Alan Ryan

January 13, 2006

If I hadn't spent the previous fortnight managing my bit of the annual admissions round, I'd have enjoyed December's non-story about Oxford University admissions. The Daily Telegraph saw Gordon Brown, new Labour, positive discrimination and the over-mighty state (what else?) behind the proposal that Oxford might run a tidier admissions system. The Times hates Oxford colleges on principle - it must be on principle, since it isn't based on any facts about how they work - and gloated over a step towards crushing their independence. The Guardian , realising there was no story, ran its usual line about the need to make Oxbridge more socially aware, while The Independent had the sense to say nothing.

What it showed was that the one arena in which the Freedom of Information Act works is education - and that the results are unpredictable. What began (and should have ended) as a trial balloon, floated by a couple of my colleagues, generated a report - my colleagues are former civil servants, and their natural mode is the report. The report generated an Fo... request; and a document that won't of itself produce any change whatever to the admissions system turned into university policy. I suppose it's nice that the silly season is now year-round; at least, it would be nice if it were always August and we had the climate of California. Nevertheless, I'd rather see if Fo... can tell us about CIA flights.

The reality is dreary, intelligible only piecemeal and of no interest whatsoever to the 95 per cent of students who go nowhere near Oxbridge.

Most secondary schools dislike the admissions system at Oxford and Cambridge universities because students have to apply in October, not January, and schools dislike the extra complication. So we are always tinkering with ways of making the process simpler. Rightly, too, though the applicants are markedly more at ease with the process than their teachers, which may itself tell one something.

In fact, the real horror of Oxford admissions is the interview system - about whose drawbacks the report is silent. Absent that annual folly, the process would be much simpler. Oxford is far from unique in interviewing applicants; many universities interview as many over the year, while Cambridge interviews many more, some before and after Christmas. But Oxford interviews attract unique attention, especially because the process is crammed into a few days before Christmas and is an organisational nightmare.

I've never understood the faith in interviews; it would be better to set an entrance examination, or get the applicants' A-level scripts to read or, in the best of all worlds, move to post-qualification admissions (PQA), have an entrance test after A level and read the lot. What students do at university is write; what they get a degree for is performance in examinations. You'd have thought that the way to decide which applicants to accept is to see how well they do what they will do at university. If you were picking a team to run in the Olympics, you wouldn't interview them about running; you'd watch them run.

Interviews introduce noise into the system rather than information, and they double the misery we inflict on the young, which is a bad thing. The applicants who don't get invited to interview feel they have been declared to be no good - which is absurd; they've got A*s at GCSE by the dozen, and almost perfect scores at AS - but they happen to be (or on close inspection seem to be) a bit less good than some others. But they, their parents and their teachers phone, e-mail and write in to lament that they've had no opportunity to talk us into seeing how well they can do physics, Russian, economics or whatever.

So, what were these alarming proposals? That the humanities and social sciences should do what the sciences do already: rank the applicants in a given subject across the university and make sure that nobody is rejected while someone ranked lower gets in. Many non-sciences - law, history, philosophy, politics and economics and management among them - are well on the way to doing it; so on the one crucial point the report was pushing at a wide-open door. It has nothing to do with college independence: nobody is or will be parked on a college that doesn't want them, and nobody goes or will go to a college they haven't chosen if there is room at a college they want to attend more.

Let's make a new year's resolution to do something useful: such as helping David Bell reform A levels and introduce PQA; then we can confine the silly season to its proper place.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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