Although a candidate's ethnicity is generally evident from his or her name and the photograph in their file, there is never any overt discussion of race. This seems surprising when both Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of being racially as well as socially exclusive.
But just this once, I can resist that temptation because what really strikes me about this piece is the immense power of bureaucracy as an organisational form, and the way it shields the bureaucrats from feeling responsibility for their decisions. Consideration is given to a candidate of obvious ability from a disadvantaged background.
The rapid pace of Cambridge would "kill her", one of the academics says. Another agrees: "I would really like to give her a place, but for her own sanity, she's much better going to one of the other redbrick, Russell Group universities, and just taking her time."
Partington says: "If we gave her a chance she would do what everybody else would do, and think: 'I'll probably be all right' and she will probably be wrong."
There is a despairing consensus around the table that the university cannot repair the gaps in this candidate's knowledge. A damning line from the school's reference – which lays bare its inability to teach the candidate – is read aloud by a tutor who raises outstretched hands in exasperation. The candidate's file goes back into the trolley with a clang.
Why is there a consensus amongst this group that Cambridge - one of the best resourced educational institutions in the world - 'cannot' fill the gaps in this candidate's knowledge? The reason is that Cambridge has chosen not to when it decided to structure its programme in a particular way. The programme could take longer, or start slower and speed up later, or an optional additional year could be tacked on the front. But the beauty of bureaucracy is that when the programme is designed and validated, that happens in a different room at a different time - perhaps even some of the people are different. By the time any individual admissions case comes up for consideration, the design and structure of the course - chosen by Cambridge - has become a hard constraint in the face of which fair-minded individuals are helpless. A group of bureaucrats get to sit in Cambridge perpetuating systems of inequality, and feeling like decent people while they do it.