Discrimination in the UK
June 15, 2015 2:36 AM   Subscribe

Elite firms are sidelining the UK's bright working-class applicants in favour of privileged, "polished" candidates, a report says. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission says these firms draw from a small pool of graduates, who probably went to private or selective schools. This version of talent can be "mapped to middle-class status", it adds.
posted by marienbad (89 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
The relevant page at gov.uk has a link to the full report (PDF: 112pp).
posted by misteraitch at 2:51 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, duh. Hasn't this been happening pretty much since we had the independent sector and grammar schools - that's sort of what they were tooled up to deliver - maintaining the elite class?

Never believed we had much of a meritocracy here, the examples you hear of 'working class person makes it to the top' are the exceptions (hence being news or case-study worthy) not the rule.
posted by dowcrag at 3:09 AM on June 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


"I'm sorry, didn't we list under the Job Qualifications: 'Must have parents with money'? An obvious oversight."

I wonder what a survey of Elite Firms in the "anybody can become successful" USofA would look like. Well, one thing that might keep the statistics from being even worse is how many of the Ivy League School grads instead of joining an Elite Firm, get buckets of cash from Venture Capitalists to make their own startups. Now there is a career path that's almost exclusively for the Elites.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:15 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


"To break into top jobs, state school candidates needed higher qualifications than privately educated peers, it added."

My public school educated Facebook friend has just linked to this with the comment that public schools produce a "better-educated and more skilled" cohort and elite firms recruit for education and skills, so the problem is with the state schools and not the elite firms. I've decided to bang my head against this nice desk instead of asking why public schools don't teach their students to read.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:24 AM on June 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


This is infuriating because it's all so short sighted.

A well funded comprehensive school system is the best thing ever!
They produce better educated more well rounded graduates than selective schools (but of course selective schools get better results because they select the better ones coming in)

The UK is progressing rapidly back into the bad old days of shiny haired, shiny teethed dullards running the old institutions into the ground whilst being supported by hideously deformed tax structures which put the whole burden on working class and lower middle class folk.

If I could change one thing in the UK my very first choice would be to make EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL a comprehensive school run by a local education authority.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:35 AM on June 15, 2015 [17 favorites]


Seriously, has this ever not been the case? It's good to have a study confirming it but nonetheless it's sort of 'dog bites man'.
posted by winna at 4:04 AM on June 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


The reason this is important is that it challenges the neo-liberal dogma that those who work hard can achieve anything and that recruitment by 'top' firms is based on some kind of objectively-measured merit/qualification. Clear evidence of the cultural bias in appointment processes, at a point at which so many people believe that individual success is the result of individual effort, is potentially a powerful thing.
posted by melisande at 4:23 AM on June 15, 2015 [21 favorites]


I think it might be more useful to post articles/studies exploring where this is not the case--I rather imagine it is an almost universal phenomena
posted by rmhsinc at 4:24 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that if you want to go into politics on the nation level in the US and you don't have a Yale or Harvard degree of some sort, people often won't even talk to you.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:25 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


This Guardian comment on the Guardian article says a great deal. The UK paper that holds itself to be the bastion of the left, is actually a bastion of this same prejudice.

As for the "Facebook friend" above who came out with that claptrap about private schools producing a "better cohort" - it quite clearly shows that what such schools produce is blinkered, narrow-minded folks who lack true open-minds that actually come from truly great and enlightening schooling.

The study quite clearly shows that what you actually for your money is reputation not necessarily a great education.
posted by rolandroland at 4:28 AM on June 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


Seriously, has this ever not been the case?

I think what is frustrating about this is that, from the 1950s through to maybe the 1980s, it looked like there was a move towards meritocratic schooling in the UK. Grammar schools looked like they would win out the older Victorian Public schools on the grounds that the former were not only good but also (almost) free. But what happened instead was they the government abolished the grammar schools and the public schools have been able to raise their fees threefold and still have a crowd of wealthy people beating their doors down to get in.

Yes - elite employers will always (for better or worse) seek to recruit elite employees - once upon a time that elite was formed from those from the aristocracy - these days it is formed from an international cadre of people whose families are very rich. But for a while there was a time when academic merit mattered more.
posted by rongorongo at 4:31 AM on June 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


These businesses, and England in the long run, will suffer because so much talent is wasted. The best and the brightest will go elsewhere, maybe abroad, and "elite" will become a byword for mediocrity. It happened before from the late 1800s to 1945, and it will happen again.
posted by Thing at 4:39 AM on June 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


They mention five "elite firms" which mostly appear to be consultancy firms where good social skills ("polish") and connections matter much more than talent or ability.

I don't imagine this selective snobbery occurs as much in firms where job skills actually matter, but I don't think we're seeing that data.
posted by three blind mice at 4:39 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


My understanding is that if you want to go into politics on the nation level in the US and you don't have a Yale or Harvard degree of some sort, people often won't even talk to you.

That's too inclusive.

Skull & Bones forever.

I don't imagine this selective snobbery occurs as much in firms where job skills actually matter,

Optimist.
posted by Mezentian at 4:43 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hiring Oxbridge or Ivy is the HR equivalent of hiring IBM. Simple as that.
posted by JPD at 4:44 AM on June 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


This Guardian comment on the Guardian article says a great deal.

Jesus Christ the Guardian is the worst newspaper in the history of the world. There's barely a single member of staff who didn't go to private school and then Oxford.

Give me Fox News any day - at least they make it clear where they really stand.
posted by colie at 4:54 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


The study quite clearly shows that what you actually for your money is reputation not necessarily a great education.

It goes a little further than that, the FPP and tbm above mention 'polish', what a public school education gets you is that polish, it makes you the kind of chap that can be 'our kind of chap'.
posted by biffa at 4:55 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think what is frustrating about this is that, from the 1950s through to maybe the 1980s, it looked like there was a move towards meritocratic schooling in the UK.

That period in general was kind of blip both in the UK and the US, a brief moment where egalitarianisms of various sorts seemed poised to break up the dominance of entrenched, wealthy interests. And there is of course an obvious reason why the 1980s are the endpoint in both countries.
posted by kewb at 4:57 AM on June 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


That period in general was kind of blip both in the UK and the US, a brief moment where egalitarianisms of various sorts seemed poised to break up the dominance of entrenched, wealthy interests. And there is of course an obvious reason why the 1980s are the endpoint in both countries.

I've been seeing this idea so much in the last couple of years, and, not to single you out kewb, but it is beginning to seem defeatist. If we did it once we can do it again.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:01 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


The piece is little value without one statistic: are these firms employing a smaller percentage of comprehensive state school students than those students bear as a percentage of the higher-ranked graduates of the target universities? If that's not the case, than there's no evidence whatever the firms are discriminating, but instead evidence that comprehensive students can't qualify for the high-ranked universities or can't get good marks while there. Which certainly may be a social problem, but not particularly the problem of Golden Circle (etc.) firms.

It is also astonishing that some people feel that the comprehensive schools in lieu of grammar or selective state schools is any kind of solution. That kind of move does nothing except assure that smart kids from non-rich families are crushed under the social problems of non-smart kids from non-rich families. The only beneficiaries of this, of course, are kids rich enough to go to fee-paying schools, as they're the only people who are left with a decent education.
posted by MattD at 5:01 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


If we did it once we can do it again.

We can't even agree to cap global warming at 2C.
posted by Mezentian at 5:03 AM on June 15, 2015


And of course in the US, if you don't like Ivy Leaguers in your politicians, the Republican Party has got some options for you: Scott Walker (dropped out from Marquette), Marco Rubio (University of Florida and University of Miami), Lindsay Graham (two degrees from the University of South Carolina), Mike Huckabee (Ouachita Baptist University). Heck, Jeb Bush went to UT Austin although that was presumably by choice given the Yale tradition in the family...
posted by MattD at 5:07 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I preferred John Major (UK Prime Minister who left school at 16) to Cameron, the quintessential Eton and Oxford automaton.
posted by colie at 5:12 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


And not to belabor my point but Americans probably don't appreciate that the elite English universities are hugely more meritocratic in their admission processes than comparable U.S. universities.

A quota for kids of zillionaires, aristocrats and Commonwealth grandees aside, those schools are laser focused on academic merit. It would unthinkable for them to practice the kind of systemic hate for "boring nerds" that makes it completely common for someone with near-perfect SATs and a string of 5s on their APs to be rejected by every Ivy and Stanford, while their places are taken by dumber kids who somehow at 17 who manage to come across as more interesting.
posted by MattD at 5:21 AM on June 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


This is very much the way it has always been, sadly. Not just in terms of University, but also how you speak. Indeed I've always been very much aware that one of the privileges from which I've benefited in life was being raised Catholic.

It meant that even though I was from a low income family growing up, I got into the local Catholic grant-maintained school, which was easily the best school in the area and was generally populated by middle-to-high class kids. Made for some shitty times at school (the standard stuff that comes with being one of the ones without money in that environment) but left me with a neutral accent by default (it tends to slip when beer is applied).

That, combined with the support I got from that school just to work out how to make going to Uni work (given the lack of family money) is, quite simply, the main reason this lower-working-class kid is now an upper-middle-class thirty something. Take that away and I would have stood absolutely no chance of becoming the person I am - and am very happy about being - today.

As a result of all that I've always been acutely conscious of the massive dangers of biasing based on University (and background) when hiring roles and been vocal in the companies I've worked in about not doing it. And this shit can (and normally is) subtle - a line slid into the job spec about "the best candidate will have a 2:1" or "have gone to a Russell Group university."

"Oh!" HR will say, "But that's just nice to haves! Obviously every applicant is considered!"

Which is utter bollocks for two reasons.

Firstly, because applying for jobs is a confidence-destroying business. And confidence is something of which applicants have a finite supply which only rebuilds slowly. Whether consciously or not, they thus spend that confidence carefully when applying for roles - and applying for something that you think, from the nice-to-haves, is likely to lead to rejection is something you are less likely to do. That's a doubly serious problem for kids from lower-income backgrounds for whom confidence is likely in less supply to begin with.

Secondly, because most good jobs are over-subscribed with applicants. And the "nice-to-haves" are thus nearly always essentially "requirements" because they'll be used to justify cutting people from a short list.

The whole thing is so fucking disingenuous and stupid. Hell, not just because of the moral reasons and general shittiness of it as an approach to your fellow human beings, but also because it's bad business - because as a manager / business owner / senior person your job is to find the best talent at the best price (both in terms of wages you pay and how long they'll stay in post). Indeed ideally talent that your competitors don't have or have missed. Deliberately narrowing your pool is just effing stupid.

One of my proudest moments at one place of work - a company that works regularly with all those named on the graph in that article and thus has a very similar feel as an organisation - was forcing the new HR director to remove the two things mentioned above (2:1 and Russell Group) from the recruitment policy she was implementing.

But even that was more luck than judgement - they'd already used the department I was running as a very public poster-child for another big policy on staff retention and internal promotion. It was basically their big showcase policy in front of the board.

When they tried to bring in the recruitment policy I took them aside and quietly pointed out that none of the people in my digital department met those criteria - including myself. And if they put that in the policy I'd have no qualms about pointing that out whenever the topic came up.

If I could change one thing in the UK my very first choice would be to make EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL a comprehensive school run by a local education authority.

Seconded.
posted by garius at 5:23 AM on June 15, 2015 [32 favorites]


>>are these firms employing a smaller percentage of comprehensive state school students than those students bear as a percentage of the higher-ranked graduates of the target universities?

The report, which I have skimmed, makes 2 points relevant to this argument

1) academic qualifications don't fully explain the disproportionate number of privately educated students at Russell Group universities. According to their data (p24 of the report), state school students need better A-levels than the privately educated to get into the Russell Group in the first place.

2) Even among Russell Group candidates, the soft skills requirements advantage the privately educated over the state educated. This point is made at p28: "whether or not an applicant has attended a preferred university it is likely that those from more privileged backgrounds also benefit in relation to the selection process, to the extent that they can display similar traits." I haven't read closely enough to identify the statistical basis for that claim, but the claim itself seems to justify the BBC's take on what the report is saying.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:33 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]




"are these firms employing a smaller percentage of comprehensive state school students than those students bear as a percentage of the higher-ranked graduates of the target universities?"


FTA: "Candidates from fee-paying and selective schools, which tend to dominate Russell Group universities, made up 70% of graduate trainees at case study firms, despite being only 7% and 4% of the UK population respectively."

So the answer is....
posted by marienbad at 5:41 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Soon enough one will only have two options to join the elite: either being born elite or by field promotion during a bloody civil war.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:41 AM on June 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


And not to belabor my point but Americans probably don't appreciate that the elite English universities are hugely more meritocratic in their admission processes than comparable U.S. universities.

Um... no, no they aren't.

My SO has taught in Oxbridge & Ivy League. They have the same proportion of privately educated students, the same bright but not always brilliant students, and (if anything) the Ivy League is much more interested in enrolling the "diamond in the rough" student than Oxbridge (where admissions are further complicated by the college system).

We also know an admissions tutor for Oxbridge - he recently had a (brilliant, largely self-taught) pupil turned down by a (not particularly good) college because they didn't think the kid had the right polish, while he was accepted at Harvard and a host of elite American universities.

Thing is: working class students are risky. They are often brighter - especially when looking at two A-undergrads, because they've gotten those grades while also worrying about tuition and maybe even supporting their parents financially. But they are more likely to have stressors (family issues, finance issues, even mental health issues) that mean you might a shooting star, or a literal shooting star (burning up in the atmosphere). Oxbridge colleges are all in competition with each other - they would rather have safe, middle to upper class students who will get a 2.1 than a non-traditional student who might get a first but who also might crash and burn. The Ivy League are in a better position to take a risk on a non-traditional student (and will - though not as often as they like to claim).
posted by jb at 5:44 AM on June 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


As a result of all that I've always been acutely conscious of the massive dangers of biasing based on University (and background) when hiring roles and been vocal in the companies I've worked in about not doing it. And this shit can (and normally is) subtle - a line slid into the job spec about "the best candidate will have a 2:1" or "have gone to a Russell Group university."

Hell, is that all? I have a 2:1 from a Russell Group university, and I know that it's worth very little in terms of learning. If this is a business's idea of "elite" then it's worse than I thought. I do not credit myself, nor many of the people I went to university with and achieved just the same as me, as having any great talent or skill solely on the education we received. The level required was so laughably low many of us were phoning it in.
posted by Thing at 5:46 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


If I could change one thing in the UK my very first choice would be to make EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL a comprehensive school run by a local education authority.

Agreed with a couple of amendments: "a comprehensive school run by a *competent* local education authority, implementing a well-thought out education policy."

I shudder to think what would happen if this was implemented by our LEA. My wife is a school governor, and from what she tells me, it is amazing that the teachers get any time to actually educate children at all, what with all the form-filling, target-meeting and other miscellaneous admin that they have to do.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 5:48 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


marienblad, I think MattD is saying, rightly, that the % of the population who went to state schools doesn't track the % of graduates from top universities who went to state schools. If the elite firms are simply reflecting that disproportionality, then the problem is happening at an earlier stage and is not their fault unless you think they should be proactive in identifying class-based academic advantages and discounting them in recruitment. The further question is then why the disproportion at the university entry stage, and I think his argument is that this is about the quality of state school education and not classism.

But it seems that it's actually not true that the elite firms are just passively reflecting the make-up of the graduating cohort of top universities -- even within that cohort, their criteria are discriminatory. In any case, the other argument that the universities aren't discriminating, it's just that state schools are bad, is also untrue according to the report.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:49 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Marienbad, the line you quote makes my point, not yours. Elite firms are always going to recruit from the highest-ranked graduates of the highest-ranked universities. The firms are possibly guilty of discrimination only if within that cohort of graduates they are biased to people who went to fee-paying or selective schools ... and the article doesn't say so.

I would also tend to believe that even if a statistical discrepancy were shown, discrimination wouldn't be the cause. The article is focused on elite professional services firms, and people from non-moneyed background may well much prefer to work in banking, trading or tech.
posted by MattD at 5:53 AM on June 15, 2015


They mention five "elite firms" which mostly appear to be consultancy firms

The report says they are accounting and law firms (rest of UK) and banking and law (Scotland).

The firms are possibly guilty of discrimination only if within that cohort of graduates they are biased to people who went to fee-paying or selective schools ... and the article doesn't say so.

It explicitly says that they look for people with specific experiences in vacationing and other middle class socialisation. The pipeline is unfair at all levels: the high-ranked universities take students from fee-paying or selective schools with lower A-levels than those from comprehensives; the firms select mostly within these universities for people with specific experiences that are directly correlated with wealth.
posted by jeather at 5:57 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


And not to belabor my point but Americans probably don't appreciate that the elite English universities are hugely more meritocratic in their admission processes than comparable U.S. universities.

I attended Trinity College, Cambridge and this is absolutely not true. The interview process ensures that only the "right" sort of people get in, regardless of merit. I never met a single student there with a working-class accent.
posted by grouse at 5:57 AM on June 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


If we are sharing anecdotes about Oxbridge admissions, my brief experience of interviewing (+ chats with friends who interview) suggests that class awareness, and trying to compensate for class-based discrimination, is formally relevant to the process. Admissions tutors are given the data on whether the applicant is potentially the first person to go to university in their family and the context of the school they are applying from (average GSCE performance, socioeconomic context etc). Of course, how they use it will vary from tutor to tutor and the results aren't exactly encouraging but it's not true that the interview process is completely blind to the risk of discrimination.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:04 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


A quota for kids of zillionaires, aristocrats and Commonwealth grandees aside, those schools are laser focused on academic merit. It would unthinkable for them to practice the kind of systemic hate for "boring nerds" that makes it completely common for someone with near-perfect SATs and a string of 5s on their APs to be rejected by every Ivy and Stanford, while their places are taken by dumber kids who somehow at 17 who manage to come across as more interesting.

This largely... doesn't happen. The exceptions are if your family gave literally like a hundred million dollars to the school, you are foreign royalty or the equivalent, you are a recruited D1 athlete or you overcame some really compelling personal hardship. Otherwise a B+ average is going to keep you out of the Ivy League.

The discrimination issue is that Harvard probably prefers someone with a 3.9/4.0 GPA and 1550/1600 SAT (still 99th percentile) who is "interesting" to someone with a 4.0 GPA, 1600 SAT who is not, and that this tends to map pretty well across racial lines. But the "gentleman's C" stupid but polished Ivy League man hasn't existed since the 70s.

Mediocre American rich kids don't go to to the Ivies, they go to lower-tier (but still very good) private universities like Boston College or Fordham.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:06 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


JB -- the Ivies do have a thing for disadvantaged and non-traditional students, that's true, and it maybe a greater thing than Oxbridge or some of the other top schools in England.

But the bigger point is that those kinds of applicants are so small in number among those with the potential to excel as to be insignificant, while the meat of the process is to sort among 17 year old kids of professional and managerial parents.

In the US, there is a strong, institutional commitment to make sure that uncool kids, no matter how good their standardized tests and academic performance are, don't get to darken the doors of the Ivies, Stanford, etc. Throughout my career I have seen huge numbers of Oxbridge, LSE, etc. graduates who in the US would certainly have had to go to the non-nerd-hate universities in the U.S. (MIT, University of Chicago, etc.)
posted by MattD at 6:12 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


The pipeline is unfair at all levels.... the firms select mostly within these universities for people with specific experiences that are directly correlated with wealth.

It's not unfair because that is the skill set that so obviously matters to them.

I am confused that anyone would be surprised that the skills most valuable to the UK's accounting, law and banking sectors are more appropriate to insider trading than to productive innovation and healthy competition?
posted by three blind mice at 6:24 AM on June 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


The thing to keep in mind is the Oxbridge + elite London schools is proportionally about the same size as all of the selective schools in the US. So the UofC kid and the Stanford kid basically have to end up at the same place.
posted by JPD at 6:27 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


How did this discussion become focused on university admissions policies? They are of course problematic, and I'd be the first to say that Oxbridge needs reform in this respect, but the key point about this research is that it's revealing the impact that social capital continues to have after university. i.e. Ivy League / Oxbridge qualifications are still not enough to counterbalance class. So even if these universities were to recruit entirely on the basis of talent and potential (however those are defined, and I suspect they're impossible to define in a culturally- neutral way, but leaving that aside for now...), graduates' chances of recruitment to high-paying jobs are still enormously determined by their family's social, cultural, and economic capital.
posted by melisande at 6:30 AM on June 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


How did this discussion become focused on university admissions policies?

Because if you read the report it is apparent that a key cause of the lack of recruitment from less privileged members of society to these elite companies is because they tend to predominantly recruit from the UK Russell Group universities, and as we know (and is also in the report) the Russell Group universities are very unrepresentative of the population as a whole.
posted by biffa at 6:44 AM on June 15, 2015


Hiring Oxbridge or Ivy is the HR equivalent of hiring IBM.

No, you don't understand - it's not enough to be Oxbridge. You also have to be rich enough to be able to divide your summers between working for free and pogo-sticking up the Zambezi, and to have spent a gap year completing your Grand Tour.

If you spent your summers actually selling your labour in the private sector to companies that considered your skills worth paying for - like I did - and then you used the money to support yourself and pay your rent during term time - like I did - it's evidence that you have the Wrong Attitude.
posted by tel3path at 6:47 AM on June 15, 2015 [28 favorites]


tel3path: Gap year as Grand Tour is a nice piece of rhetoric. Kudos.
posted by Leon at 6:54 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]




You lot with your bloody secret masonic handshakes . . . you wouldn't let me join, would you, you black-balling bastards!
 
posted by Herodios at 6:56 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Once again the Torygraph steps in with a version of events that is astoundingly tunnel-visioned. Grammar schools are the solution to an elite by making the non-elite compete for places in semi-elite schools?

There must be some sort of selective breeding program to make Telegraph writers this stupid.
posted by The River Ivel at 7:02 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is a certain group of people who are just desperate to get grammar schools back, and the answer to almost any problem is Bring Back Grammar Schools. (I think it's a bit cargo cult privilege)

(whereas my answer to everything, NUTHIN' BUT COMPS! is of course entirely rational)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:17 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


The idea that grammar schools were the generators of upward social mobility for working-class kids is a myth. As convincingly demonstrated by social research published in 1980 on Origins and destinations. There were a few, a very few, working class kids who were able to use the grammar schools as a jumping-off point for upward social-mobility but the vast majority of grammar school pupils were recruited from a middle class trying to preserve or improve their social position. The 11+ entrance exam used to regulate access to grammar schools was highly socially selective in its effect.
posted by melisande at 7:31 AM on June 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


No, you don't understand - it's not enough to be Oxbridge. You also have to be rich enough to be able to divide your summers between working for free and pogo-sticking up the Zambezi, and to have spent a gap year completing your Grand Tour

no. I understand. Believe me. I understand. I have the least prestigious academic credentials at my firm and I went to a University with a low-teens admission rate. I work in an industry filled with resume snobs.
For the most part the Ivy's et al are actually quite good at polishing middle class kids who want to be polished, or rather figure out that they need the polish to get the job at McK or ace the law school admit interview.

No one really cares if you went pogo-sticking up the Zambezi. Its simply the math. If you reduce your pool of trainees to Universities(Oxbridge + Kings+ Imperial) that have 38% of their student body entering from fee paying schools, and your trainees are ~40% from fee paying schools, then the magnitude of issue looks very different from the way the lede pitches the story.

The problem remains where you are willing to recruit from especially at that first post-undergraduate level where you really want warm bodies who will work hard and are low risk.
posted by JPD at 7:36 AM on June 15, 2015


In the US, there is a strong, institutional commitment to make sure that uncool kids, no matter how good their standardized tests and academic performance are, don't get to darken the doors of the Ivies, Stanford, etc.

If by "uncool" you mean "unwilling to demonstrate breadth of experience and interest". And yes, you're right in that there is an institutional push to prefer candidates who demonstrate being multifaceted individuals as opposed to overly focused candidates who have centered on study at the expense of everything else.

What puzzles me is why you see that as a bad thing.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:38 AM on June 15, 2015


What puzzles me is why you see that as a bad thing.

It has some negative unintentional side effects. Like excluding poorer kids who crushed the SATs and have 4.0's from non-feeder public high schools.

Its basically how the Ivies kept out the Jews until they figured out the code, and its how the top schools keep out Asians today.

In theory it makes sense. But in practice its harmful.
posted by JPD at 7:42 AM on June 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


Its basically how the Ivies kept out the Jews until they figured out the code, and its how the top schools keep out Asians today.

It's also how the whole nation got sucked into the cult of the athlete.
posted by ocschwar at 7:44 AM on June 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


The reality is that for high level business it really doesn't matter how much you know it's can you leverage your existing connections to drum up new business for your firm.

The smart but poor kid doesn't have connections to trade on, they can only make new value off the strength of their own labors which is sadly inefficient and more unfortunately they might think that they need to be compensated fairly in relationship to a peer that can bring familial ties and social connections to bear for a firm.

I mean how are you going to small talk with a client if you both didn't go to Eton and play the Wall Game?
posted by vuron at 7:55 AM on June 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


grouse: I never met a single student there with a working-class accent.

I started at Cambridge with a strong regional accent, by the time I left it had almost completely disappeared. Another non-educational attribute that I gained from my Russell Group education.
posted by penguinliz at 8:00 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


The smart but poor kid doesn't have connections to trade on, they can only make new value off the strength of their own labors which is sadly inefficient and more unfortunately they might think that they need to be compensated fairly in relationship to a peer that can bring familial ties and social connections to bear for a firm.

I mean how are you going to small talk with a client if you both didn't go to Eton and play the Wall Game?


Almost no high prestige jobs are sales jobs at the junior level. All high prestige jobs are sales jobs at the senior level. The problem here begins at the junior level.
posted by JPD at 8:06 AM on June 15, 2015


Why is intellectual merit any better for society as a whole than elite educational status?

What's harmful is when individuals no longer feel as if they don't have control over their own lives.

Giving choices to those who have IQs above the 95th percentile can be just as unfair as only giving choices to those who've graduated the right school.

Sure, we like to believe that the smartest people when given opportunity will return something to society of value equal to the status they've been given. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes. But just as often they go work in finance, or build technology that destroys working class jobs.
posted by Halogenhat at 8:08 AM on June 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


No one really cares if you went pogo-sticking up the Zambezi. Its simply the math.

They very much do. Every interview I had for every career job I applied for questioned me about those things, and responded with disapproval when they learned I hadn't made them a priority. Every few years I read about how some major company is shaking up its interview process by placing less emphasis on grades and more on well-roundedness of experience, which always equates to upper-middle-class-priority experiences. Like pogo-sticking up the Zambezi.
posted by tel3path at 8:09 AM on June 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


If by "uncool" you mean "unwilling to demonstrate breadth of experience and interest". And yes, you're right in that there is an institutional push to prefer candidates who demonstrate being multifaceted individuals as opposed to overly focused candidates who have centered on study at the expense of everything else.

What puzzles me is why you see that as a bad thing.


Because it's often applied as a filter for social class.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:19 AM on June 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


What puzzles me is why you see that as a bad thing.

Its interesting to contrast both Oxbridge and the Ivy League systems with France's Grandes Écoles. France has, of course, had its revolution some time ago - and the meritocratic schools - with the highest admission standards anywhere on earth - emerged from that. Graduates of just 3 of these schools ( Sciences Po, ENA, and the Ecole Polytechnique) comprise more than 60% of the current president's staff). Some of the schools require students to spend 2 years just preparing to take the entrance exams - and the overall requirement to be super-focussed has earned applicants the title of "taupins" or moles.

Having a society which depends too heavily on a narrowly drawn elite cannot be healthy - and elites composed of those who have been traumatized by the demands of a focussed meritocratic system are no healthier than those who have endured the "privileged abandonment" of public schools.

After all - in the end you just want somebody who can do your accounts without being an arse.
posted by rongorongo at 8:22 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Nepotistic oligarchy is alive and well among the so-called civilized, I see!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:57 AM on June 15, 2015


In the US, there is a strong, institutional commitment to make sure that uncool kids, no matter how good their standardized tests and academic performance are, don't get to darken the doors of the Ivies, Stanford, etc. Throughout my career I have seen huge numbers of Oxbridge, LSE, etc. graduates who in the US would certainly have had to go to the non-nerd-hate universities in the U.S. (MIT, University of Chicago, etc.)

Oh, yes, Oxbridge loves nerds. They have no preference for the "all-rounder".

So long as that nerd has the right accent and attended the right sorts of school. And again, I know people who tutor for admissions; I've also talked to the faculty members who make the ultimate decisions. Interview skills are key, and the correlate heavily with class background - and also gender. Oxbridge are the only UK universities that were admitting more men than women, when I checked a few years ago.

Neither elite system is admitting any C students, regardless of class. But they are admitting 2.1/A- students over potentially 1st/A+ students who are also risky or who are brilliant but lack the specific preparation that elite secondary schools give. One Oxbridge college told a friend of mine that they wouldn't normally consider any Canadian who hadn't done the international baccalaureate -- courses which are only offered at private schools and a few, upper-middle class state schools. It's a program which isn't more rigorous than our own secondary school curriculum (and that's ignoring self-taught knowledge - or schools like the state alternative I went to, which did university level work), but it means that the students are more acculturated to elite international culture.
posted by jb at 9:12 AM on June 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


I've been going through just favouriting all sorts of comments - Great points!

As was brought up: "fixing" the system to just bring in the brightest is no fix for high inequality. I used to think that the "meritocracy" could fix everything - until I read Michael Young's (delightfully ironic) The Rise of the Meritocracy. Cognitive abilities are just as much of a crap shoot as the status of your parents. True equality means a society in which everyone has a chance to make a decent life for themselves. No one deserves to live in squalor because they are not academically inclined (and I'm not exaggerating when I say this). As well, greater equality would relax the competition for the few good jobs between the more academic and with less competition will open up more places for lower-status people.

Of course, while I think we should be pushing for more of an equal society altogether (which research shows improves the quality of life for everyone, including elites), it makes sense to be concerned that elite firms (or governments) are dominated by people from a specific social class. I'm watching my city be torn apart by politicians who really have no idea how long poor people who are reliant on transit have to travel every day, how much rent is becoming utterly ridiculous. They've never ever lived on $1000 a month (or less). They don't know anyone who has been disabled by an injury at their factory job, or someone who has had their hours cut once again at their service job. They are simply out of touch with the living experience of a plurality of our society.
posted by jb at 9:28 AM on June 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


I've been seeing this idea so much in the last couple of years, and, not to single you out kewb, but it is beginning to seem defeatist. If we did it once we can do it again.
World Wars are shit though.
posted by fullerine at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think you could strengthen that point - jb - these days social mobility is almost always and unquestioningly presented as a public and social good - but it isn't straightforwardly so, as Michael Young well knew. All too often governments and other organisations emphasise their commitment to social mobility as evidence of their public-spirited social action, where in fact, it can be just another way to avoid having to do anything that would challenge the existing hierarchy. Championing social mobility is simply providing a veneer of respectability to the unabashed protection of existing privilege. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be greater equality of opportunity, and that organisations shouldn't actively seek to recruit more widely but all too often ensuring that 'the brightest and best' are able to reach 'the top' simply reinforces existing structural inequalities and very very narrow definitions of success, without calling those inequalities into question or recognising the need to ensure adequate conditions for all.
posted by melisande at 9:47 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Jesus Christ the Guardian is the worst newspaper in the history of the world.

How dare you, sir or madam! Have you never heard of the Seattle Times?
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:49 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


The idea that grammar schools were the generators of upward social mobility for working-class kids is a myth. As convincingly demonstrated by social research published in 1980 on Origins and destinations. There were a few, a very few, working class kids who were able to use the grammar schools as a jumping-off point for upward social-mobility but the vast majority of grammar school pupils were recruited from a middle class trying to preserve or improve their social position. The 11+ entrance exam used to regulate access to grammar schools was highly socially selective in its effect.

The American equivalent is the 'magnet school' which is used as a way to selectively increase funding for public schools in affluent areas even in the face of overall cuts that mostly land elsewhere. They are even explicitly designed to serve a certain proportion of well off students (like at least 70%) so that some poors can catch some higher quality crumbs.
posted by srboisvert at 9:56 AM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


From "Parkinson's Law", 1957:
A PROBLEM constantly before the modern administration, whether in government or business, is that of personnel selection. The inexorable working of Parkinson's Law ensures that appointments have constantly to be made and the question is always how to choose the right candidate from all who present themselves. In ascertaining the principles upon which the choice should be made, we may properly consider, under separate heads, the methods used in the past and the methods used at the present day.

Past methods, not entirely disused, fall into two main categories, the British and the Chinese. Both deserve careful consideration, if only for the reason that they were obviously more successful than any method now considered fashionable. The British method (old pattern) depended upon an interview in which the candidate had to establish his identity. He would be confronted by elderly gentlemen seated round a mahogany table who would presently ask him his name. Let us suppose that the candidate replied, "John Seymour." One of the gentlemen would then say, "Any relation of the Duke of Somerset?" To this the candidate would say, quite possibly, "No, sir." Then another gentleman would say, "Perhaps you are related, in that case, to the Bishop of Watminster?" If he said "No, sir" again, a third would ask in despair, "To whom then are you related?" In the event of the candidate's saying, "Well, my father is a fishmonger in Cheapside," the interview was virtually over. The members of the Board would exchange significant glances, one would press a bell and another tell the footman, "Throw this person out." One name could be crossed off the list without further discussion. Supposing the next candidate was Henry Molyneux and a nephew of the Earl of Sefton, his chances remained fair up to the moment when George Howard arrived and proved to be a grandson of the Duke of Norfolk. The Board encountered no serious difficulty until they had to compare the claims of the third son of a baronet with the second but illegitimate son of a viscount. Even then they could refer to a Book of Precedence. So their choice was made and often with the best results.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:43 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


There were a few, a very few, working class kids who were able to use the grammar schools as a jumping-off point for upward social-mobility but the vast majority of grammar school pupils were recruited from a middle class trying to preserve or improve their social position.

Education, in the grammar school/university sense, is a middle class aspiration to start with, so it is unsurprising that the system reflected that. Nostalgia for grammar schools does have more than a tint of rosy hued misremembering about it, but they really did have great advantages for the sort of lower middle class people who would not have had the slightest chance to go to even a (very) minor public school. Yes, middle class privilege, but nothing to do with the upper end of the middle class (with its overlap into the upper class) attending the major public schools. There were some anomalies like Manchester Grammar School, which had reputations and students bodies more like independent schools than state schools (and became independent when push came to shove), but most of them were far more ordinary and did provide opportunities for at least a number of bright (and lucky) working class kids.

Origins and Destinations, covering the first two-thirds of the 20th century so not really modern Britain from our 21st century perspective, is describing a period when the normal working class school leaving age was either fourteen or sixteen (pre/post second world war), at which point the rest of your “education" was learning a trade. To conceive of staying at school past that age meant you were at least aspiring to be part of the middle class. Obviously, some working class parents did want that for their children, but working class solidarity meant that many thought learning a good trade and staying as part of your community was at least as, or more, desirable. Recent policies (obviously Thatcher and her ilk, but just as much or more Blair and his) have decimated opportunities for most people below the middle class, making the old way of doing things impossible. Modern education keeps all kids in the education system until at least eighteen without preparing many of them adequately, or making them into the sort of people who have the skills and the social capital of the middle classes if they don’t have other means or acquiring said capital.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:05 AM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm skeptical of the grammar system, especially since the 11+ was based on faulty data (possibly fraudulent data, but I don't remember clearly), and people who have failed it have gone on to earn PhDs, including the guy who invented the MRI. How many more were derailed by the 11+ who could have gone to university?

But ultimately, the grammar schools have the same problem as the elite universities: no matter how "perfect" your selection method, you are just perpetuating inequality. It may be a rule of the academic/scholastically intelligent (as opposed to emotionally intelligent or physically adept) over the non-academic, but it's no more valid than rule of noble over common. Even if you had the most perfect intelligence test ever, you're just replacing one ruling class with another -- and at least when there are articulate people in the lower classes, they have their own advocates.

Meritocracy is still not democracy.
posted by jb at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2015



But ultimately, the grammar schools have the same problem as the elite universities: no matter how "perfect" your selection method, you are just perpetuating inequality.


Okay, so some of us get to spend 40 hours a week in something intellectually challenging and enjoyable, and some of us get to drive garbage trucks, collect highway tolls, et cetera.

No system to pick who gets to do what is going to be fully fair. But there is something else we can do: make sure the garbage truck drivers and other workers at least don't have to agonize about what to do when they get a toothache.
posted by ocschwar at 12:06 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Question for those in the UK: I take it that it is standard for university-educated professionals to continue to list their secondary schooling on their job applications or CVs? From a US perspective, that seems strange to me - has there been any movement towards changing this?
posted by kickingtheground at 12:08 PM on June 15, 2015


ochswar - definitely - and also not assume that the garbage truck driver has no interest in the intellectually challenging and intellectual stuff too.

Back on the subject of grammar schools in England & Wales, Peter Mandler's presidential lectures for the Royal Historical Society are pretty interesting on this front. His research shows convincingly that most people post-war (i.e. the point at which the UK was seeing major educational expansion) had no interest in meritocracy and that most people actually wanted good comprehensive schools, not the tripartite selective grammar school + secondary modern + technical school. i.e. contrary to what Conservative think-tanks (and quite a lot of New Labour rhetoric) would have you believe, comprehensivisation was not imposed on an unwilling population by radical left-wing ideologues - it was what most people actually wanted, and most people favoured a collective improvement rather than piecemeal changes for the upwardly mobile.

kickingtheground: I don't know whether that is standard, or whether there is a movement to change this, but anecdotally, on the job search committees I've been on, the further away someone is from their secondary education, the less likely it is they are to list pre-university education. If someone is doing so - and noting their actual school rather than just their secondary school qualifications - it tends to be a bit of a red flag for me, in that it smacks of trying to tap into some kind of old boys' network
posted by melisande at 12:25 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Okay, so some of us get to spend 40 hours a week in something intellectually challenging and enjoyable, and some of us get to drive garbage trucks, collect highway tolls, et cetera.

And also that for some people, driving trucks maybe more enjoyable than checking spreadsheets - or maybe they love (and are best at) serving coffee. (I've worked as a teacher, as a researcher and as a barista - I am a good barista, an okay researcher and a mediocre teacher - but I can't pay rent as a barista).
posted by jb at 12:31 PM on June 15, 2015


kickingtheground: "Question for those in the UK: I take it that it is standard for university-educated professionals to continue to list their secondary schooling on their job applications or CVs? From a US perspective, that seems strange to me - has there been any movement towards changing this?"

I think it quite depends. I went to a girl's boarding school in England. Were I to be seeking a job in the UK, I would be more likely to call one of the Old Girls and see if they knew of anything open/opening than I would be to put it on my CV, but I'm old and it would feel ridiculous to put my education from 30 years ago on my CV.

That said; here in the US, I have seen resumes with Andover and the various khaki analogs listed in the education fields, and these are people my age...so, ya know 30+ years after they graduated. I tend to see it the same way melisande mentions; which is that the person is trying to trade on capital they probably don't possess, or they are significantly insecure about their career accomplishments, or they are still stuck in adolescence and are only one missed latte away from draping a peach sweater around their neck and calling for the pool boy to be whipped.

Upstream, someone said something about accents. When I arrived in England, I had a soft, but distinctive Southern drawl. By the time I left, I had no discernible accent, but mastered mimicking a dozen of them. It's not just the way one says words, it's the words one says that are distinctive class markers in the UK. The difference in English speakers fascinates me, and I think an entire PhD could be undertaken just studying the class barometer of how the word "right" is used.

What these businesses in the FPP are looking for are the Fine Young Chaps, who know how to speak to the Wealthy Olds. Because FYC who can speak well to the WO, will intimidate the Poors, (Who Have No Business Cluttering Up Our Halls. Filthy Poors. )

Poors who do well, and go to the right schools, and know the right people, still just Will Not Do. Because they are likely to remember what it's like before they were a FYC, and thereby, are likely to consider the unwashed masses, rather than thinking about Sir Boniface McWealthypants. And we just can't have that sort of thing. It just is not done.
posted by dejah420 at 1:32 PM on June 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Question for those in the UK: I take it that it is standard for university-educated professionals to continue to list their secondary schooling on their job applications or CVs? From a US perspective, that seems strange to me - has there been any movement towards changing this?
posted by kickingtheground at 12:08 PM on June 15 [+] [!]

Every job application I fill out absolutely demands it. Therefore, I leave it in.

I did once apply to a place where they said, in their documentation, that the people who do well in that company are the people who got all As in their A levels, and that they wouldn't exclude anyone who hadn't, as long as they could explain their extenuating circumstances. Well, it was more than half a lifetime ago at that point, and I didn't see the need to explain myself considering I had two (three) Oxford degrees by then, one with distinction in their area of expertise. I was desperate for work, but I found the question creepy in a way I still can't quite put my finger on. So I copped to AAC, but didn't explain why. Obviously, I wasn't hired.
posted by tel3path at 1:58 PM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Should have stuck with Cnut.
posted by busted_crayons at 3:38 PM on June 15, 2015


Its basically how the Ivies kept out the Jews until they figured out the code, and its how the top schools keep out Asians today.

There is apparently an SAT filter that selective schools apply, according to the LA Times:

The last column draws gasps.

Asian Americans, Lee says, are penalized by 50 points — in other words, they had to do that much better to win admission.

posted by theorique at 5:33 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oxbridge colleges are all in competition with each other - they would rather have safe, middle to upper class students who will get a 2.1 than a non-traditional student who might get a first but who also might crash and burn.

Up to a point, perhaps, and the cult of the Norrington Table (along with the introduction of tuition fees) has certainly had an impact on admissions staff in the couple of decades since I was a student. But remember that Oxbridge tutors did not do the milkround and exchange their degrees for highly-sought positions at City finance and consultancy firms, nor did they apply to top City law firms after their LPCs, nor did they sign up as trainees at the BBC or Guardian. That's still a leveller: prospective students are being interviewed by a different kind of Establishment to the interviewers in the City.

A very posh Tory by the name of George Walden who argued a while ago that the UK needed rid of the independent sector because it was socially corrosive: he argued from a position of elitism, but said that elitism shouldn't be bought. I continue to agree with that position.

Elite firms are always going to recruit from the highest-ranked graduates of the highest-ranked universities. The firms are possibly guilty of discrimination only if within that cohort of graduates they are biased to people who went to fee-paying or selective schools ... and the article doesn't say so.

I can only speak from anecdata, but I have a decent amount of anecdata to draw upon. The highest-ranked graduates of the highest-ranked universities are often those who embark upon academic careers, where class matters somewhat less than in the 'business world'. Below that tier, the kind of door-opening social training that comes from a particular kind of upbringing makes a difference, and I get to see the consequences every seven years when I catch up with my contemporaries.

I attended Trinity College, Cambridge and this is absolutely not true.

Well, that's Trinity for you, just as Christ Church, Merton and Magdalen trend a certain way in Oxford. Working-class applicants of talent and promise who inadvertently apply to the wrong college may strike it lucky and get farmed off to colleges that are more tolerant of clever proles.
posted by holgate at 8:49 PM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think part of the problem here is using elitist criteria to recruit for jobs which lack elitist requirements. If you need somebody to ride a bicycle over a tightrope, de-cypher cuneiform, run a marathon in less than 2:20, negotiate with hostage taker or operate on a cerebral aneurysm then you need to recruit from an elite. The mark of having found such a person for such a job is that you will then use them for the specialist function that they are good at.

If you need somebody to run an audit interview, make a compelling presentation, de-cypher a company report, be charming to a potential client or look convincing in a dark suit then you don't need anybody with elite skills. And, to be more honest, what the big accountancy firms are seeking is somebody who can turn their hand to all of these things - the exact opposite of what employers of actual specialist elites do. Notice, also, that the success criteria for the accountancy firm's tasks are much more nebulous than those for the true elite: what would be it really mean to be an elite analyst of company reports and is there any university course in the world that would make one so?

What the accountancy firms are actually operating is good old fashioned nepotism: except the family they both hail and recruit from is defined by education rather than kin. Nepotism is not necessarily a bad thing from a corporate point of view. Over time it can narrow vision create complacency and alienate those (on the inside and outside) who don't fit the mould - but it can provide stability, continuity of approach - and it's easy on HR! What is ethically duplicitous is to claim to have a recruitment policy that is more open than it really is. What kind of client would want to take on an accountancy firm that was so dishonest and so effective at covering up its dishonesty?

Oh, wait.....
posted by rongorongo at 3:18 AM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


NoxAeternum: What puzzles me is why you see that as a bad thing.

Others have given specifics so I'll give a general: you said "unwilling" to describe a situation that also includes "unable". I remember having an oddly similar conversation about price gouging of gasoline during an evacuation where someone justified it by talking about consumers' "willingness to pay". During an evacuation, where customers' ability to choose the fuel economy of their mode of evacuation was at its least flexible, as was their ability to draw on less-liquid resources.

This worldview that relies heavily on "will" to describe the differences between people and behavior is oddly common and smacks of the just-world fallacy.
posted by traveler_ at 3:22 AM on June 16, 2015


the family they both hail and recruit from is defined by education rather than kin

It's also defined by kin, very extended. That's what class is - a hugely extended tribe. They see the value in paying through the nose for the education because it confirms their membership of the tribe.
posted by Grangousier at 5:36 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Others have given specifics so I'll give a general: you said "unwilling" to describe a situation that also includes "unable". I remember having an oddly similar conversation about price gouging of gasoline during an evacuation where someone justified it by talking about consumers' "willingness to pay". During an evacuation, where customers' ability to choose the fuel economy of their mode of evacuation was at its least flexible, as was their ability to draw on less-liquid resources.

This worldview that relies heavily on "will" to describe the differences between people and behavior is oddly common and smacks of the just-world fallacy.


Which comes to defining "unable", methinks. I'd be willing to bet that you're thinking of an individual from an impoverished community who is using education as a means to get out of that strata, and as such does not have the means to do the usual sort of rounding activities that the high socioeconomic strata can. But at the same time, I'd argue that said individuals tend to be well rounded in the way that society operates on them - they have to take the wide view as a survival mechanism.

My sense of the original statement that prompted my response was that it was "unfair" that colleges have ceased looking at candidates purely on academics in favor of more holistic assessments, putting the hyperfocused middle class student who concentrated on study to the detriment of everything else at a disadvantage. Considering the issues that such a narrow focus has, I'm glad to see it being put by the wayside.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:19 AM on June 16, 2015


Yes, despite the annual headlines about the toffs scaring tourists by chundering in the river and punting recklessly during what I understand we are no longer supposed to call Suicide Sunday, Cambridge is largely for power nerds.

The "HR interview" was "what would you say to convince me of your enthusiasm for physics?" (as in, I was explicitly asked that very question) not "tell me about how your adventures pogo-sticking up the Khyber on your gap yah made you a well-rounded person" (and the "technical interview" asked you do actually do some physics). The Redditors routinely tell American applicants that the whole "extra-curriculars" thing is only relevant if whatever you did demonstrates enthusiasm for or ability in your subject, both of which you will need to survive. Ability for the obvious reason, enthusiasm because you will get the shock of it no longer being effortless and meeting people who are better at it than you.

As someone who couldn't have afforded a gap yah and would probably have been too frail to go on one, I'm pretty happy about that.

The thing that I'm told they will do is look at your school and weight things like GCSE results and A level results accordingly (as in, if you are at a bad school, they'll make allowances for that). That's why I was surprised to see the comment about only allowing Canadians who'd done the IB. There could be some syllabuses which just don't teach anything like the material you'd need to even start to cope with the Cambridge courses, but I'd be surprised if that were the entire Canadian state education system. Maybe not, though: the UK's system was getting easier in the 1990s (mine was the last year where complex numbers were in the single maths A level, f'rex, and the Redditors certainly are all like "FFS, do Further Maths if you can" so I'm guessing that reduction in content has carried on).
posted by pw201 at 12:04 PM on June 16, 2015


That's why I was surprised to see the comment about only allowing Canadians who'd done the IB.

Oh, it wasn't that they would only admit Canadians who had done the IB, it was that normally they would only interview Canadians who had done IB or A-levels (the latter of which doesn't exist in Canada in any form). They only interviewed him because he came so highly recommended.

The candidate in question (who deeply impressed his admissions tutor and went on to be admitted to Harvard, UofChicago and a bunch of other places) was told that he clearly had wide-ranging knowledge (and huge enthusiasm, given that he had pursued his subject largely on his own) but he hadn't learned "how to think". Having confirmed with the tutor that he actually did have a strong analytic ability, I can only imagine that "thinking" meant using the same kind of phrasing and language taught in elite UK schools. He didn't have the academic - and priviledged - culture they were looking for. (And there definitely is an academic language and culture - I never quite mastered it myself, as I was more interested in the subject I was studying than studying academic theory and jargon).

I think one of his problems is that he ended up being interviewed by a very low status college; I hadn't even heard of them, and I lived in Cambridge for three years. A prestigious college might have taken a chance on him, but the lesser known colleges can be more classist than the ye olde ones. Fitzwilliam used to be welcoming to working class students (and I know working class now-profs who applied there purposely); now, rumour is that it won't accept pupils who apply directly (at least for history) but instead looks for those turned down one of the more prestigious colleges.

That said, I've also had long discussions with college fellows who actually conduct the admissions interviews - and they will freely admit (albeit off the record) that they are biased in favour of pupils from certain secondary schools - mostly elite independent and selective state schools that draw heavily from the middle class (or upper middle class in North American terms). If they've had "good students" from that school before, that's like a thumb on the scale for admissions - they are more likely to interview you and, compared to a similar candidate from an unknown school, more likely to admit you. After all, you're more of a known quantity.

The fellows in question would never admit how this process leads to systematic class discrimination. They think of it as just making sure they bring in the solidest students - and, when you consider issues like family stability, social skills, etc, they probably are. But it is one of the major steps that leads to an elite who all come from the middle & upper classes and who have a blinkered existence.
posted by jb at 1:46 PM on June 16, 2015


The thing that I'm told they will do is look at your school and weight things like GCSE results and A level results accordingly (as in, if you are at a bad school, they'll make allowances for that).

According to the fellows I talked to, the "allowances" made for pupils from bad schools is that they are less likely to interview them, on the assumption that their worse preparation meant they couldn't handle Oxbridge.
posted by jb at 1:48 PM on June 16, 2015


Tthe Graun's sitting in on Churchill's NatSci admissions panel is interesting: they certainly know which are the good schools, but the Guardian claims they are harder on people from them, because they should be able to do more. My own experience is a single anecdote from 20 years ago (prestigious state school, straight As at A Level and almost all but one GCSEs, got in to Churchill), so I'm not sure it counts for much.

The flags system described is there to accomplish the stuff described by the Redditors, making sure the people making the decisions know the personal circumstances of the candidates. According to the article, most applicants were interviewed, with a fifth rejected without an interview. I would expect flagged applicants to be more likely to get an interview, no?

No idea what Fitz does, though I'm a bit surprised if it's substantially different from Churchill, as they're both modern colleges.
posted by pw201 at 7:02 AM on June 17, 2015


Yep, in the comments: Anyone with any flags is automatically selected for interview.
posted by pw201 at 7:17 AM on June 17, 2015


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