Education: A tough admission to make: Will Oxford and Cambridge break with the tradition of putting emphasis on the interview to select students? Stephen Pritchard reports

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AT THE universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where the interview of candidates has long been regarded as central to the admissions process, paper assessment may soon play an increasing role.

Oxford University, in a draft review of its admissions procedures published this month, is considering a system in which perhaps a third of candidates would be rejected on the basis of their application forms. Currently, almost all serious applicants are interviewed. At Cambridge some tutors also favour a move to interviewing fewer candidates.

Oxbridge admissions are now handled at college level. Candidates choose the university and a college; it is the college that offers an interview. Cambridge relies on the interview along with references, predicted grades and school work for selection. Offers are often in the AAB range, without also requiring passes in the university's own entrance exams.

Oxford offers candidates two modes of entry: entrance exam and entry based on an A-level offer. Non-exam candidates are assessed in broadly the same way as at Cambridge; exam candidates will also be interviewed, but will be made an 'unconditional' offer of two A-level passes. This is possible because, tutors say, the exam is a guide to potential rather than a test of knowledge.

In some subjects, Oxford colleges prefer candidates to take the entrance exam, in others, they do not. St Edmund Hall, for example, prefers A-level entry for law and geology and the entrance exam for maths and history; some colleges express no preferences.

At present, college choice and mode of entry can affect chances of admission to Oxford, especially in the large arts subjects, such as English. This is being addressed by the university's review, but any changes will not come into force until October 1995 (for 1996 entry).

At Oxford, it is hoped that the reforms will lead to a simpler and more consistent system. According to Colin Crouch, tutor for admissions at Trinity College and chair of the university's admissions review, the aim is to create a system in which a candidate is being considered for a place at Oxford University rather than for admission by a college.

'We want to make sure that different modes and college choice do not affect the chance of entry,' he says.

This is less of an issue at Cambridge, where applicants already name only their first-choice college, and there is one mode of entry. Susan Stobbs, who chairs the admissions forum at Cambridge and is a supporter of the interview, says: 'We use as many criteria as possible to be fair: school reports, written work, GCSEs, project work, the interview. Selection is difficult at this stage; A-levels are not always a fair guide. More than 30 per cent of those we reject go on to get three grade As.

'But if you are selecting out of the group that is getting three A grades, there's no way you can't use the interview. For the sort of education we are offering, how they respond to interview is quite an important indication of how they will respond to the supervision system.'

This high rejection rate of candidates who go on to gain good grades reflects not just the competition for places, but that Oxford and Cambridge look for students with the capacity to cope with the demands of short terms and intensive teaching.

At both universities, tutors have some reservations about how their admissions systems, and especially interviews, cope with a broader intake.

According to Colin Sparrow, tutor for admissions at King's College, Cambridge: 'Candidates come from a greater range of schools, but we still have few from non-middle-class backgrounds. Whether they are getting a fair deal is hard to tell.

'Our dependence on the interview has grown as a result of our wanting to open our access to a wider range of schools. That creates its own problems and we have not yet thought about them as much as we need to.'

(Photograph omitted)