No compromise on standards

June 2, 2000

Which was the 'absolute scandal' last week - Oxford's rejection of Laura Spence or Gordon Brown telling universities whom to select? Barry Sheerman (Lessons to be Learned) and Colin Lucas discuss the issues

The recent furore raises questions that go well beyond a particular case. University places in medicine are rigidly limited by government quotas and Oxford has the smallest medical school in the country. Most candidates have excellent credentials and promise. So, it is no good speaking of the scandalous exclusion of one candidate without knowing about the potential, background, achievements, and gender of those admitted.

The important question is: how do universities maintain the academic standards required for high-demand, high-achieving learning and teaching while being open to talent wherever it comes from?

Oxford will preserve its academic standards. There is no question of departing from them for whatever consideration of the moment. Neither is there any question of ceasing to be both a teaching and research university, striving to attain the highest level of quality. Oxford is committed to recruiting the best students it can identify, whatever their background.

We have made and continue to make efforts to extend our intake from state schools. These have been explicitly recognised and endorsed by David Blunkett during the past few days. I chaired an inquiry into our admissions procedures last year. We commissioned, together with Cambridge, an independent national survey of attitudes among sixth-formers.

Unwillingness to apply to Oxbridge among many state school pupils is the biggest bar to entry from those schools. We cannot admit those who do not apply. The survey made clear that myths and stereotypes about Oxbridge were the largest deterrent. We are implementing a strategy to address that, with emphasis on making ourselves easier to understand and building links with schools and regions. We have more than 30 schemes in operation. So to suggest that we have been failing to address issues of equity in admissions is absurd.

The most depressing aspect of the recent controversy is the damage that may have been done by reasserting stereotypes. We currently have 53 per cent of our UK offers out to the state sector, reversing the situation five years ago.

Children do not often choose where they go to school. To discriminate against any of them on the grounds of their school is an injustice. So, the second issue is how to make choices between candidates. In Oxford, I think that candidates receive an exceptional amount of personal attention and judgements are made from a range of evidence, including interviews. Much ink is spilled about interviews. We are conscious of the need for great care here, which is why we offer training to interviewers and written advice to interviewees.

However, in common with the whole sector, we need to differentiate between candidates with very similar academic attainments.

Like other leading universities, we have more candidates with outstanding qualifications than we have places. So we look forward to the Advanced Extension papers; we participate with interest in the discussion about SATs; and we are looking at ideas of our own. But, if we are to stay with high academic standards in the university, we must find a differentiator that is a guide to potential as much as and more than a measure of attainment (as in GCSEs and A levels).

These issues are common to all major universities in Britain.

Hints in the press concerning support for major recruitment initiatives in schools sound interesting. Yet the spinning over the past week raises other issues. Stories about psychiatrists visiting interviewers, suggestions of financial penalties for incorrect composition of student bodies, onslaughts on vice-chancellors and the way in which they are chosen, suggest that some pretty worrying ideas about the independence of universities are lurking out there. Perhaps all universities should be asking whether the events of the past ten days have brought into question some issues of trust?

Colin Lucas is vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford.

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