The university admissions season is a rough time. I write with some feeling because I am an admissions tutor. The only consolation is that the resilient young seem to behave with more grace and good sense than the rest of us – that is, than admissions officers, and their parents, teachers, and politicians. The latter take the wooden spoon, here as everywhere else. The Department for Education neither understands how higher education functions nor has a clue how to achieve the things that ministers affect to want. This isn't only idleness and duplicity; it is more that ministers can't bear to make unpopular choices between competing goals. They talk about setting priorities and run a mile from the implications.
Parents are entirely forgivable; they want their own children to have what is best for them – at least in their parents' eyes – and are outraged that admissions tutors won't turn down other people's children so that their own get in. One can hardly complain. It would be a pretty rotten world in which parents didn't favour their own children. Teachers are less forgivable, but not much less so. They rightly reckon that they know their students better than those who sit in judgement on them during the admissions season; and they rightly reckon that universities make innumerable mistakes, taking the idle and charming William and rejecting the solidly virtuous George, or falling for Chloe's witty and engaging personal statement and taking no heed of the patient good sense written by Clarissa.
What teachers don't know is who their pupils are up against. How can anyone be expected to believe that a dozen As and A*s at GCSE and the promise of four As at A-level isn't enough? At Oxford and Cambridge, it isn't – or rather, it certainly is enough, but there are four times more people with these qualifications than there is room for. Enough isn't enough. Being well qualified isn't the same as being ahead of the competition. It is appallingly hard to imagine that the confident young person who is miles ahead of her year at school won't look like that against 50 other dazzling young people from 50 other schools.
The academics doing admissions are forgivable, but rather less so; they try fantastically hard to achieve the right result in conditions that make it impossible. They ought to declare the task impossible and find another way of choosing students. What they do instead is bust a gut trying to achieve miracles. They read school essays meticulously, trying to discover what the student might achieve over the next three years – when we all know that the author may well come back very different after a gap year herding yaks in Outer Mongolia; they read personal statements, school reports, the results of little one-off tests; and they interview applicants over and over again to find the question that will reveal that this student will and that student won't flourish.
The data don't provide the evidence to reach sensible conclusions in more than 10 per cent of the cases. If there was room only for the top 5 or 10 per cent, the right ones would choose themselves; if we took the top 95 per cent, the right ones would reject themselves. Drawing cut-offs in the middle of the distribution is very different. We ought to choose students after A-levels, on the basis of a complete set of marks, using interviews only to ensure that applicants really want to come, and really want to study what they've applied for. Complaints about the unfairness of Oxbridge admissions are misjudged; they are fair, all right, with every candidate being treated exactly like every other candidate. But they are not a sensible way of guessing which of 23,000 students will do best in the peculiar conditions of an Oxbridge undergraduate degree. And in present conditions, the admissions system is bound to end up picking something like a random sample of the most disciplined and successful schoolchildren – which means it will be strikingly biased towards the children of the professional classes.
This, of course, distresses the politicians. But they are really unforgivable on this topic. Mrs Hodge is no worse than most – she is merely like her predecessors in trying to shift the blame for incoherent government policy about higher education on to the victims of it. It is – it really is – perfectly possible to run a decent higher education system that would serve the needs of more than 50 per cent of the population. And you can beef up the participation of the bottom three social classes. But you can't do it without making quite a lot of people unhappy, and it is cowardly to try to shuffle that task on to universities.
If people think that merit is measured by grades at GCSE and so on, you will be in trouble telling them their children have lost out to children with worse grades but lower socio-economic status. If universities are penalised for high drop-out rates or for producing an inadequate number of first-class degrees, you can't expect them to take risks with their intake.
The writer is warden of New College, OxfordReuse content