Dangerous combination

September 5, 2013

Siana Bangura talks of “the sheer number of hours that go into making a stellar application to Cambridge or to Oxford” (“Right combination”, Letters, 29 August), while emphasising “the holistic nature” of the admissions process, looking well beyond “a candidate’s grades and personal statement”. But as a University of Oxford tutor, I very much hope that students do not generally think that our “interviews…require months of preparation”: the point of seeing the candidates in person is to enable us to assess their potential in a flexible way that can penetrate any veneer of special preparation.

But the workload of academic staff is highly relevant to the “combination rule” (“Competition questions over rule that restricts applications to Oxbridge”, News, 15 August). After the two admissions weeks, with all the preparation, paperwork, meetings and more than 50 interviews involved, I am always completely exhausted and could not physically cope with much more. If students could apply to Oxford and Cambridge both, we could expect roughly twice as many applications and thus would have to be twice as selective in our invitations to interview, making it much harder to widen access beyond those with “stellar applications”.

Abandoning the combination rule would also undermine college-based admissions, which both contribute to the character of the two universities and strongly motivate a huge proportion of academics – both senior and junior – to give so much time and effort to the process. If a significant proportion of the applicants to whom we offered places were liable to go instead to Cambridge, then to avoid lots of places going to waste, we would have to treat admissions as a central university process, playing the statistics of large numbers rather than selecting the students for our own colleges. I suspect that in these circumstances, interviews would soon cease to be central to the process and would become mainly a paper exercise as they are elsewhere. Candidates, and wider access, would likely be the losers.

Peter Millican
Professor of philosophy
Hertford College, Oxford

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