Oxbridge Interviews

Pimms on the Quad

An old joke goes, “Q: How can you tell if someone went to Oxbridge? A: You don’t need to, they’ll tell you first.”. I’ll prove it right by saying, yes, I did my degree at Oxford. It is university application season and coming into December, it is also the time when Oxbridge applicants will be girding themselves for the apparent ordeal of the infamous interviews.

In most areas, things will have changed so much over the years that personal experiences from the past will have little value. However, Oxbridge moves and changes slowly. From media coverage it seems that the interviews held by Oxford and Cambridge are not so very different now to what they were 22 years ago when I boarded a bus with a handful of others from my sixth form college to spend 3 nights among the dreaming spires.

I was fortunate enough to have attended a state sixth form college with a record of success at Oxbridge entrance that is beaten only by a couple of public schools. Being in Cambridge also meant that the risk of being architecturally intimidated by either of the two universities was low, even though at the time I attended most classes were conducted in temporary classrooms and huts some dating back to the 1950s and there was a frozen food distribution centre in the middle of the school which meant that what is now “the quad” was then during breaks a reversing area for lorries. There was also less of a feeling that competitive universities were not for “people like us” as some of the 1000 students were from academics’ families even if the vast majority were not.

Despite this, there was relatively limited support for applying to Oxbridge. Additional classes were available to discuss the entrance exams and teachers were willing to mark attempts at practice questions. The interviews themselves were not something which we got particular preparation for other than to expect them to be challenging and to try our best to answer questions. I have no recollection of what I put in my UCCA (as it then was) form’s personal statement or that I got any particular feedback or guidance on drafts and rewrites from anyone. I did become aware during one of my interviews that it might have helped if someone had told me it would potentially be a bad idea to have included a joint-honours course as one of my applications to another university: the interviewers at my first choice college picked up on my having chosen “Law and Accountancy” at Manchester to probe my commitment to Law in ways that they wouldn’t have done had I just put down 5 applications for single-honours Law. Hedging my bets for practical and career purposes was perhaps unwise when being assessed on my academic interest in Law by people who had devoted their lives to the academic study of the subject.

Other than that, the interviews I had did not really throw up any peculiar or intentionally obtuse questions. The few wintry days spent in the city and its numerous pubs did give a better feel for what it would be like to be a student there than open days, including the mild panic induced by the message in the porters’ lodge on my penultimate morning inviting me to an interview at my second choice college. That panic was mainly down to being rather hungover and the realisation that my only smart pair of trousers unfortunately rather smelled of the beer that one of my fellow interviewees had inadvertently spilled on them the previous evening in the King’s Arms. Perhaps my ability to perform moderately while hungover and underprepared was what swung it for me at that interview as a good indication of whether I’d cope with real undergraduate life!

The big difference between then and now is the entrance exam. This meant that there was somewhat less pressure in terms of wondering whether I was “good enough” while at interview as I would not have been at interview at all had I not managed the exams with some degree of credit. It also meant that there was something beyond my interview performance and application form for the tutors to see in order to gauge my writing style. Now, as the entrance exam has gone, there is a lot more pressure on candidates and interviewers to get more out of the interview than an assessment of whether either thinks they’ll enjoy spending three years in the other’s company.

Part of the problem with the entrance exam was that it was hard for those candidates who did not have any support or preparation for them. This was, perhaps, less of an issue in my case as I deliberately chose papers that did not rely on specific prior knowledge – having attempted past questions in Maths and Physics I realised that I hadn’t a hope of performing creditably in competition with those who were aiming for science degrees and that Law tutors would only be able to judge those papers on the basis of the marks received rather than seeing the answers themselves. As on this blog, being able to witter away on a number of random topics in two General Papers or to do some unseen English comprehension exercises was more my style and probably not too bad an indication of ability to process the vast amounts of argumentation involved in academic study of law!

Reintroducing the entrance exam would potentially be a positive move to open up access. The issue of the ability of schools to prepare candidates for entrance exams ought to be less significant now than in the late 1980s. This is because it would be much easier to provide more information about the exams, past papers and mark schemes now through the internet. The information advantage held by schools which have more experience of Oxbridge application would be significantly lower and possibly reduced towards zero. If there’s one thing which Oxbridge tutors can see right through either at interview or in entrance exams, it’s detailed and targeted but superficial preparation of “gobbets” like in The History Boys.

Oxbridge shouldn’t however, be fetishised. Oxford and Cambridge are excellent universities but missing out on a place or deciding that other institutions would be more suitable for good reasons is not a mark of failure either by candidates or the universities. There may well be several people in your year at Oxford or Cambridge who go on to lead illustrious careers in the public eye. You might even be one of them. Or, you could be like the vast majority of Oxbridge graduates and move on to mundane obscurity after having chosen not to focus relentlessly on networking and “hacking” in politics, drama or journalism and just getting on with studying and doing what countless other 18 year olds do around the country. Good luck to those who have applied and to those who have chosen to do something else that suits them better.

New College of the Humanities – Oh, the humanity!

There has been an astonishing storm of media and blog invective railing against the announcement by AC Grayling and a host of other celebrity academics that they are setting up a New College of the Humanities. The concept appears to be to establish an unashamedly intellectually elitist liberal arts college in Bloomsbury, combining Oxbridge-style one to one tuition with lectures from leading popular academics and a broad syllabus requiring humanities students to take courses in science and business/work skills. However, the element which has been most criticised is the economic elitism implicit in the college’s £18,000 a year fees.

I’ve written before that I don’t really have a problem with promoting elites by merit. Being an elite footballer (extra-marital dalliances aside) is never seriously considered a bad thing for those boys who have the ability to do it. There aren’t any angry media tirades against Manchester United being ruthlessly selective in choosing which children get to participate in its academy, nor indeed that the ranks of professional footballers include far fewer privately educated players than would be representative of the 7% of children who attend such schools. So, at least in principle, elite education for those who have the highest levels of academic aptitude, ability and application should be no different.

So, it is understandable if the worry is focused on students being excluded from the elite education to be provided at NCHum by reason of cost. Well, it would be if the education that was being provided, along with the cachet of the institution was so great that students who could not afford to go to it would be disadvantaged both absolutely and relative to the students who were able to afford entry.

This is where things get a bit more muddled. Several commentators have presented good arguments against the quality of the education that NCHum might provide. For example Professor Richard Moorhead at http://lawyerwatch.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/new-college-of-humanities-a-new-model-for-laws/ sets out some concerns about the scope for NCHum to teach in innovative ways given that it will not be in control of its curriculum and examinations along with other balanced criticisms. David Allen Green describes NCHum as Grayling’s folly at http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2011/06/ac-graylings-folly.html and convincingly sets out why the “name” academics are no guarantee of educational excellence.

However, if NCHum is going to be academically questionable, that puts a great deal of pressure on it to establish a very strong institutional reputation so that having the NCHum diploma in addition to a University of London International BA/LLB will be considered by employers to be a mark of exceptional value. Ironically, there may be an extent to which the loud condemnation of NCHum for social elitism could help to establish just such a brand value for its graduates. If NCHum selects students who are going to go out and be great adverts for the college the brand will grow, but on the basis of those students’ personal merits.

Even if this does happen, the numbers of students graduating from NCHum are likely to be low (about the same as a small Oxbridge college) and they will be competing with large numbers of graduates from Oxbridge and other internationally recognised leading universities. It is difficult to see how they could form an elite in any meaningful way. The entry requirements for NCHum are intended to be high (3 As at A level minimum) so in a small way, NCHum will reduce the pressure on places at existing elite universities. As the high fees at NCHum will make it more accessible to students from wealthier backgrounds the majority of the reduction in demand at other universities will be in relation to rich students, thereby potentially increasing their accessibility by poor students. I don’t think this should be overstated though – I would be surprised if in practice NCHum wasn’t largely attended by overseas students.

It may be that the real social elitism criticism is not about what NCHum itself will realistically be able to achieve but rather the possibility that its success would be the thin end of the wedge. If NCHum were to be successful in attracting students and academics of suitable quality beyond the initial novelty value at launch, it would encourage other private universities to establish themselves. Worse still, it might put pressure on top publicly-funded universities to seek to become private universities. If NCHum and others are able to attract substantial levels of endowment funding and to poach the brightest students and staff from Oxbridge et al that could make Oxbridge fight for their own independence so as to be able to compete.

This does not strike me as particularly plausible because, again, it relies on NCHum having to be even more excellent and successful than Grayling and his backers believe possible. This is not consistent with the sensible scepticism of Moorhead and Green about the education that NCHum could offer. NCHum may be an abomination, but it is unlikely to become the model for a new significant mainstream segment of Higher Education. It is, going back to a football analogy, more like the establishment of MK Dons – a horror in terms of what was done to Wimbledon FC, but not something that is likely to be replicated much or at all.

Finally, for all those who want the NCHum experience but are not likely to be quite up to getting into one of the top universities and can’t afford £18,000 a year a couple of tips. If you want the cachet of the top universities, go to a good one that is not quite at the top but still has a good academic reputation in your subject. Work hard, get a good degree and cultivate your tutors so that they will give you good references. Then, if after a couple of years of studying, when you know more about your subject and what you want to do, apply to do a Masters at one of the top universities. Entry is somewhat less competitive than at undergraduate level, you get the Oxford (or wherever) degree along with whatever social advantages you think are available. Better still, as a graduate student you are more likely to get regular meaningful engagement with the leading academics in your field, rather than just the ones who happen to be famous but specialise in something else.

If you aren’t quite up to that but just want to experience the teaching of the stars, go anywhere you like, but look up the lecture lists for Oxford to see what seminars and lectures your favourite academics are giving. Do a little more research on how to get into the buildings and just turn up. Unless things have changed a lot and security gates put into all academic buildings it should be possible to get into a load of lectures and seminars. I remember attending a fantastic series of seminars in Jurisprudence which were debates between Professors Dworkin and Finnis when I was an undergraduate. Anyone could have walked in off the street to the seminar room at University College but in practice there were rarely more than a dozen people attending. Less flippantly, the star academics often do free public lectures so if you are interested in them, find out. Pretty much anyone can go and hear the Oxford Professor of Poetry’s lectures or those of other celebrity Professors (sadly I didn’t make the time to hear Professor Jackie Mason’s series on comedy, but am glad to have gone to hear Seamus Heaney after years of studying his poetry at school).

The rise of credentialism and networking – the real barriers to mobility

There have been a lot of comments about the return to power and prominence of “the posh”, particularly since the Prime Minister and many members of the British Government have been educated at public schools and Oxbridge. Aditya Chakraborty in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section has written on this and the BBC documentary by Andrew Neil at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/posh-back-in-charge?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments .

More recently there have been reports about worsening social mobility and a growing gap between graduates and non-graduates and their future earnings (for example see http://bit.ly/qRigJC ).

I think the phenomenon makes for interesting reading but is a little misleading – even at the most notorious culprits, Eton and Oxford, the numbers and proportions of alumni going on to positions of power are relatively small. Each year out of the 2,000 or so graduates from Oxford only a couple or so will go on to become an MP. The proportions are likely to be statistically insignificant even if the cumulative effect is that Parliament at any one time may have over a hundred Oxbridge graduates in it. As an Oxford graduate my recollection is that “hacks” – students from whatever background who devoted large parts of their student days towards politics or journalism – were generally derided by their contemporaries. The networking opportunities available were shunned by the vast majority to create small cliques of people who wanted to get on in those fields and who by and large were desperate to widen the number of people doing it rather than to discourage them. Exclusion was social and from the outside of the cliques – discouragement of tentative hackery by “ordinary” students and ostracism of those who had committed to it or were perceived to have been tempted.

In an environment which selected largely the nerdiest ones from school, it was a chance for those former nerds to find themselves in the majority and to create new minorities of ubernerds in the context of university activities. This was not just for the political and journalist hacks but also, ironically, for the academically-minded who would be classed as “spods”.

However, broadening out from this, there is a problem about how society has developed to favour those who network. A couple of modern developments have unintentionally made things harder for those from ordinary backgrounds to get on generally rather than just in the special atmosphere of Oxbridge Quads and Courts.

I leave aside the move from selective to comprehensive education for the moment as I think the other developments are more significant if also more opaque.

One is the increased focus on qualifications and the expansion of the numbers of people gaining the higher ones.

Previously, it was possible to access most careers without having reams of paper qualifications or the very highest grades. There was a spectrum of qualifications at 16 which were readily comparable and which all were sufficient to enable entry into training and further study of different sorts. Going back to as late as the late 80s having 4 CSEs at Grade 3 would do to get into a skilled trade, having a couple of Grade 1s in key subjects like Maths or English would put you into contention for white collar work in banks and offices where many started at 16 and where most managers would have been no more qualified on entry. The type of school you had studied at would not be so big a deal for getting into good work at 16 at that level of qualification. Having O levels would place you in good stead for more intellectually demanding work like being a trainee journalist, accountant, surveyor etc. Having a couple of low grade A levels would place you in contention for management training. If you wanted a practical career like engineering it would be enough to get you on to HND courses to have had one or two relevant A levels, similarly to do the Teaching Certificate. Few did degrees but they were genuinely the passport to the higher professions or for the luxury of study for its own sake prior to competing with those with fewer qualifications but 3-5 years of work experience.

Now, qualifications below A level are largely worthless in themselves. There are few skilled jobs available to those with just GCSEs or A levels and certainly few opportunities to get on the ladder of management training outside the uniformed civil and military services. Degrees are the norm for those entry level positions but whereas in the past the level and grade of a public qualification was important, the shifting of the point of employment selection to graduates means that employers have to discriminate on the basis of the perceived value of the university attended and the broader merits of applicants outside their qualifications just to make recruitment manageable..

The impact of this has been to make it essential for individuals to be able to differentiate themselves by means other than their qualifications when in the past, qualifications could be used as a helpful proxy for candidates’ relative merits.

Whereas in the past schools could provide a good education by enabling their pupils to get appropriate grades now they all need to push towards getting their pupils to university just to get them into the mix for jobs at 21 and there is a need for those pupils to somehow develop networking skills and be willing to take unpaid internships.

Accepting that comprehensives have not harmed the academic achievements of those who would in the past have gone to grammar schools and even that they have raised the attainment of those who would have gone to secondary moderns (at least for the sake of argument) the problem has been that the post 92 (and particularly the post 97) focus on Higher Education as a goal has shifted the path to adult success. While there were multiple paths to successful adult careers and jobs a comprehensive system might have fitted children to these multiple paths. The narrowing down of post-16 options to a single highly favoured graduate path has had the effect of negating the value of comprehensive education by designing in presumed failure for those who don’t progress to degree level study.

Andrew Neil’s view that the loss of the grammar schools has set social mobility back is thus only coincidentally correct – it is the loss of grammar schools combined with remodelling society to favour precisely the sort of attainment that grammar schools focused on that is the problem. The 80s were not great times for public and private schools – they were a time when the “role models” and economic success stories were not aristocrats and the upper middle classes but barrow boys making a mint in the City and skilled working class people getting to own their own homes and businesses. Being versed in the Classics and setting yourself up to be a salaried professional meant falling behind the lifestyles of the Loadsamoney generation. Making higher education the goal for two or three times as many as previously experienced it gave private schools the chance to offer what the grammar schools used to and thereby find a new role and prominence.

The other development that paradoxically harms social mobility is the advance and ubiquity of social media. This has meant that the standard and quality of “networking” that is needed to get on is radically greater than a generation or two ago. Even at public schools and Oxbridge historically, the proportions of students who had family and friends connections were fairly low so the unconnected were in the majority at both and had to build connections themselves to the extent necessary. In most careers outside politics, the necessary extent was low.

Now, every young person (and many not so young people) is continuously networking through facebook, graduating onto twitter and linkedin. Who knows who and public recommendations (or likes) proliferate. There’s so much networking “noise” because making a twitter connection (etc) is too easy. Only those who have the rare good fortune of coming from the right family backgrounds can get the real networking relationships of value unless they are lucky. Standing out used to be relatively easy – not so much needed to be done past a bit of persistence and a thick enough skin to be a “hack” whether at university or through a trade union or even just by writing to people. Now everyone can and many do have access to the great and the good they are paradoxically further away from being noticed as individuals. So it is inevitable that even those leaders who bemoan the lack of diversity or social mobility will turn to those that they know personally.

The real problem is, how can things realistically be changed? Perhaps we are already seeing the first steps. Some large accountancy firms have responded to the rise in tuition fees by moving their job application stage to before University and offering to pay university fees and maintenance. This may start to replicate itself as a practice across other areas of employment to bring opportunity back to younger people based on their potential – a revival of the entry point to management being at 18. This would also enable teenagers to have a more realistic view of the impact of further study rather than buying into a narrative of degree=higher earning power for all graduates and blindly following that path. Choosing to do a degree without employer sponsorship would mean making a real choice that a degree was still going to be of value to the individual student rather than the default position to enable them to apply for a job in the future.

The move towards favouring a narrowing of the curriculum so that more students do more traditional subjects at GCSE may also help by making qualifications more readily comparable. The proliferation of new subjects and qualifications with nominally equal value has not worked because they are rightly or wrongly still perceived as having lower value. Changing those attitudes has proved too difficult and is perhaps not really worth doing. If Media Studies et al are of equal value then why should modern languages or even history and geography be considered “too hard” or “not relevant enough” for the same students?