Make Oxbridge admissions a lottery, Sutton Trust head says

New book says random allocation of places is ‘only way of levelling the education playing field’

September 27, 2018
Source: Getty
Chance would be a fine thing: ‘we’re not advocating a pure lottery, there would be an academic threshold for students to be eligible for the draw’

Admissions to the UK’s most selective universities should be determined by lotteries among students who pass a grade threshold, leading educationalists say in a new book.

Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, and Stephen Machin, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, argue in Social Mobility and Its Enemies that random allocation of places at institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge would sweep aside the unfair advantages enjoyed by middle-class students who went to elite schools and were coached through the application process by their parents.

“Randomly allocating equally deserving candidates to over-subscribed…universities is the only way of levelling the education playing field,” the pair write in the book, published on 27 September.

The pair write that growing numbers of students are achieving A and A* grades at A level, making it increasingly hard to distinguish between them, but that these scores were “as much signals of how much preparation and support teenagers have received, as they are of pure academic talent and potential”.

As a result, top universities were becoming increasingly “hyper-selective”, Dr Elliot Major told Times Higher Education. “The middle classes know how to work this, while it becomes more baffling for those who don’t know how to navigate the system,” he said.

Analysis of personal statements revealed “a chasm” between the experiences outlined by independent and state school applicants, the book says.

Dr Elliot Major said that lotteries would reduce some of the advantages of those he describes as the “opportunity hoarders”. “This is not about dumbing down,” he added. “We’re not advocating a pure lottery, there would be an academic threshold for students to be eligible for the draw.”

Students who do not win places in the lottery at Oxford or Cambridge, for example, could be allowed to enter another highly selective institution, the pair say.

Another option proposed in Social Mobility and its Enemies is the adoption of a “per cent” scheme, following the model trialled by universities in Texas and California, which would guarantee a university place to the top 10 per cent of pupils by exam grades in each state school in a local region or across the country.

“This would recognise the achievement of children in the context in which they grow up,” Dr Elliot Major and Professor Machin write. “Getting to the top of the class in difficult circumstances means more than doing so in a highly supportive environment.”

Neil Harrison, associate professor of education policy at the University of the West England, who will move to Oxford as a senior researcher in education and children’s social care, said middle-class advantages in the admissions process needed to be countered.

“We know personal statements have a massive impact on admissions, and the middle classes are helped by the fact they are able to put more seemingly impressive things on their CV,” he said.

However, initiatives like lotteries could only be a “sticking plaster”, he argued. The bigger question was why disadvantaged students weren’t applying to Oxbridge, perhaps because they perceived it as an environment in which they would not be welcome, Dr Harrison said.

Dr Harrison also said that the focus should be on ensuring that all types of university are valued by students, parents and employers, rather than assuming a rigid hierarchy with “top” universities that disadvantaged students should strive to get into.

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