Should we give peas a chance?

September 22, 2006

Is the Oxbridge interview the new weapon in the War against Terror,ponders Maria Misra

The revelation that one of the recent plane bomb suspects had been head of the Islamic Society at London Metropolitan University has once again put university recruitment procedures under the spotlight, although for rather more exciting reasons than usual. For, according to Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Intelligence and Security at Brunel University, campuses are now "more of a security threat than mosques".

Universities, he claims, know too little about those they admit. His rather bizarre solution is a return to face-to-face interviews with all applicants. These will presumably be conducted by academics adept in the mysterious art of diagnosing a person's political proclivities by their dress and demeanour.

This version of the interview is a strange throwback to the ethos of Imperial Britain, where the cult of the interview predominated. The reason was simple: recruiters were just as concerned with candidates' "character"

as with their abilities; and it was impossible to determine whether someone was a "chap" merely by glancing at his qualifications.

Chappishness was measured by all sorts of intangibles that only the trained eye and ear could detect. Thus applicants for Oxbridge, the officer class and the colonial services faced a battery of social tests, thinly disguised as interviews. In the colonies, horsemanship was a key part of one's final interview. A similar outlook underpinned Oxbridge fellowship interviews, where, until fairly recently, dining was a compulsory element in the whole process, and peas tended to feature rather prominently on the menu.

The rather dubious origins of the Oxbridge admissions interview have cast a long shadow, and for many years the interview was in rather bad odour, thought to privilege the poised and sweet-tongued over the rougher diamonds from the state sector. Meanwhile, academic research confirmed long-held suspicions about the subjective nature of interviews. It seems that, even when bolstered by psychometric testing, interviews amount to little more than "gut feeling". Despite all this, Oxbridge colleges maintained the interview as an essential part of the admissions process.

However, in recent years interviewing has become rather easier to defend. In an age when so many have impeccable paper qualifications, interviews have become an extremely useful means of differentiating the excellent from the merely good. Interviewing has been professionalised and standardised, with training now compulsory. The old-style, amateurish Oxbridge interview of yore is only a hazy memory. Interviews are now generally combined with challenging oral comprehension passages. These have proved useful in assessing candidates and are more reliable than their submitted written material.

Nevertheless the Oxbridge interview will continue to be controversial, and every year academics quake with trepidation that a transcript of one of their interviews will appear in the Daily Mail , as it did a few years ago for one unfortunate Cambridge don caught in a journalistic sting. But now when I am challenged to defend it I can deploy the killer argument provided by Professor Glees and explain that the Oxbridge admissions interview is, in fact, the new frontline in the War against Terror.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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