Cambridge colleges’ admissions free-for-all risks damaging access goals

The colleges need to remember their medieval origins and act with greater shared purpose, says Simon Ravenscroft

June 5, 2024
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Admission to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ought not to be as easy as filling in a quick form and leaving it at that. Rigorously assessing candidates’ academic suitability for their chosen degrees requires a certain level of detail regarding their ability and potential.

Most successful applicants to the University of Cambridge achieve A-level results better than the stated minimum offer level, so it is rare that their academic record alone is sufficient to judge their competitiveness within the field. Moreover, qualifications only tell you so much. This is why both Oxford and Cambridge also use admissions assessments and interviews, alongside other kinds of information.

However, to meet their goals around fair access, both institutions must ensure that their application processes are only as complex as they truly need to be. Applicants from under-represented backgrounds are likely to be less familiar – or to be attending schools that are less familiar – with the application processes for competitive institutions with complex collegiate structures. The more complicated Oxford and Cambridge make their admissions procedures, the more barriers to entry this creates for candidates from these backgrounds.

At both institutions it is the individual colleges that admit undergraduates, not the central university. Cambridge’s 29 undergraduate colleges interview a much higher proportion of applicants than Oxford’s do – more than 75 per cent – but, unlike Oxford’s, they lack a mechanism for settling disagreements about admissions policy.

Such disagreements have been intensifying since the pandemic. During that period, both universities switched to online interviews and, last year, the University of Oxford confirmed that all its colleges would continue interviewing all shortlisted applicants remotely for the next five admissions rounds. Whatever one thinks of this decision, and regardless of whether one considers in-person or remote interviews more effective, a consistent and clear policy creates an even playing field across colleges, with rules and procedures that every applicant can understand.

At Cambridge, by contrast, there is increasing policy fragmentation. A handful of colleges reverting to in-person interviews and others sticking with the remote format would still be fairly easy to navigate. Equally, there may be an academic case for some variation by subject if it were across all colleges. But the emerging picture is that applicant location, subject and preference may each have varying levels of relevance in different colleges, and this may change from year to year.

If there were only three colleges, this level of divergence and flux might be bearable, but with 29 it will quickly become absurd if it continues, given there is no discernible overall academic rationale. It adds layers of complexity that will ultimately harm the whole institution by making it harder for it to meet its fair access goals.

One of the main ways that society was imagined in the Middle Ages was as a body with limbs. We could use the same analogy for a medieval collegiate university like Cambridge. If the whole body is harmed, including any one part too badly, all parts will be harmed as well. Say my college is a hand. The hand can legitimately opt to wear a ring, with no impact on the rest of the body – and Oxford and Cambridge colleges do indeed adorn themselves in various ways. But the hand choosing to inject itself with ink will ultimately harm the whole body because the shared blood circulates.

As a member of a Cambridge college, I do not like centralisation and homogenisation for their own sake. I like the variety among the colleges, and I believe our students do too, for reasons consistent with the old medieval wisdom that reality is various, but that this variety is – or, at least, can be – harmonious and good. However, that can only be so if, when appropriate, the different parts are able to look beyond their local interest, understand how they fit within the larger body, and act on that basis. Otherwise, the body will make itself ill.

That is particularly true regarding admissions. Fair access at Oxford and Cambridge is not primarily about attracting applicants to particular colleges but, first, to the university as a whole. It has been said to me that by having some interviews in one format, my college might poach a few candidates from others. But if, in doing this – in acting on our local preferences irrespective of what others are doing – we generate a system so complex that it erects barriers to Cambridge as a whole, this cannot be in line with our own long-term interests.

Cambridge colleges are by nature introspective and self-protective. And some are particularly rich and have therefore given up attempting to situate their own local interests within the broader, shared goals of the collegiate commonwealth. This attitude must change.

Because of their histories, Oxford and Cambridge hold unique power and influence in British society, and this confers particular obligations. It is absolutely right that the attention on us is greater than on other universities and that we are held to the highest standards of fairness around admissions.

Cambridge colleges need to find a way to resolve their differences and harmonise their policies before the entire interview system fragments. Local sacrifices and mutual compromises may be necessary but, most of all, we need to recover shared vision and purpose. Whether this is ever going to happen remains to be seen.

Simon Ravenscroft is a fellow and undergraduate admissions tutor at Magdalene College, Cambridge. A longer version of this article can be read here.


Print headline: Cambridge colleges’ admissions free-for-all impedes access goals

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Reader's comments (1)

Explain the relevance of invoking "medieval"? There were no A levels until after the mid-20th century. So much for university history, eh?