Thursday, 1 March 2012

Access to elite universities

Photo by Chris Creagh
Jonathan Portes' blog has a useful piece about Oxford admissions, picking up some data reported by the Financial Times (free, but registration required). As Jonathan points out, it is bizarre for the FT, having analysed data which shows that Oxford is very much less likely to admit applicants from the least affluent state schools than from more affluent state schools or private schools, to put the headline 'School system hinders university access' over their piece. Wendy Piatt's statement to the press 'we cannot offer places to those who do not apply' whilst - obviously - being truthful almost to the point of tautology, suggests a lack of ownership of the issue or even a desire to avoid responsibility.

A couple of throat-clearing points are in order. Oxford is not typical even of Russell Group institutions. Secondly, the Russell Group's role is primarily lobbying. It does not set policy for its members. Wendy Piatt might be putting the best face on some pretty disgraceful data at the same time that her members back in their institutions recognise that the current position is disgraceful and they need to change.

I've previously quoted Martin Hall

While universities certainly provide life changing opportunities, they also serve as gatekeepers, maintaining differentiation by exclusion and ranking, and contributing to enduring inequalities.
Jonathan is right that the gatekeeping, exclusion and ranking is social engineering every bit as much as the life-changing opportunities, but I think he is still too kind to Oxford, participating in the genteel bureaucratic convention by which elite universities' decisions are treated as if they were actually binding external constraints.

For instance Jonathan says 'perhaps, even among those getting "very strong GCSEs", independent school pupils are better qualified, or applying for easier courses.' as if Oxford had no control over its entry criteria, and no choice of what subjects to offer. When a less prestigious university offers more Golf Course Management or less Classics, we recognise this as a decision that is subject to criticism. Oxford chooses to offer more Classics and less Management, even though it knows this directly results in less well-qualified privately educated applicants being admitted to study Classics whilst better qualified state school pupils are turned away from Management.

Jonathan quotes the well-established research which shows that private school students perform less well in final examinations relative to their GCSE results when compared with state school students. If this is true even within the current structure of courses, how much more might it be the case if Oxbridge courses weren't actually designed to ensure that the rapid pace of the first year will 'kill' students with any gaps in their previous knowledge? It is Oxford's decision what content to put in the course, how to pace it and how to assess. Nothing prevents them adding a whole year to the programme if they want to put more content in, or take things slower, to make a course accessible to those who have not been privately educated.

None of this is remotely new. Oxford was a bastion of white, middle- and upper-middle class privilege when I went there twenty-something years ago. There hasn't even been much progress. In 2002/3, HESA data showed that 55.4% of Oxford entrants were from state schools. Now it is 54.3%. It is true that they have moved closer to the benchmark - a mere 19.6 standard deviations away as at 2009/10 - but that is entirely attributable to the benchmark getting lower over time. The state schools metric is unduly kind to Oxford, which recruits disproportionately from the small group of state grammar schools that still remain.

So when Jonathan concludes that 'the admissions status quo is bad for both the UK's best universities and bad for bright pupils from poor backgrounds.' I am afraid I don't really believe him. No doubt there are many colleagues employed at Oxford who believe passionately in access, inclusion and excellence but the data show that consistently, over many years, the institution has opted for gatekeeping, exclusion and ranking by preference. In the hard test of practice, enduring inequality has consistently been preferred to ephemeral academic excellence. What is 'best' for Oxford, at least in Oxford's judgement, would seem to be maintaining that cosy relationship with the middle-class mediocrities of the establishment. 

The likes of me, in fact. 

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