The culture wars have crept into Oxbridge admissions

The negative discrimination of Oxbridge admissions

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

The characters in Sarah Vaughan’s thriller Anatomy of a Scandal include rich Oxford undergraduates from Eton whose main preoccupations are drinking and trashing rooms. They are what it is fashionable to call ‘privileged white males’; while the typical female Oxbridge student is ‘slim, tall, well dressed. Entitled… they knew they belonged there’. The truth, however, is that although Eton is one of the top academic schools in the country, its ‘beaks’ are puzzled by the sharp reduction in the number of their brightest pupils gaining places at Oxbridge. The number of offers has halved between 2014 and 2021.

Not very different to Vaughan’s narrative is the argument of the Sutton Trust that we have a problem when 65 per cent of court judges were educated at independent schools. But some of these were at school half a century ago, in a very different educational setting. Much depends anyway on how the statistics are framed. Do such figures include the half-and-half category of direct grant schools, most of which are now independent but which admitted very large numbers of state-supported scholars?

Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, said last week that ‘we have to make it very, very clear we are intending to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent school backgrounds into places like Oxford or Cambridge’. Actually, the colleges, not the university, choose whom to admit, but the selection of state school candidates in place of well-qualified competitors from private schools has been going on for a long time; it has simply become more obvious in the past few years. The university’s target figure for state school candidates has slowly crept upwards beyond three-quarters; but it was originally announced as a target (or, to use the current euphemism, ‘benchmark’), not a quota – I know because I was a member of the University Council then, and we were assured that what would always count in final consideration was candidates’ excellence.

So that meant going out and persuading state schools to send more applicants to Cambridge. It meant breaking down prejudices in some comprehensives which were telling their brightest students that Oxbridge was not for the likes of them. It is easy to play on the mystique of ivy-clad cloisters, ancient dining halls and arcane rituals, making what are much-loved traditions among a great many students of all backgrounds into deterrents, signs that the colleges were simply continuations of snobbish public schools whose members supposedly dominated Oxbridge social life and took pleasure in burning bank notes in front of beggars sleeping rough. But that snobbery is long gone. Entrance interviews turn on academic discussion, rather than the ability to catch a rugby ball.

To a remarkable extent these initiatives succeeded. Missions were sent to schools. ‘Access officers’ were appointed by colleges. Oxford and Cambridge were shown to be normal places, just like… just like what? They are not like anywhere except each other, and that is the reason for their stunning performance in the sciences and the humanities. Uniquely self-governing, containing a great variety of autonomous colleges, they possess secrets of success that mean they always stand at the top of the admittedly dubious international league tables. They provide a chance for undergraduates to ‘sit at the feet’, as one used to say, of some of the leading scholars and scientists in the world.

As more state schools match the performance levels of very good independent schools, it is only to be expected that more of their own candidates win places. Yet the TSA (‘Thinking Skills Assessment’) tests at Cambridge reveal some disturbing facts. Lately, successful candidates from private schools scored 73 on average, nearly five points higher than candidates from state schools. This worries many of those who teach maths and physics; their students have to cope with exceptionally challenging courses, and need to hit the ground running. In other words, candidates from one type of school with better scores are being turned away in favour of those from another type of school with lower scores. So much for the claim made by the university’s spokesman in response to criticism of Toope’s comments: ‘The University of Cambridge does not discriminate against any applicant.’ Positive discrimination exists, and the other side of the same coin is negative discrimination against well-qualified candidates, who are often dismissed as ‘well-taught’, taking the credit away from the candidate. The head of one leading independent school asked me: ‘Where does meritocracy end and social engineering begin?’

Evidence of a deprived background (‘contextual data’) may well justify a difficult choice between closely matched candidates, in favour of the disadvantaged one. But when 35 per cent of independent school pupils receive some sort of bursary, sometimes total exemption from fees, it is clear that a very blunt instrument is being applied. Nor is it just those on very low incomes who may need help. I was governor of a school where we were discussing a rise in fees, to which I objected on ‘squeezed middle-class’ grounds, and was told by another governor, a delightful and wealthy man with rather limited horizons: ‘Well, they can forgo their winter skiing holiday.’ But that was a serious misrepresentation of the dilemma many parents face about where to find the money for school fees.

One hears academics saying: ‘The state-to-independent ratio is better this year.’ In what sense can one possibly say it is better? Maybe it is better because the Office for Students is less likely to threaten to claw back fees, as it can in theory do if the university is short of its target – but the idea that admissions to university are subject to an opinionated bureaucracy blindly pursuing its ideological objectives is deeply troubling.

Toope admits the crudity of making ‘state school’ a criterion for admission when he says the figures need to be broken down to identify selective grammar schools, which account for a significant proportion of state admissions. The implication that here too candidates will eventually suffer discrimination has already created outrage. The Times made public a case where a candidate from a state grammar school had a very high score of 82 in the TSA but was not even invited for interview. Of course there is, and should be, more to admissions than that score: a letter of reference, a personal statement, ideally the interview too. Creating a mix of students from different backgrounds who can strike sparks off each other is a desirable objective.

At the moment the really disadvantaged candidates are arguably the white males from outstanding independent schools. If they are rejected by their first-choice college and placed in the ‘pool’ so other colleges can look at their application, they nearly all sink without trace. So they go instead to Durham, St Andrews, Bristol and other Russell Group universities, excellent places – but, as Toope has hinted, they too are under pressure to cut numbers from certain types of school. One head talked to me about a potential brain drain as some of the best and brightest head to Harvard and Princeton, maybe never to return to Britain.

It is vital to remember that admitting students is all about individuals. University admissions have become another site for culture wars in which ‘white’, ‘male’ and ‘privileged’ are terms of disapproval, linked together to justify injustice. Imagined class must not determine admissions. School names should probably be omitted from application forms. Penalising applicants for their parents’ choice of school ‘strips the pupil of any agency’, to quote one distinguished head. It is a betrayal of the principles by which a great university has flourished.

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