Education: Oxbridge entrants face real university challenge

The Oxbridge selection procedure is as frivolous and inept as ever.
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The Independent Online
Next week, bang on time for Christmas, the annual slaughter of the innocents is held at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. At the end of a punishing term's teaching (I know the term is only eight weeks long, but dons are delicate petals and they do go at it quite hard during the months of October and November), the colleges will interview the next batch of hopefuls for university entry in October 1999 and 2000. Some dons boast of seeing 10 candidates a day and sighingly remark that it is hard to remember whom they asked what. Then, before Christmas from Oxford, and after Christmas from Cambridge, the minority of the young hopefuls receive the joyous tidings - and the majority, the ice-cold, elegant letter of rejection.

It can be argued that it is probably a good thing that the system of selection is as arbitrary as it is. If it were efficient and thorough, and Oxford and Cambridge really did select the cream of the 18-year-olds, then the other universities would be much impoverished. As it is, most sixth-formers observe each other's fate and know that a lottery is at work, which assuages some of the hurt. But the rest of the world tends to take the system seriously. Degrees from Oxford and Cambridge carry weight in a CV, indeed probably mean a lifetime's increased earning-power. Such a privilege ought to be more rationally distributed.

The references written by schools for the candidates are held to be an important part of the selection procedure. Under the present system these have to be composed, as indeed they are for all universities, far too early to be authoritative. Teachers are required to predict the A-level results of their candidates when they are only half-way through their courses. As this is the time for keeping spirits up, not for telling students that they are unlikely to be highly successful, there is bound to be some inflation of grades and of adjectives in references. Thus, Oxford and Cambridge have to interview many students who have been promised to make top grades next summer but who may not achieve them. The simple solution is to have references written after the A-levels are over.

Selection by interview is notoriously fallible. Most other universities have discontinued the practice, having recognised that it was an extravagant waste of academic staff's time. The hard-headed, successful Scottish universities never spent their time so frivolously. The argument that interviews are more sympathetic to the educationally disadvantaged applicant than written papers is hard to support. Since Oxford and Cambridge went over to selection solely by interview and not by written examination, the number of successful candidates from state schools has not gone up.

Those who cope well at interview are the self-confident and poised, and those who have been prepared. The most common general questions have been collected and published. For some weeks, conscientious sixth-form tutors have been working on questions such as: "If you get a place at college, how will you justify having had so much taxpayers' money spent on your education?" Some stories about dons at interview suggest considerable complacency and ineptitude, as they muddle their papers and ask, "Now, which one are you?" There are also reports of the same questions being asked of the candidates all day, apparently not taking into account that the morning's candidates might have leaked them to the afternoon's.

The college system in both universities adds to the element of lucky dip. A candidate for law makes an application to St Custard's College for 1999 which usually has 12 places each year for students of law. It says so in the prospectus. But what the prospectus does not say is that in 1998 an exceptional number of students with places to read law have postponed their entry to 1999 and taken a gap year, meaning that, in reality, there are far fewer available places next year.

Also, our candidate cannot estimate the competition. Trying to work out their best chances, candidates all spot the statistics in the prospectus that St Cake's took one out of every two in their subject last year, so that might be a good bet this year. Thus, they swarm on St Cake's, making it the reverse of a good bet. The candidates will all be asked: "Why have you selected this college?" and will reply with careful words of praise for its reputation and the welcome on open day. The truthful answer for most is: "The school and I reckoned I had the best chance here."

In theory it all works out for the best because colleges that have a surplus of good candidates drop them into a pool, to be fished out by those colleges that are short. In practice, fewer than one-third of the candidates are found places this way. This means that we are asked to believe that Oxford and Cambridge are selecting the best candidates from the small sample each college sees. No wonder each year schools witness astonishing results: for example, they send forward two candidates for Russian, each to a separate college so that they do not compete against each other. St Custard's rejects the stronger, while St Cake's accepts the weaker one.

When I am dictator (or merely Secretary of State for Education, with a majority of 170) I shall make quick changes. All university applications will be made after the A-levels have been completed and the results are known. That will save time for everyone in all universities. The (reformed) A-levels will be held in May and the results will be out in early July. Those with very high marks can, if they wish, go forward for a further examination in September for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. As they really love their subjects, these people will be happy to spend the months of July and August in private study on them.

The top 300 scorers in each subject will be offered places.The colleges can scrap over which is to have whom.

The writer is former head of North London Collegiate School for Girls