Leader: Oxford fact and fiction

December 23, 2005

Columnists and leader writers have been frothing at the mouth since Oxford University published its discussion paper on admissions last week. Proposals for applications to be routed through the university and ranked by the "collectivity" of tutors have been condemned as yet another surrender to the forces of social engineering. By the start of this week it had become accepted "fact" that the Government had ordered the change and that the inherent loss of college autonomy would precipitate a catastrophic decline in quality, even if some of the most distinguished heads of house publicly disagreed that this would be the case.

Any major decision at Oxford is subject to unnatural media scrutiny, but this has been a case study in overreaction. Oxford's access agreement was sanctioned long ago, and there was no immediate external pressure for further reform. Not only is debate yet to start on the proposals, but one of the two options would involve only marginal change. How Oxford organises its selection procedures is its own business, as long as they are seen to be both fair and effective. But eventually the current system will become unsustainable if the university succeeds in its stated aim of encouraging many more applicants. Some centralisation is bound to come, and it is not just sixth-formers from sink comprehensives who lack the confidence to choose between colleges. If the eventual reform helps to demystify the process and reduces the chances of bright candidates slipping between colleges, quality should rise, not fall.

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