The slow but certain arrival of equality at Oxford University

November 17, 2000

Entrance to Oxford is becoming more meritocratic, but rising A-level results could pose a threat, argue A. H. Halsey and N. G. McCrum.

How, asked R. H. Tawney more than 80 years ago, are we to rid education in Britain of its "hereditary curse"? - the inequality of opportunity between children of different classes. Today press and Parliament are focused on admissions to Oxford University. What is a reasonable, attainable target and how can we measure progress towards it?

In the past, study after study has shown a heavy class bias in the origins of Oxford undergraduates. Down the centuries the ancient colleges were Anglican finishing schools for the male offspring of the aristocracy and the clergy. Then came the Victorians, who at the same time as gaining a desire for imperial efficiency, lost their faith and replaced it, in the case of many dons, with a search for social justice. They began a long march towards meritocracy. Arrival would mean an even scatter of entrants, according to measured merit, among not only gentlemen but also women, non-conformists, ethnic minorities and even those educated in state comprehensives.

The end of the journey would give us a world-class Oxford, a legitimate ruling class, a well-managed industry and an efficient public service. But the obstacles were formidable. They included the abolition of compulsory Greek, the promotion of science and history, the lessening of clerical influence, the departure of affluent "passmen" (students who won their places on the back of wealth rather than intellect) and the development of a fair system of selection.

Our answer to the problem has hidden limitations. We do not assume that merit is randomly distributed over the social classes. As practical reformers, we do not see Oxford as capable on its own of reforming secondary schools or still less of equalising the conditions of upbringing in families and communities.

Our simple benchmark is based on the assumption that equality is achieved when all who apply with a specific A-level score have the same chance of a place. Thus, if 50 per cent of all applicants who score 30 at A level obtain access, then a fair system would treat all groups in the same way: applicants from professional families at independent schools enter with an access rate of 50 per cent if they score 30 at A level, and so do applicants from working-class families at state schools.

With this assumption it is easy to work out the fair entry numbers when you know the average access rates at each A-level score and the numbers of applicants from each social class with A-level scores of 30, 28, 26 and so on. The aim is not to put together an entry of precisely the same overall size and academic quality as that achieved by the existing admissions system but to take entrance places from some groups and give them to others to make them "fair".

From excellent data supplied in recent years by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, we have examined how the Oxford intake has moved to bring about equality in admissions. We wanted to determine if there is equality between the different social classes; and second, if there is inequality, which our previous work led us to expect, whether things are moving, year by year, in the right direction.

For example, for the combined years 1994-95, of the score-30 applicants, 53 per cent gained access to Oxford: the acceptance rate was 49 per cent for state school applicants and 59 per cent for independent school applicants. If the mean acceptance rate, 53 per cent, had applied to all applicants then entrants at score 30 would have numbered 139 fewer from independent schools and 139 more from state schools. At each A-level score, a calculation is made in a similar way. The result is that at each score the "fair" model produces a net transfer from independent to state: when these are added up the total transfer from independent to state is 388, a redistribution of about 1 per cent.

The deficit in entry to Oxford from state schools is shown in the chart*. The deficit declines from 1994-95 systematically in subsequent years. If this decline continues, the state school deficit will be eliminated by 2000-01. Good news indeed, but, when judged by social class, we are in some respects further from equality than chart 1 suggests.

Chart 2 shows the percentage deficit from equality for applicants to Oxford from state schools for different social classes. For applicants from professional class families the deficit is low and declines from 6 to 5 to 2 per cent over the six years. The deficit from skilled manual families declines also, but remains high at 15 per cent in 1998-99. For semi-skilled and unskilled manuals, the numbers are too small for reliable calculation. Nevertheless, for all four social classes there is a systematic decline in inequality over the six years.

Mistakes are to be expected. Oxford's admissions tutors at the entrance competition in December are attempting to predict A-level scores six months later. There is, however, an inherent bias in the decisions. Most candidates are predicted by their schools to get score 30. Yet the child of a skilled manual home finds it more difficult to convince interviewers of his merit. It could well be worthwhile to consider informing colleges of the social class of applicants.

In our view, Oxford's admissions system is improving at a good speed. But there is a cloud on the horizon: the slow death of A levels as a valuable discriminator. Far too many applicants score 30. Oxford's entrants with score 30 now comprise four-fifths of the entry; six years ago it was half. A levels will be valueless when all applicants are not only predicted to obtain score 30 but are awarded that score. How is an admissions decision then to be made? By interview, of course, a procedure that will jeopardise boys and girls from less affluent homes. The controllers of A levels should realise that inaction in splitting grade A into several levels of achievement will lead to the introduction of psychometric testing, the movement of the interview to centre stage and the rejection of A level as a comparator.

So even if equalisation by A-level score is attained, the problem of a high correlation between class origin and university attendance would remain. Meritocracy is certainly a desirable aim for any university. But for the nation as a whole it cannot be realised without equalisation of the conditions of childhood.

A. H. Halsey is professor of social and administrative studies, Nuffield College, and N. G. McCrum is emeritus fellow of Hertford College, Oxford University.

* Charts unavailable online

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