Light or dark, still blue

September 19, 2013

Siana Bangura defends a “holistic” Oxbridge application process but offers no evidence to support her claims (Letters, 29 August). Peter Millican serves up a flawed thesis on the benefits of restricting Oxbridge applications to either light or dark blues (Letters, 5 September). Neither convinces me that the Oxbridge undergraduate selection process is anything but a farce.

Bangura and Millican disagree on the hours (or is that months?) it takes to make a “stellar application”. What is beyond true is that just one in five Oxbridge applicants came from comprehensive schools last year. That there is an entire industry devoted to coaching Oxbridge interviews suggests there is more than a grain of truth in Bangura’s claims. That surely puts successful applications and show-stopping interviews beyond the reach of most state school candidates.

Millican and his fellow dons may reach for the smelling salts at the idea of applications doubling, but if it leads to a broader social mix in admissions it would be no bad thing. If the current college-based system leaves them exhausted after 50 interviews in a fortnight (that’s five a day), it is in need of reform.

Even more bemusing are the arguments put forward against centralising applications to cope with the alleged influx. There is no evidence that applications outside Oxbridge are what Millican terms a “paper exercise”: indeed, graduate applications at Oxbridge are overseen by central boards and interviewed by department.

The writers defend the mystique surrounding Oxbridge entrance by uttering charms and offering prescriptions of more of the same. But the status quo not only fails bright youngsters at state schools, it also cruelly deprives the most promising candidates of a second chance at “the other place”.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge need to come to an agreement to allow joint first-place options via Ucas without sanction. Sister colleges or departments should then be prepared to re-examine rejected applications to prevent “Laura Spence syndrome”.

As for a cure for post-interview stress, I can think of only one solution: pass the sherry!

Anthony Rodriguez


What is so special about the use of interviews for admissions to Oxbridge? One argument is, laudably, that they allow for a “holistic admissions selection process, which is central to [their] commitment to fair admissions” (“Competition questions over rule that restricts applications to Oxbridge”, News, 15 August). This is hardly exceptional, though. For example, creative arts and design courses at universities throughout the UK routinely use interviews and/or auditions as part of that same “holistic process”. This sector alone numbers more than 58,000 undergraduate admissions a year as against Oxbridge’s entire first-year intake of under 7,000.

Peter Millican opines that abandoning the college system of admissions at the University of Oxford would result in “playing the statistics of large numbers” and lead to a loss of the centrality of interviews (with their becoming a “paper exercise”). I am sure that those outside Oxbridge who continue to use interviews as a fundamental feature in admissions – but without their college system – would strongly disagree with his predictions.

It does not necessarily follow that the Oxbridge interview process automatically leads to fairer access. Oxbridge colleges resemble public schools in their architecture, atmosphere and scale. Most public school-educated students will be more comfortable performers as applicants and undergraduates there. Meanwhile, state school students mostly head for places that are closer to their experience of the world.

Guy Julier
Professor of design culture
University of Brighton/Victoria and Albert Museum

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