10 February 2011

What could/should be done about Oxbridge in a deal on tuition fees?

Yesterday, there was much comment about how Oxford and Cambridge universities should jolly well make more effort to admit more students from more disadvantaged backgrounds if they're going to charge £9,000 in tuition fees.

But what can be done, what difference could it make and how likely would they be to do anything that radically changed the ways they've always done things?

As a start to answering these questions, here are some true stories from the chalk face to show that it's (a) quite possible to bias an admissions system without causing any decline in the standard of degree results and (b) unlikely to happen at Oxbridge until or unless change is imposed upon them.

No correlation between A level and degree results
In the early 1970s, I was a departmental admissions tutor at one of the post-Robbins new universities. As I hadn't a clue how to do the job - and there was little or no advice to be had from anyone else - I thought I'd better do some research into the subject.

To my surprise, I found that educational researchers at the time had been unable to find any statistically significant correlation between high grades at GCE 'O' and 'A' level and high class degrees (defined as 2:1 and above). Nor did it make any difference what subjects were taken or which university was attended - with one notable and intriguing exception.

The Joint Matriculation Board (formerly Northern Universities) used to run an 'A' level paper in 'general studies', which many admissions tutors mistakenly thought was far too general to be worth counting in deciding whether or not to offer an applicant a place - mistaken because the JMB general paper was the only 'A' level subject that actually did correlate strongly with eventual degree performance: i.e. a good pass at that was a strong predictor of a class 2:1 or 1st class degree (regardless of degree subject).

These findings were, I learnt, widely known among other admissions tutors but, as far as I could tell, were not taken into account in the way they approached the job.

An admissions system with a bias against the privileged
So I set about creating an admissions procedure for our department with a deliberately built-in bias towards applicants from under-privileged backgrounds. After all, if good good GCE results were unreliable predictors of good degree performances, what was the point of placing so much weight on them? And if the JMB general paper was a good predictor, why didn't we place more weight on that?

So I devised a points system, the full details of which escape me 40 years later. But I do remember that part of it involved awarding different scores to applicants from different types of schools - that went roughly as follows:

Fee-paying school: 0
Direct-grant grammar school: 1
State grammar school: 2
Comprehensive school: 3
Secondary modern school: 4
Local technical college: 4

The more points a candidate scored on this (and various other scales), the more likely he or she would be to get an offer of a place.

Left-wing colleagues around the university were very positive about it and some even tried to get their own departments to model their own admissions procedures on ours. That may have been predictable enough, but what was more surprising was that it wasn't unanimously dismissed by more conservative elements on the staff.

One keen Tory, who happened to be head of the admissions department in the university's central administration, loved it and tried to persuade other departments to do something similar. He saw it as being efficient and rational - so efficient and rational (and this was probably why he liked it so much), that he could issue my score card to his assistants and delegate them to do the job for us - which they were able to do much more quickly than when processing UCCA forms from other departments.

Degree results?
As far as I know, degree results achieved by those admitted to our department by this overtly slanted admissions procedure were no worse than they would otherwise have been.

And, in retrospect, I have only one regret - about the applicant who scored so highly on my score card that I made him a very low conditional offer (2 E grade 'A' level passes). His headmaster was furious, and phoned me up to complain that the boy had the potential to get into Oxbridge and it was disgraceful that I was not only tempting him not to carry on working for his 'A' levels (which he didn't) but was also trying to entice him away to one of these jumped-up new universities.

Although the boy went on to get a 1st class honours degree and eventually became a university professor, I still have a slight sense of guilt. As we all know (and knew then), there are certain career advantages in having an Oxbridge degree - and I still worry that I may have restricted the opportunities he might have had if I hadn't worked so hard to get him to accept our ridiculously attractive offer.

Why Oxbridge is unlikely to do likewise
Later on, my last full-time academic job was as a fellow of an Oxford college. Although it only catered for post-graduate students, I had colleagues and friends who were fellows of undergraduate colleges and who were actively involved in the admissions process.

1. The case of the middle-class Marxist
On one occasion, I went to a meeting attended by a rather famous left-wing intellectual, who certainly supported the admission of students from a much wider range of backgrounds - at least in principle.

He'd just spent the morning interviewing applicants for places in his college and arrived complaining about how difficult and frustrating he was finding it all:

"However much I want to accept students from state schools, the problem is that the ones from public school come across so much better - and it wouldn't be fair to turn them down in favour of people who just aren't as good as them."

It didn't seem to have crossed his mind that his difficulties (and decisions) might have had something to do with the fact that he was a graduate of the same college where he was now a fellow and had formerly attended a well-known public school

2. A surprising revelation
Another colleague told me of an incident at an interview in which a prospective student had suddenly broken down and become a trembling wreck. When the interviewers asked him what the matter was, he replied: "Well, I haven't heard that one before." When they asked him what he meant by that, he spilled some rather interesting beans.

It turned out that his (fee-paying) school had a policy of getting all their pupils who ever went to an Oxford interview to write down, immediately afterwards, all the questions they could remember having been asked. These then went into a data-base that was used to coach all their future Oxford candidates before they went off for their interviews.

It was (and still is) a school with an outstanding record of getting its pupils into Oxbridge.

What chance of change?
It's about 25 years since I left Oxford, so I've no idea whether or not the university is still at the mercy of dons with an implicit (though reluctant, of course) bias towards public school applicants and fee-paying schools with systematic and effective ways of coaching their pupils in interview techniques

If it is, there seems little chance of shifting the balance to give pupils from state schools a better chance. Nor, when so many of our top politicians (in all parties) are products of the same public school-Oxbridge conveyor belt, does it seem likely that any of them will go very far beyond recommending change towards insisting on change.

Time to impose a built in bias
My solution would be to set up a controlled experiment along the lines of the admissions system I devised 40 years ago: build a bias in favour of students from less privileged backgrounds into the way Oxbridge colleges allocate places for a trial period of, say, three years. Then monitor the results to see if there's been any decline in degree performance.

If, as used to be the case, there's as little correlation between degree results and GCSEs as there used to be between GCEs and degree results,* there would surely be nothing to lose and everything to gain - if, of course, our politicians really do believe in making the opportunities available to our young people a good deal more equal than they are at present.

* P.S. Since writing this, I've just heard some fascinating news via Twitter from @SalBrinton, to whom many thanks. According to a recent and pretty respectable looking piece of research, comprehensive pupils outperform independent and grammar school pupils in university degrees.

On the face of it, this sounds to me like further evidence in support of weighting univerity admissions procedures in favour of pupils from the state sector...


DSA said...

It isn't just a matter of students from fee paying schools getting into the best universities. Look at parliament and the cabinet where old Etonians are making a comeback. Andrew Neil recently visited his former Scottish school and concluded that it was most unlikely that anyone from there would get into Oxbridge or even aspire to get in. By the way, at least in our village, parents with children at private schools are planning ahead and if the government gets all equalitarian about private schools and university entry, they plan to transfer their children to state schools for A Levels.

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks to DSA for joining the discussion.

On Andrew Neil's point, there are plenty of English comprehensive schools where it's not so much the pupil's lack of aspiration that holds them back from applying to Oxbridge as the lack of aspiration of their teachers - for many of whom, it never crosses their minds to encourage bright children to have a go at applying to any of the top universities.

The few determined ones who try it anyway then have the disadvantage of having to rely on advice frome teachers who know little or nothing about Oxbridge admissions procedures and who can't provide the kind of help and coaching that's available at independent schools like the one mentioned in my post.

It would be interesting to know if any educational researchers have looked to see if there's a correlation between (a) percentage of teachers with Oxbridge degrees teaching in different schools and (b) percentage of pupils from the said schools gaining admission to Oxbridge. I'd bet (or should I say 'hypothesize') that there is - and that it has nothing to do with such graduates being better at teaching.

As for the fee-paying parents in your village, I don't think they'll ever have to resort to their Plan B. But. in the unlikely event of their having to do so, they should be aware of the risks involved - and make sure that they get some extensive briefings from their children's current teachers before putting them at the mercy of staff with less experience at playing (and winning) the Oxbridge admissions game.

Rawhite said...

I am a student at a large Comprehensive school with an ethos (for better or worse) of absolute equality and respect between staff and students. There's no uniform and we address the staff on first name terms.

Perhaps incidentally, there is little to no aspiration from pupils or staff to even think about applying to Oxbridge. There is no special encouragement of gifted students, nor is there any kind of "streaming" im place.

The deadline for applications has just passed, and as far as I am aware I am the only student who has applied (well applying, gap year...) to Oxbridge. This is coming from one of the largest Sixth Forms in the country, full of intelligent and talented students.

If anything, I believe that students at Comprehensives often have a more flexible, open minded intellect than their private schooled counterparts and would flourish at Oxbridge. But the fact is there is no culture of applying to the elite universities. If a student wishes to do so, then great. But at no point are we imbued with the belief that we can do it or given the necessary support.

Obviously this is assuming that Oxbridge is desirable; many people have no wish to go there, and they have very good reasons in a lot of cases.

But there is a correlation to going to Oxbridge and getting the best jobs. Until there is some kind of balance in admissions, private schooled pupils will continue to dominate the upper echelons of our society.

Max Atkinson said...

Rawhite - very interesting and perceptive comments, for which thanks.

On your point about the potential for comprehensive pupils to flourish at Oxbridge (and the research reported in the PS to my post), one argument about why those from independent schools don't always perform as well once they get there as they did at A level is that they were too 'spoon-fed' along the way. As a result, they may find it more difficult to manage on their own when it comes to taking charge of their own studies - whereas those who've been less 'spoon-fed' find it easier to adapt to working more independently.