The Office for Students, the universities regulator, has announced it is reviewing the admissions system as part of its efforts to “eliminate equality gaps in higher education within 20 years”. It is a laudable ambition. Admissions are still complicated and some universities are still more difficult for poorer students to access.
Nowhere is this more true than at Oxbridge, where the baffling world of academic selection reaches the heights of complexity. So far, discussion about reforming admissions has focused on the evils of using unconditional offers and predicted grades, and on possibly allowing students to apply with their actual A-level results (PQA, or post-qualification admissions). There has been little mention of England’s two ancient universities, breeding grounds of our elites.
Oxford and Cambridge don’t get enough credit for the strides they have made in diversifying their intakes. Long before social mobility was thrust into the public debate, Oxbridge tutors tried their best to identify academic potential from all backgrounds. But the challenge they face is stark. Last year the Sutton Trust found that eight elite schools, including Eton and Westminster, secured as many Oxbridge acceptances as another 2,894 schools and colleges put together.
The system is difficult to navigate. Oxford and Cambridge are a collection of 69 independent colleges in charge of their own admissions, where tutors have the mammoth task of interviewing thousands of hopefuls. It is why students must apply three months earlier than for other universities. And they can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge.
Admissions tutors have amassed a dizzying array of assessments to help them make increasingly fine judgments between thousands of well qualified candidates: personal statements, teacher references, school grades, essays and bespoke admissions tests among them. Like many universities, Oxbridge have gone hyper-selective.
But how much does this add? How do you consistently tell students who have been coached from those who have achieved against the odds? How do you ensure bias-free interviews? As Oxbridge interviewers like to remind their candidates, there aren’t right or wrong answers.
Meanwhile, the system is still alienating too many potentially excellent applicants. The Sutton Trust found that half of state school teachers don’t encourage their pupils to consider Oxbridge, thinking they stand little chance of getting in.
A PQA system would enable a fresh look at Oxbridge admissions. One way to make things fairer would be to select candidates getting over a threshold of academic excellence – say three A* grades at A-level – and then pick them randomly.
Securing a place is already a lottery, masquerading as a sophisticated selection process. Lotteries are undeniably the fairest way to choose between equally deserving applicants, which is why so many state schools now use them. One option, adopted by Dutch medical schools, is to select the very highest academic performers and then use a lottery for lower achievers.
If all that is a step too far, then admissions could at least be centralised, allowing university departments, rather than individual colleges, to select students. Surely our finest minds could find a way of then sorting students into different colleges? We could do away with the special rules that mark out Oxbridge as different. At the very least, colleges should agree to adopt the same admissions criteria.
A sea change in attitudes is already taking place. Oxford is enrolling 50 students with grades as low as three Bs on its new foundation year as it aims to enrol a quarter of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds within four years. Cambridge has similar plans. These would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The tide is turning.
Universities overestimate their ability to spot talent, and under-estimate the power of simplicity. Simplifying admissions is one way the Office for Students can help the students it is meant to serve.
Lee Elliot Major is professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter. His report for the Higher Education Policy Institute on social mobility and elite universities will be published later this year.