Oxbridge admissions tutors are much maligned.
On one hand they are frequently criticised by left wing politicians for being too conservative in their admissions decisions. Such commentators see Oxford and Cambridge as guardians of an elitist status quo with an over representation of privileged students from independent school backgrounds. At the same time, some Heads of leading state and independent schools complain that Oxbridge admissions tutors practise disproportionate positive discrimination, with less well qualified students from underperforming schools being awarded places in preference to better qualified applicants from more successful institutions.
Oxbridge admissions are a high stakes matter, and for many applicants an ‘Oxbridge’ rejection will be the first significant ‘failure’ in their lives. Understandably, this can be a difficult pill to swallow and inevitably there will be concerns that justice had not been done. The result is the annual run of anti Oxbridge stories in the press. Such articles are often less fair than the admissions systems they criticise.
Oxford and Cambridge dedicate more resources to undergraduate admissions than any other UK universities. Admissions tutors consider multiple sources of evidence from prior exam results and submitted work, to additional entry tests and interviews. Unlike in many universities where admission decisions are made by administrative staff using prescribed formulas, at Oxford and Cambridge academics control the process. The result is a more thorough, nuanced and sympathetic approach to admissions.
The Oxbridge admissions process is a good way of doing an impossible job. The system correctly identifies the truly exceptional students, as well as those who would struggle. The challenge lies with the large number of mid-range candidates who are good enough to get in, but for whom there are not enough places. There is often very little to choose between such students, and inevitably in these situations difficult and marginal decisions have to be made. Where two students are really tying for the last place, then it is sensible for admissions tutors to contextualise an application and consider the relative advantages or disadvantages of a candidate’s background. Such reasonable and modest handicapping ensures a fair process.
Oxbridge admissions tutors are meritocrats, and they run a system designed to select the best candidates. It is in their interests to do so. The system is not without its faults but it is the best available. The danger is not Oxbridge discrimination, one way or other, but political involvement. Politicians with an interest in social engineering and an eye to the electorate are unlikely to make a tried and tested academic meritocracy any fairer.
For an interesting insight into the Cambridge admissions process read Jeevan Vasagar’s article in the Guardian.