition for places and are catching Oxbridge up.
The fervour and intensity isn’t healthy. The crux is that Simon Kuper modestly and honestly asserts that he feels ‘little sense of achievement’ at his success in going to Qxford, as he is aware that it wasn’t down to ‘individual brilliance’ but perhaps luck at being prompted and privileged at the right time.
The elation in the belief that winning the golden ticket of a coveted place would lead to lasting fame and riches gives way to disappointment when the prize is a better-than-average comfortable career.
He probably would have got there anyway.