Selection correction

August 23, 2002

Oxbridge selectors tend to choose 'people like us'. The process should be reformed, says Harold Perkin

The row over Brasenose College, Oxford rejecting Anastasia Fedotova, a deaf candidate with six A-grade A levels highlights a fundamental flaw in British university selection.

Here, as distinct from the US and most of Europe, selection is by departments or, at Oxbridge, by colleges. In both cases that means the selectors are amateurs in anything but their academic discipline. This has far-reaching consequences that distort the educational process and the outcome for students and society.

In the US, selection is by specialist admissions officers who admit students for the whole university. It is mainly based on objective criteria, chiefly scholastic aptitude tests. The numbers are vast and there is practically no connection between the examining boards and their examinees and the schools from which they come. University admissions officers seldom interview because the numbers are too great.

Top private universities charge enormous tuition fees, but most have scholarships and support grants. The universities' primary concern is to attract the best students whatever their backgrounds. The successful students experience a range of subjects before choosing a major. This makes for a graduate able to deal with a spectrum of skills and topics and a real-world context for their final specialism.

Something similar operates in continental Europe. The baccalaureate and the abitur give automatic access to French and German universities. The students then choose what to study. Though often more narrowing than the US system, it seems to produce graduates more broadly educated and less specialised than the English.

Departmental admission in the English and Welsh provincial universities was suitable for a world where a small elite - 3 per cent or less of the age group 50 years ago - was being prepared primarily for an academic or teaching career. But when 35 per cent or more of the age group go into higher education, only a fraction will become academics. All could benefit from a broader education now that flexibility and readiness to change career are the best hope of success.

Academic historians, scientists and engineers are hardly the best people to decide on who is best suited to careers far outside their specialisms. Their inclination is to choose "high flyers" in their own discipline; their instinct is to choose "people like us".

Despite the protestations of college principals and vice-chancellors, "people like us" has always been the main criterion for Oxbridge selection. College selectors are even less qualified than departmentalists. Few colleges have enough fellows in the necessary range of subjects, and they have even less skill in the selection process. In the past they tended to choose boys from the same background as themselves and often from the same schools. The same applied even to the more meritocratic women's colleges. I remember one female Cambridge don saying: "We don't discriminate, but we like to take the daughters of old girls if we can."

Those days have (almost) gone, but some dons still boast of their connections with particular schools, not always public boarding schools, "because we know they send us good candidates".

Oxbridge dons hotly deny any bias in their selection criteria. So why is it that they still take about half their students from the private sector, which caters for 7 per cent of the age group, and only about one in eight from the working class, which makes up about half the population? Are they so sure that intelligence is concentrated in the sort of people they know?

It is true that many students from neglected groups do not apply but this is because they are convinced that there is no point because they are not "the sort of people who go to Oxbridge".

Oxbridge spokespersons claim that they look for "potential", meaning the promise of passing exams in their own discipline. But that implies that they are such poor teachers that they can educate only students who least need their help. If they were faced with highly intelligent students without the selective school persuasiveness in the interviewing process they seem to value, they would put their formative skills on test and prove the "added value" they claim to provide.

Now that we aim to educate potentially a half of the student age group, we need a strategy to relate higher education to a broader, sophisticated, flexible and more competitive economy and society. That strategy needs to begin with an appropriate and professional student-selection process.

Harold Perkin is professor emeritus of history and higher education, Northwestern University, Illinois, and professor emeritus of social history, Lancaster University.

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