Oxford tutor attacks Cambridge interview

January 9, 2004

Downing College's techniques were 'bullying and intimidating'.

An Oxford University admissions tutor has attacked her Cambridge counterparts for using what she claims are discredited "bullying and intimidating" interview techniques after her daughter was rejected for a place to study medicine.

Dawn Chatty said that Cambridge's Downing College had ignored its own policy guidelines when her daughter was interviewed last year.

She claims that the college resorted to discredited questioning techniques that Oxford and Cambridge insist they have long since abandoned in favour of a more inclusive approach.

Dr Chatty, director of a masters course in the science of forced migration at Oxford, has led admissions to the course for six years. She said that she had no complaint about the decision to reject her daughter, which was confirmed on December 31.

She said: "We get 125 applications from highly qualified people for 25 places on my course, so I know how many difficult elements are involved in making a final decision. But the concern is that my daughter has not been treated fairly. Cambridge appears to be still using selection techniques it says in its own literature are no longer used and that we are all supposed to have moved away from."

Dr Chatty's daughter, who has asked that her name be withheld, is predicted top marks for the International Baccalaureate she is studying. She won a scholarship to study the course at a private school after achieving outstanding GCSE results in the state sector.

Dr Chatty said that Cambridge's literature on the interview system was "excellent". As part of its drive to encourage more applicants from non-traditional backgrounds, it tells applicants that the interviews are "a positive opportunity" and "not something to be afraid of".

The Cambridge literature says: "Despite the things you may have heard (and we know many misleading and unhelpful myths are circulated about interviews), we have no hidden agenda and interviews are not about trying to 'catch you out'."

It says that interviewers will not "erect hurdles", seek "right" answers or ask "trick" questions. "On the contrary, interviews will be informal and settle you down."

Dr Chatty said: "My daughter's actual experience was not as advertised. She was persistently asked questions about topics she had not yet covered in the IB curriculum, she was cut short in the middle of answering questions to be told she was 'wrong' and, in a final humiliation, watched while one interviewer cut short the other in mid-question to announce that he thought that was enough and the interview was over.

"She left in floods of tears, although she is a strong young woman who has barely cried since she was six years old."

Traditionally, some have seen hostile or aggressive interview techniques as a good way to test an applicant's intellectual rigour and ability to perform under pressure. But the technique has become discredited because it is thought to favour traditional private-school applicants who have been tutored in interview techniques and because it fails to identify talent and potential in candidates from different backgrounds.

The issue was first highlighted in 1998 by the case of Tracy Playle, an Essex schoolgirl who accused her Cambridge interviewer, Eric Griffiths, of mocking her accent, background and intellect. In 2001, a survey of more than 10,000 students by independent school heads reported that applicants found Oxbridge interviewers "rude, abrasive and arrogant", adopting intimidating attitudes to put candidates off.

"In the past three years, we have all had to undergo retraining in interview techniques in order to meet equality and non-discrimination legislation," Dr Chatty said.

"The hostile approach may be appropriate in some areas of teaching - where students must learn to think on their feet under pressure - but as a way of getting the best out of candidates at interview it is completely discredited."

A spokeswoman for Cambridge said that it was not appropriate to discuss individual interviews. But she said: "Interviews at Cambridge are designed to be challenging, but all interviewers are specifically instructed not to intimidate candidates. All colleges have adopted a code of practice that provides detailed advice for interviewers."

She said there were 1,200 applicants for 8 places to study medicine and, while a candidate's academic record was paramount, other measures, such as an interview, were necessary.

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