There is so much talent wasted, so many silenced
November 16, 2018 2:30 AM   Subscribe

Back of the Class: Julia Bell recalls her admission interview for Oxford University [TLS]: "I wonder now about all the other kids like me, the ones at odd angles, the queer and working class and black, or even just Northern, or Welsh, or provincial. This is not a place for them, however loudly they might be knocking on the door." Julia Bell writes about her 1988 interview for admission to Jesus College, Oxford University, touching upon class, elitism, social control and how the mind reacts in high-pressure situations. In response other people have shared similar experiences on twitter.

"In that interview I was subject to the exertion of all sorts of power, not just a discursive one. It felt like a kind of sadistic hazing. To ensure that the powerful will not be the most noble or the most knowledgeable or the most intelligent, but rather those most able to conquer their dislocation, their nerves, those who believe that they are worth it, that they already own it. The game did not, nor will it ever, belong to a vicar’s daughter from Wales, who is a bit queer.

The other vicar’s daughter, the one I might have been in a more Anglican, English environment, is now our Prime Minister, toiling at the top of politics to keep the establishment in power. To defend the men of her class

Bell also notes a report stating that one in four Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black student each year between 2015 and 2017. In 2017 Oxford admitted more students from Westminster school than black students.
posted by ocular shenanigans (40 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I had my interview at Jesus (Oxford) in 1997 (and I'm not the only mefite who was there). I think things had changed a bit by then, and have probably continued to change. I was aware that at that time the interviewing was more like that for some subjects than mine. Candidates in some areas were interviewed by the head of the college in quite non-subject specific ways. I only had very subject specific interviews from the tutors in that area.

Looking back, my physics interviews (which although I'd come from state schooling I was pretty well prepared for) didn't seem to me to be any worse than a lot of commonplace job interviews I hear about these days, and were reasonably accommodating for people from different backgrounds I think. I think the situation has only improved, and tutors really don't want to miss out on a good candidate from a background that has left them less prepared.

I'm cautious of being too critical since I know that there are some people that work really hard for quite a while on improving access to these places, and blanket criticism can't be terribly motivating for them. But there's pretty indisputably an awful lot of work to do.
posted by edd at 2:49 AM on November 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

My recollection of interviewing at Wadham in 2010 was of inhospitality and disinterest. A luxuriously appointed tutor's office, two of them on a gorgeous sofa, me extremely nervous and uncertain, and them not extending any kind of limb to me as I floundered and reached out for some guidance. I hadn't gone to the right school and had the right coaching, so I was doomed to fail. I very much identified with the ordeal the writer of the article went through, and this was over 20 years later! (To be fair, my second interviewer was much more personable, but I am still glad I ended up at a university where the education was not only excellent but also kind, generous and forward-thinking).

I'd rather we stopped considering Oxbridge as the pinnacle of university education and anything else as second-best. It simply isn't true. As an access-point to power, yes, Oxford and Cambridge have the advantage, but this is not the only justification for education.

If we are talking about power, then perhaps, as well as lamenting these gatekeepers for keeping certain kinds of people away from this in-road to it, we could be taking on the more meaningful and much more difficult task of dismantling the prevailing class system and its perpetuation by schools like Westminster and Eton (and the whole private-state divide), and trying to make education more equal and political potential less founded on wealth and heritage. Admission statistics for Oxford are a symptom, not the cause of the problem.
posted by mymbleth at 3:38 AM on November 16, 2018 [25 favorites]

In Ireland, college admission is anonymous - you study seven or eight subjects for two years and do exams (the Leaving Certificate) and get a points score based on your six best subjects. You apply for a course at a college, and if the course has 60 places, it's offered to the 60 people who got the highest points out of those who applied.

It's fairly brutal, but this son of a factory worker would take it over the system described in TFA any day. I work in finance now, and I think it's no coincidence that our Dublin office is noticeably more diverse than our London one.
posted by kersplunk at 3:59 AM on November 16, 2018 [39 favorites]

I think that system would potentially be worse due to a lack of flexibility. It sounds like there's no way for a tutor to make allowances from someone with a less intensively coached background, and private schools would just divert that extra energy from coaching for interviews to coaching for exams and still leave them with a disproportionate advantage with no possibility of a correction mechanism.
posted by edd at 4:04 AM on November 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

The Irish system does lead to a points race. There's a sizeable ecoystem of private grind schools aimed at getting students into third level education, so the system is 'gamed' by students/families who can afford extra tuition and exam coaching, which definitely has a very strong class element.

That said, it lacks that particular reinforcement of classism that the interview system brings and that a lot of folks confirm was still in place more recently than 1997. The linked statistics suggest to me that if the interviews are meant to act as a means of making allowances, they're doing a pretty awful job. I can't point to equivalent statistics for Irish universities but I'd be very surprised if they were anywhere near as bad as the ones in the linked Guardian article. Not to put down the people inside the system who are trying to improve access but it looks like they're doing so in face of wider institutional indifference.

I agree with mymbleth that the problem is bigger than Oxbridge admissions itself though, it's a systematic issue in British education.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 4:29 AM on November 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

I wouldn't want to suggest interviews are meant to provide a way for making allowances - I wouldn't be at all surprised if at times they've been kept as a primary gatekeeper for providing a way to do the exact opposite, and provide a means of selection where admissions tutors don't have to justify their choices.

I'm not sure what the best method or combination of methods is but I'd be more inclined to at least a component of interviews with quite a strong degree of oversight of the interviewers to make them less intimidating experiences. A lot of the other universities interview candidates too, just usually not in such an unpleasant manner as you read about at times from Oxbridge. Exam results that don't afford much flexibility in their use in selection and provide the entirety of the weighting don't seem to be a brilliant idea.

The problem with the interviews isn't the fundamental method versus doing it by written test, but the culture of intimidation or classism in how the interviews are done?

There is indeed a systematic issue - it's not just the university selection procedure itself, but some schools actively discouraging some people from applying, parents considering getting into Oxbridge the be-all-and-end-all which it obviously isn't, and that playing also into the private schools going to such lengths to get candidates to succeed in applying.
posted by edd at 4:51 AM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I never interviewed for Oxbridge - they did/still refuse to do the standard ucas application process. They have their own much earlier deadline and different process (need to choose a college?), so yes nothing to stop working class state school applicants in theory but in practice it's an artifical barrier they put in the way that make it clear it is only for an elite. I was aware it was an option for me to apply but also that the effort in doing so was unlikely to be successful. Only now as an adult am I aware what a vast difference in makes in eligibility to careers / public life.

A whole industry of consultants has sprung up to assist rich parents with the Oxbridge application process to give them the edge whereas if the universities were serious about diversity in intake they would make it just another a standard choice on the ucas form.
posted by JonB at 5:04 AM on November 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm from around Oxford, and gatecrashed college parties with people I was at school with who were at mostly New College. The school in question was technically a comprehensive school - Lord Williams's in Thame - but my experience of that was that the people who were of value to them were the handful who got in to Oxbridge, then the ones who got into decent universities, then smiling indulgently at the slackers who got in to lesser universities and polytechnics and the bulk of the pupils who just did exams or not even that were a penance the school had to put up with in order to support the golden handful.

I'm sure they didn't see it that way, but at that time they were operating two lower schools (ages 11-14-ish), one for the nice middle-class children and the other for the oiks like me.

It also had a boarding house - associate with the nice lower school - where the sons of posh people on their uppers and the lower end of the officer class were deposited during term time. So this was a comprehensive school with a sizeable cadre of public schoolboys embedded in it. They were all put in the same house (you've read Harry Potter, you get the house system), which consequently without fail won all the sports prizes.

In my case I realise now that there's something in the make-up of my brain that means I find it very difficult to extract information from books or coherently write more than a blog entry (or legibly write anything at all), but at the time they used the simpler tripartite taxonomy of Good, Lazy and Just Thick. I was, obviously, inevitably Lazy no matter how much effort I expended, so it made more sense to expend less effort.

When I decided to apply to do an Art foundation course (on the grounds that there would be a lot less paperwork involved), my English teacher decided that since the only outcome of value to a young person was to go to University, and since I was obviously Capable But Lazy roused the school and my parents to put pressure on me to give that up and do the right thing. I failed my A levels twice (or at least got grades above the fail level but low enough that they were useless in the competitive application system of the early 1980s) after which I was told that I might as well apply for foundation course now. They had done their best, apparently, I was now my own problem. Consequently I spent my nineteenth year effectively alone, and actually went mad. They had different strategies for addressing such things in the 1980s - either ignoring the fact that there was anything wrong or, if you were displaying symptoms that couldn't be ignored, pretending that you simply didn't exist at all.

Anyway, I did my foundation course (which was terrible in a completely different way, and yes I've considered the possibility that it was just me, but I've checked with my contemporaries and it wasn't) and then went to apply to different BA courses, and the interviewers used similar strategies to the ones in the article, but since this was the art school system and the 1980s, they made it clear that however interested you might have been in film-making, painting, sculpture or even performance art, the only thing of value was Politics, and that if you weren't interested in Politics (or at least prepared to pretend to be) your enthusiasm for what the course was nominally there to teach was irrelevant. Politics, given the time and the place, meant left-wing politics (just as, in a sense, Oxbridge believes the only thing of value is right wing politics and the cossetting of the elite), but it wouldn't need to. But it did. Certainly, in the more than thirty years since then, no matter how much I've agreed with its critiques, its proposals and the things it stands for in general, I've always hated the left as much as I've hated the right.

In any case, all these structures (and the Fine Art system has long been dismantled as far as I can tell, apart from a rump which seems to be purely intended to ... uh ... cosset the less academic elite, which is a shame because it was, Politics or not, the best all-round education available) exist for reasons other than the development of the individuals who pass through them and more for the maintenance of the structures themselves. Any education system which doesn't accept that each individual has a best outcome that may or may not fit with its prejudices and expectations, and doesn't work to achieve all those best outcomes is not fit for purpose. Which means, as far as I can tell, any education system.

This was a system that was not intended to develop individuals, but designed to identify those who weren't already on application the types of people the system valued and exclude them.

So, in conclusion, a bit of a rant, sorry. Please get back to discussing the article, which it seems set me off a bit. I'll go and do deep breathing into a paper bag somewhere for a bit.

As you were.
posted by Grangousier at 5:06 AM on November 16, 2018 [25 favorites]

Oh, the reason I mentioned I was from the Oxford area is that it's where I met a lot of young men, particularly, who when introduced would ask what school you went to. I kind of knew why they were asking at the time, but it did seem like a bizarre non-sequiteur of a question at the time, and I found it amusing. The fact that now they are running the fucking country while not having developed psychologically or socially in the intervening decades is less of a joke.

And... breathe.
posted by Grangousier at 5:12 AM on November 16, 2018 [21 favorites]

So I was in a very similar position in 1994, a naïve, shy, insular only child of a pharmacist from a nice comprehensive on the South Coast, passionately in love with Eng Lit, who chose to interview for a place at Christ’s because it looked the oldest and most beautiful. (I also applied to Hull just because Philip Larkin had worked there.) Of course, Dad came with me to the interview because he was equally naïve about how things worked, but as he steered me (wearing a frumpy black jumper and long skirt that I thought made me look serious) through the Cambridge lanes I got palpably taken over by Imposter Syndrome.

Every single person I passed, I thought, knows more than me about everything. They’re in Cambridge. They have ACHIEVED. The guy picking up sweet wrappers from the pavement? – even to work as a dustman in Cambridge, I thought, required an ivory tower sensibility to properly appreciate the beauty around you. Anyway, there was no entrance essay, just an interview, and the guy passed me a Shakespeare sonnet (I hadn’t done sonnets.) The sonnet was ironic – I had all kinds of thoughts about irony but couldn’t express them, of course. A few weeks later I got a letter through from the college – I took it, unopened, to the nearest library, scribbled 20 pages of my feelings about if I didn’t get in, opened it, found out I had gone into clearing, but never heard anything more.

Two of the other universities I applied to automatically turned me down as a result of the Cambridge no-go; I interviewed for one of the others but hated the rain and the stained concrete and didn’t try at all. I got in anyway and did pretty well and met my future husband so yay. But still; the first thing I did when opening the article was to scroll right down to the bottom to see if the author actually got in. When I found she didn’t, I felt that the rest of the article was safe to read. Mmm, it still rankles.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 5:53 AM on November 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

The linked statistics suggest to me that if the interviews are meant to act as a means of making allowances, they're doing a pretty awful job.

A friend tutored a kid from Canada for an Oxbridge interview within the past five years, and had a similar experience as the author of the article: brilliant, excellent written work (which is, after all, what actually matters in humanities scholarship), but something about the interview made them change their minds. We don't know exactly what happened but my friend was told that the kid didn't pass the interview because he "wasn't the right kind of person" for their college. He was white, middle-class (by Canadian standards) but culturally different or maybe just a bit weird (as you'd expect from a kid from a rural school who was largely self-taught and knew more in the subject than I did after university).

Interviews are all about homophilly - the love of people like yourself.

(Kid went to Harvard instead, because "they like that sort of person".)
posted by jb at 6:05 AM on November 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I never interviewed for Oxbridge - they did/still refuse to do the standard ucas application process. They have their own much earlier deadline and different process (need to choose a college?), so yes nothing to stop working class state school applicants in theory but in practice it's an artifical barrier they put in the way that make it clear it is only for an elite.

When I was doing UCAS in 2002 for 2003 entry, Oxford and Cambridge were via UCAS but you could only apply to one college between them out of your application slots. The application deadline was however earlier if your UCAS form included any Oxford or Cambridge colleges or medicine/dentistry/veterinary course which may have caught some people out.

Apart from the environment being so different as to intimidate, I understand that state schools have less of a focus on discussion of material in a verbal form. Of course that's logical, it was pointed out above that humanities scholarship is all written. Most independent schools on the other hand, place a great emphasis on discussion and speaking. From reading a pre-written essay out loud to having to defend aspects of it when questioned by a teacher, there's just much more preparation for thinking and speaking under pressure. It's brilliant preparation for politics but pretty much useless for anything else... except passing interviews.
posted by atrazine at 6:40 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

My teachers all expected me to apply to Cambridge, so were duly appalled when I took one look at the applications process and the institutional bullshit (my parents had done well for themselves but our Northern working-class roots run deep) and hauled myself off to Manchester instead. No regrets.

(a curious coda is that I now work in Cambridge, and alongside a large number of Cambridge alumni, and the University's long tail is evident even now, twenty years on, when people make the assumption that, because I'm working in a role in Cambridge that a lot of Cambridge grads end up in, I must also be One Of Them. There's always a moment of confusion and tension when they ask which college I went to and I say "John Owens")
posted by parm at 6:46 AM on November 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

My experience is of Cambridge, and of Mathematics, and I can echo what someone said above about some subjects interviewing differently than others: for various reasons I had academic interviews at two colleges, and at both I was basically given an exam and then asked to work through/extend some of the stuff I found difficult in the interview.

I had lots of friends who studied History and English, and my impression is that the day-to-day business of studying those and similar subjects is not so dissimilar to the interview process, at least at the beginning: you visit the rooms of an academic, having tried your best to grapple with a topic, and receive something close to their undiluted opinion of you and your work. This is awful, of course, and I mention it to point out that the problems go far beyond the interview. Those giving the interview almost certainly justify it to themselves by the (true) fact that anyone unable to operate in that environment will likely not make it through the degree. Most of whom will not go on to wonder if this is really how we should be educating 18-19 year olds.
posted by Omission at 6:49 AM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

(also, had I gone to Cambridge, I'm pretty sure I would have ended up being even more insufferable a person than I already am, so there's that, too)
posted by parm at 6:58 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The problem with the interviews isn't the fundamental method versus doing it by written test, but the culture of intimidation or classism in how the interviews are done?

It's part of the problem but not the whole problem. I interviewed in 1998 for a pure science subject and I didn't have such an intimidating setup - my two initial interviewers sat across a table from me and asked reasonable, appropriate fact-based questions (a key point, science unlike art doesn't rely on holding and defending opinions against the interviewer which must be terrifying) that I should have been capable of at least partially answering and I completely froze. I got a really basic fact wrong, then realised immediately after that I had which put me even more on edge than I had been to start with and I fluffed the rest of the interview.

I'm English, not northern, solidly middle class, I read as posh to many people and as a teenager I was almost obnoxiously confident academically. BUT I went to a very middling state school that was delighted to have me apply to Oxbridge but did nothing to help including no interview prep. Neither of my parents went to university at all and the general attitude of both adults and peers was that Oxbridge was an unattainable dream so I arrived set up to be intimidated. So much of the article range very very true for me, the comparison with confident people from posh schools to whom the process was expected and nowhere near as intimidating, the waiting around in the common room for because rather than give you one set interview appointment Oxbridge could and would demand three full days of your time to wait around for their whims, the anxious phone call home (although my mum was so concerned about how upset I sounded she urged me to call whoever I felt like and I maxed out the payphone card attached to my parent's phone bill at £20).

I actually did get in. I was offered a second interview at another college ( again, yay for science courses and their unpopular nature) and by that point I was so furious about the arrogance with which I'd been kept waiting around that I no longer wanted to get in, wasn't at all nervous and did much better. I did go and I got an excellent academic education which has benefitted my career since and also spent enough time with very posh people and very intelligent that now I'm not easily intimidated by anyone (this has also benefited my career). But if I'd been applying for an arts subject I wouldn't have stood a chance and it would have had nothing to do with my academic ability.

I know some people are working hard on outreach effort but as far as I know the interview system hasn't changed. Perhaps interviews should be held in more neutral locations outside the colleges and more local to candidates.
posted by *becca* at 7:08 AM on November 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't want to suggest interviews are meant to provide a way for making allowances

On the contrary - that’s exactly how they’re justified.

Oxbridge gets a ton of applicants (something like a 5:1 applicant to place ratio IIRC) and they interview (almost?) all of them. Most of those applications are capable of getting straight As at A-level, so raw exam results are not sufficient to distinguish between them (and the actual results aren't available as due to the tight timetable university interviews happen in December before the A-level exams are sat. Yes this is dumb, but it’s not within Oxbridge’s power to change by themselves). The interview is that distinguishing factor.
posted by pharm at 7:45 AM on November 16, 2018

What I meant by that was that I wasn't trying to suggest that originally they were a means by which the universities could make decisions that encouraged diversity and students from less well off backgrounds or that they continued to be justified as such. I expect if you asked the powers that be there how they justify them they'd use exactly those arguments of needing more distinguishing power than A-levels, but you're unlikely to find anyone claiming they have always been there as a way of admitting more state school or ethnic minority applicants.
posted by edd at 7:56 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

IIRC, based on the applications actually made, the Oxbridge interview system is biased in favour of state school and lower income applications.

From inside Oxbridge the perception is that we (I include myself as an Oxbridge person) simply cannot get potential state school / lower income applicants to apply in the kind of numbers that they ought to given the raw A-level results (whether adjusted for schooling or not). This a source of endless frustration & no small amount of wailing internally but nobody has come up with a good solution, despite the many days and hours put into outreach by dedicated academics in their own time. Allocation by lottery might work, but then you’d need an academic cut-off and we know the public schools are the best at that particular game already.
posted by pharm at 8:15 AM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Looking at the state/private divide for applications to Oxford in 2017, of the applicants from the state sector 21.6% got offers. From the private sector 27.1% got offers. So I'm not sure that justifies it having a clear bias to the state sector? That's admittedly just one year for one of the two universities and doesn't look at applications from a low income background.

posted by edd at 8:33 AM on November 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Cam admission statistics for 2017.

Looking at the numbers, 30% of state school applicants got offers vs 33% public school. But the state school figures there include grammar schools. 28% of Comprehensive applicants got offers.

(My personal impression has been that Cambridge is somewhat more egalitarian than Oxford. Interesting to see that in the figures.)
posted by pharm at 9:04 AM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

simply cannot get potential state school / lower income applicants to apply in the kind of numbers that they ought to given the raw A-level results (whether adjusted for schooling or not). This a source of endless frustration & no small amount of wailing internally but nobody has come up with a good solution, despite the many days and hours put into outreach by dedicated academics in their own time.

I think some of the factors which are potentially remediable have been addressed on this thread. The much earlier deadline, option to pick a college (although that isn't mandatory) and requirement to spend 2 - 3 days hanging around waiting to be interviewed all add extra complications and communicate "special, elite, don't even think you could be worthy" to nervous candidates, especially those who don't have any mentors to tell them they are worthy and should apply.

I think more centralisation and oversight of the admissions wouldn't be a terrible thing. As jb pointed out upthread, interviews give interviewers plenty of licence to pick for "fit". This can absolutely be used for good to give leeway to bright non-traditional candidates who might perform more poorly on paper but it can also be used to select for homogeneity and the very small numbers for most subjects and colleges make any kind of statistical checking on that very unreliable.
posted by *becca* at 9:07 AM on November 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have very slightly mixed feelings in that I think the interview can give you another, valid angle on the candidate's academic ability, but there's just no way to clear away the extraneous factors that interfere with that for people not from the standard background. When I was applying to college, I would've argued anything with anyone despite being from a very very lower-middle-class/working class background and having spent the bulk of my education in a bad (U.S.) public school system. I guess I was just born stubborn. So I wouldn't have been intimidated the way that many of my cohort might be have been. But I'm sure that, had I applied to an Oxford or Cambridge college, my slightly wild-eyed manner, which would have read as charmingly eccentric in an Eton white boy with the proper accent, would have been profoundly offputting to my interviewers in an American girl with a bad haircut and cheap clothes. Even in the U.S., looking back, I think I often just barely managed to achieve loudly enough to overcome being "a poor fit."
posted by praemunire at 9:18 AM on November 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Random anecdote that I think illustrates perception in state schools: On A level results night a lad in my year (who'd known me at our very small primary school so he knew I was bright) asked me as a joke whether I was going to Oxford or Cambridge. When I answered Oxford he was literally speechless. Not because he thought I personally wasn't good enough to go but because it hadn't seemed possible to him that anyone from our school would be going (and this wasn't some inner city slum school, it was just very very middle of the road).
posted by *becca* at 9:19 AM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can't get rid of the earlier applications without also getting rid of the interviews. So if you’re going to get rid of the interviews there needs to be an alternative. Which will also be subject to being gamed by pushy public schools applicants :(
posted by pharm at 9:20 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is that really the case? The standard UCAS deadline is mid-January which is almost 9 months before the point at which the course is going to start, is it really impossible without the extra 3 months? I don't know much about university admissions other than having been on the receiving end and maybe it is more complicated than I think and it is necessary but it seems like a long time to me.
posted by *becca* at 9:40 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Though I have nothing near the sort of detailled memory from mine (mid-eighties, at Balliol), as an outlier - foreigner (just enough: white European), from a no-name school and with a chequered academic record, first in my family to attempt a university degree, and, absent any specific prep or cultural conditioning for Oxbridge, with no real sense of what I was getting myself into - I remember my interview as a curious trip to a picture-book place, where I had a couple of relaxed, engaging conversations (with the Philosophy and German tutors) about things I was just beginning to be sufficiently passionate about that I could put together some attempts at reasoning, which I guess satisfied their expectations. At the time, for some reason I put a lot of trust in the largeish, wool-lined, strangely yellow leather gloves I had just been given for my birthday, which I placed strategically to one side at the interviews. If anything I remember feeling intimidated by the hundreds of students that were everywhere, all people it seemed a major challenge to actually get to know. (Turns out, it wasn't.)

This is just to say that coming from outside the pre-destined cultural framework, I think, was actually helpful in my case, blinding me to what would otherwise have registered more as typically intimidating set-ups. I'm aware I likely presented as unthreateningly different, so there was perhaps a mutual interest to avoid any intimidation game. With hindsight, there are certainly a million things wrong with the place, with the whole gist and point of the place - but it definitely also holds moments (and people) of wonder.
posted by progosk at 9:46 AM on November 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I can ask those currently involved in the process when I get a chance, but presumably offers need to go out around the same time as other Universities make offers, otherwise students will be left hanging. A wholesale re-organisation of the admissions system has been mooted in the past, moving applications after A-level results so that the whole 'provisional offer' thing could go in the bin but it as far as I know it never went anywhere.
posted by pharm at 9:47 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

That's interesting. When I applied timelines seemed to vary pretty widely across universities - I assume some reviewed applications as they came in and sent out offers to definite yes candidates and others wait for the full batch. I had several offer letters before the main UCAS deadline was closed and the Oxford letter came in after almost all the others (obviously took longer due to the interview process) but still before the main UCAS deadline. It wasn't a problem as I didn't have to confirm a choice until (IIRC) April. I can see that timelines would be tighter but as an applicant it seems doable but maybe not from behind the scenes. Again though my unpopular science subject may be a different ball game to the likes of English and History which get many more applicants per place across all universities.

I'm aware of the mooted full reorganisation and I think it could be good for students but obviously needs to work for and take account of the whole system not just Oxbridge.

With hindsight, there are certainly a million things wrong with the place, with the whole gist and point of the place - but it definitely also holds moments (and people) of wonder.

This is very true and beautifully expressed. Going changed my life in all sorts of ways and overall I'm glad that I did. This thread has been very thought provoking.
posted by *becca* at 10:20 AM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think more centralisation and oversight of the admissions wouldn't be a terrible thing. As jb pointed out upthread, interviews give interviewers plenty of licence to pick for "fit". This can absolutely be used for good to give leeway to bright non-traditional candidates who might perform more poorly on paper but it can also be used to select for homogeneity and the very small numbers for most subjects and colleges make any kind of statistical checking on that very unreliable.

So I was chatting with someone who has taught at Oxbridge relatively recently (~10 years ago) and had many discussions with faculty members who actually sit on these interviews.

There is another factor at play here, other than prejudice (though prejudice - class, race, cultural - certainly is there). There is also risk-aversion. What I didn't realise from outside the system (and he explained) is that all Oxbridge colleges are competing with themselves on the league tables of exam results - and, as it happens, for your League Table standing, it's safer to admit students who are just about guarenteed to get a high second-class degrees (aka 2.1 - a B+/A-, to translate into North American grading), than a brilliant but unusual student who might get a first class degree, but also who might get a 2.2 or even a third.

This plays out in a number of ways:

Imaginative weirdos are not a good bet (regardless of background): Students who do what examiners expect and do it well get a 2.1; students who do what examiners don't expect could get a 1, but also could get a 3 (even if they do it well - but it's not expected and the examiners often themselves lack imagination).

Students from non-traditional backgrounds are also risky: they (obviously) have to be extremely bright and talented to have achieved without the same supports as more privilege students. But they also may have a rougher time after admittance - less preparation for the work (talent isn't the same as skill), more socio-economic challenges (stress, family demands, etc.) - and also the stress of being different (working class and/or non-white, not fitting in, not being able to afford to socialize with other students). So they are once again maybe more likely to get a 1st (because they are so much brighter), but also more likely to get a 2.2 or 3.

Faculty members at Oxbridge who oversee admittance will talk about putting the 'thumb on the scale' for candidates - but not for disadvantaged candidates. They actually will rate a candidate a bit better if they come from a school which has historically sent students who did well in the past. This could be an independent school or an excellent state school - but obviously, it continues the bias in favour of the established (and mostly white) upper classes.


I've been thinking on and off about about university admission for the last 15 years or so. My SO and I have been students at non-selective universities (as undergrads) and selective universities (as graduate students), and he's taught at at selective (Oxbridge, Ivy League) and non-selective universities. I've also long followed the debates about equity, race and class in tertiary education in the US and the UK (since class structure was one of my areas of research in graduate school).

Years ago, I came to the conclusion that there is no way to ensure equity in higher education so long as there are a few selective universities where admittance makes a bigger difference in your career options than what you do while at that university. So long as the prestigious and powerful professions - especially government, politics and the media, which are less about training and more about connections - recruit from only a few places, those who have power will do whatever they can to get their children into those institutions, regardless of what it means for the admittance of those without power or really the point of the institution (which should be scholarship - or, if we're being old-school - training clergy for the priesthood).

And then you have this vicious circle: the powerful go to elite institutions - and the powerful are recruited from elite institutions - and also to control elite institutions (check out the undergraduate degrees of faculty at Oxbridge, and you'll find them not at all representative of academia) - it's incestuous and homogeneous, and then they paper it over as "meritocracy". (There are cracks, of course - and I'm sure that there will always be people in those institutions who don't come from certain backgrounds, especially in the sciences and in graduate studies. But neither of those groups go on to dominate the powers-that-be).

I think the only way to actually change this system is to actually re-write it. If you want to have more equitable access to the halls of scholarship and/or power, then you have to just MAKE MORE PATHS. You have to massively increase the size of your elite institutions while also lifting up all other institutions. You have to set up a situation more like what you have in Canada or Australia or NZ, where the elite might still send their children to Oxbridge/the Ivy League, but no one or two local universities stand out among the rest. I mean, Toronto may claim to be one of the best universities in Canada (and it is), but it also has 50,000+ undergrads and anyone with good grades can get in.

We have to stop trying to fix the pipeline to power, we should just break it down entirely.

Also, probably have a socialist revolution or something.
posted by jb at 10:31 AM on November 16, 2018 [10 favorites]

And this is before we even get to the subject of PPE - Politics, Philosophy and Economics. It could be just jealousy on my part, and some of my friends did study it, so sorry to them, but as far as I can tell it's a powerful education in industrial strength bullshitting, and the fact that a disproportionate number of our ruling class studied it might have something to do with the terrible mess we find ourselves in.
posted by Grangousier at 10:46 AM on November 16, 2018 [11 favorites]

And yes, jb, burn it all down. Build something better.

I don't say that about many things, but our education system, definitely.
posted by Grangousier at 10:46 AM on November 16, 2018

PPE is a disgrace: it’s a training ground for shallow bullshitters. Unfortunately it’s immensely effective at turning out people who go on to do well in politics (Cart or horse? Who knows, but the results are plain to see :( )
posted by pharm at 10:55 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

selective universities where admittance makes a bigger difference in your career options than what you do while at that university

I've said this before but one of the ideas popular with Marginal Revolution Libertarian types that I actually do believe in is the idea that the value of a degree from a selective university comes more from proving that you could get in than from anything they teach you. The pieces fit so well - what does it take to get in? Well, you can show that you are exceptionally smart or hard working, or show that you already have money and connections, or (these days) you can be from a less traditional background but have a really good story...

And the thing about this is that it means exclusivity is its own reward for universities. Just showing that < 10% acceptance rate is advertising. Not to mention that preselecting students who are likely to be "notables" lets the school pretend they had everything to do with it down the line. And little of this, meanwhile, has much to do with whether students are offered the best education for where they're at.
posted by atoxyl at 11:12 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I went skiing on vacation from college, and had a group lesson with a guy my age who tripled majored in Politics Philosophy and Economics. To my ears that sounded amazing and absurd and inspiring. So he must have been from this schooling system, right? Slightly aloof, private school mannerisms, British accent.

The toxicity of elite institutions aside, a part of me envies that intellectually privileged world that some people still get to enjoy. But as a leftist, I also think that you can't fix something that's fundamentally and profoundly broken.
posted by polymodus at 12:48 PM on November 16, 2018

If I'd've known thinkpieces on the Oxbridge interview were the thing, I'd've posted mine (Cambridge, Natural Sciences, 1994 entry, educated entirely in the state system). Admittedly, Julia Bell writes better than I do.

To me, while I was aware of the upper class twits, the trick was realising that there was a niche for pretty much everyone, though you might need to venture out of your college and into the wider university to find it. That's probably why there are so many student societies.

Last time we talked about this, I pointed to an interesting comment from an interviewer, on this article about Churchill College's admissions process. Both are worth a read.

It's also worth pointing out that the UK university experience seems very different from the American one, from my extensive knowledge of the US system gained from watching Season 4 of Buffy. No fraternities or credits or majors and minors here. That goes for admissions too: "extra-curriculars" seem really important for elite universities in the US, but pretty much the only thing Cambridge asked about was science.
posted by pw201 at 2:48 PM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

polymodus: That’s what PPE is - Politics, Philosophy and Economics. It sounds good on paper, but in reality it gives its students a shallow appreciation of each topic without the depth that would bring true understanding, either of the flaws that each discipline possesses or the many points of view that they contain. At the same time it teaches them to speak and write as if they understand everything. It’s a fantastic preparation for modern politics sadly.
posted by pharm at 3:44 PM on November 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I interviewed at Corpus Christi in the winter of '95/'96. I was 16, and I came from an incredibly deprived area, a background of free school meals and unemployment, an area where people ate Fray Bentos pies that come in a tin. I had clothes that didn't fit and came from charity shops. I didn't always have a winter coat. I didn't know any adults with office jobs or any adult women with jobs at all, besides our teachers. I didn't know what people would wear at an interview and I couldn't have afforded it in any case on my 50p/week pocket money, even if I could have found a shop that sold such things, laughably unsuitable for any other activity I might likely engage in. By that time I did own a winter coat, but I didn't take it with me despite the freezing temperatures, because I knew enough to figure out that this back alley market stall quality outerwear would do me no favours.

I came from a sixth form college that was an A-level factory - there were hundreds of us, nobody knew or cared whether we attended our lectures or whether we were ok or what we were thinking of doing next, they just pointed us at the big room full of university prospectuses and a pile of UCAS forms. A lot of the lecturers were burned out, and our second year law lecturer discovered with dismay that the first year lecturer had taught us from ten year old material that didn't match the current curriculum at all.

I don't know how I even afforded the train fare to Oxford, but I did. I remember the big drafty student room they put me in, looking over a quadrangle, with a door onto a little creaky wonky staircase, and a cleaner, only they called the cleaners "scouts". I couldn't afford to rent any of the student rooms in Oxford, a fact that I was lucky to figure out for myself, because nobody else would have told me. I also couldn't afford to socialise with any of the people I met, who thought that buying a couple of pints or going out for a meal was a plausible regular social activity.

At Corpus Christi, meals are held in the Hogwarts dining hall (OK, it's not the real Hogwarts - that is directly next door). The walls are full of oil paintings of smug old white men. Nobody mentioned that you shouldn't wear a short skirt if you wanted to clamber onto the long packed benches in a decent manner. When they explained that most of the students bought a yearly pass to eat their meals in that dining hall, they didn't mention that the price of it was unaffordable on a poor student's income.

The question of whether a queer person might fit in at Oxford never arose in my mind: this was the era of Section 28 and queer people did not exist so this was not a thing to think about; my £3 man's haircut was just another in the long list of ways I obviously did not fit in.

In the interview they asked me: who should be held responsible, if a man goes into the desert, and person A replaces the contents of his water bottle with something undrinkable, and person B then pokes a hole in the water bottle, and the man dies for lack of water? I was just irritated at this abstract discussion of some murderous assholes and didn't see the point.

Somehow I got an offer of AAB out of this experience. By that time, I fully understood that Oxford was not for people like me, but at the time I couldn't manage to articulate why. I pulled back on studying and semi-deliberately came out of college with BBCCC instead of that AAB, to make sure nobody would expect me to go.

I do not regret that for one minute.
posted by quacks like a duck at 7:50 AM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am surprised that Oxford and Cambridge, but Oxford in particular, haven't attempted to disown so many of their alumni who went into politics and are directly related - both Labour *and* Tory, to the current useless state of British politics.

There is no greater illustration of how empty the meaning of an Oxbridge education is than of Dominic Rabb, a man according to wikipedia who has a degree from Cambridge and a masters from Oxford, yet is so fucking stupid that he can't work out - for himself - the importance of the Dover-Calais crossing to the UK economy.

But really, so many of them quite comfortably demonstrate how an Oxbridge education, like that of a private education is good really only for two things:
1. Outrageous self-confidence.
2. Networking.

The current crop of useless ex-Oxbridge politicians make it clear that Oxbridge isn't that good for you know, actual education, broadening the mind, and greater self-awareness.
posted by rolandroland at 7:53 AM on November 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

I didn't expect reading the article would be as painful as it was. I interviewed at Cambridge in the early 80's. It was obvious that I didn't fit. I had no expectations of getting in, though, nor any interest in it - I was doing this for other people, not for myself. So I didn't worry about the process, instead just treating it as an experience.

But I did get in - and I was awarded the open scholarship.

I lasted a year and then dropped out; it was the loneliest and most miserable year of my life.

parm: well done having the balls to turn them down. For me, there were too many vested interests and too many other people involved; my 18 year old self never had that option. It took me most of the intervening 30+ years to accept that.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2018

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