Oxbridge must make admissions process transparent, if they want more state school pupils

By Prach - Posted on 19 January 2012

By Prach Panchakunathorn

Mr Jeevan Vasagar gained unprecedented access into the inner workings of Cambridge University's admissions process. The result was a revealing and insightful account (published in The Guardian last week) of how admissions decisions are made.

But other than the specifics of how each step in the admissions process is conducted, what more does Mr Vasagar's article show? I think it shows two important things. Firstly, it shows that earning a place at Oxbridge is not purely, or primarily, a matter of intelligence, as commonly thought. Secondly, it shows that the lack of transparency in Oxbridge's admissions processes hurts state school students worst. This in turn implies that transparency is the key to widening access: if Oxbridge want more state school pupils, then they must make their admissions processes as transparent as possible.

Not purely a matter of intelligence

The article gives enough insight into the admissions process to confirm my belief that getting in to Oxbridge is not purely, and perhaps not even primarily, a matter of raw intelligence. It's also largely a matter of getting the right training and advice. This is evident when the article tells us stories of some candidates who got rejected because of some simple, but fatal, mistakes they made, which could have been easily prevented had they received a little better advice from their teachers, or a little more training from their schools.

One mistake was to choose a wrong subject combination. The article tells us of an otherwise good candidate who attended a "really ropey" school, which did not seem to have given him good advice about choosing his A-Level subjects. The candidate applied to read National Sciences with A-Levels in Physics and Chemistry, but his third subject was an arts subject. "The lack of maths rules him out for the study of physics, [and] the absence of biology means he will struggle to be accepted as a biologist", an admissions tutor commented. "I feel sorry for him", another tutor said, "but I don't think we can fix the problem".

Knowing what to emphasise in one's personal statement is also important. According to the article, admissions tutors have "far less interest than is popularly thought in extra-curricular activity". So an otherwise good candidate can put herself in a disadvantaged position by rambling on about her extra-curricular activities, which will cost her the opportunity to write about her academic passions, but will not add much to her admissions scores. Here again, the chance of earning a place depends more on simple know-how, than on intelligence.

In admissions interviews, too, raw intelligence alone is not enough to make you "shine". While admissions tutors do seek signs of intelligence, what they actually detect depends not only on the candidate's intelligence, but much also on the candidate's style of presentation. A decently intelligent candidate who knows how to present her answers in a style familiar to academics can quite possibly outdo a highly intelligent candidate who doesn't.

What's more worrying is that, even with things that admissions tutors usually take to be sure signs of a candidate's intelligence may in fact be only signs of the candidate's knowledge of the etiquette of academic discussions. It is a common belief -- perhaps as common among laymen as among academics -- that an intelligent person should be able to judge, simply by the virtue of being intelligent, when to be opinionated, when to be sceptical, and when to abandon one's position and stop "digging oneself into a hole". But a little reflection will leave us wondering why all intelligent people should know how to do these things at all. Is it not simply knowledge of an etiquette of academic discussion? If it is, then the fact that a candidate does not know when to argue and when to stop, when to throw a guess and when to admit her ignorance, would scarcely tell us anything at all about the candidate's intelligence.

To see how knowledge of etiquette, rather than intelligence, has decided the fate of candidates in interviews, let us look at a comment made by an admissions tutor about a candidate from "an academy school in Norfolk". The admissions tutor is quoted as saying: "He managed to strike a balance between not being fazed by what's going on, and not being cocky either. The sort of person..." One does not need to be intelligent to learn not to be fazed by what's going on. Neither does one have to be very intelligent to learn not to be cocky. It's a matter of learning the etiquette - the way to behave in an academic discussion - and not a matter of intelligence.

How the lack of transparency hurts state school students

So let us stop pretending that getting in to Oxbridge is all about intelligence. It isn't. It's for a large part about getting the right information and training. But what does this tell us? Who wins and who loses from the way things are now? And what should Oxbridge do?

Well, secrets are worth keeping because they benefit those in the know. So secrets about the inner workings of Oxbridge's admissions processes benefit kids in schools that have better access to information about Oxbridge's admissions processes - i.e. private schools and state-funded grammar schools that have a large proportion of teachers who are Oxbridge graduates, and those which have a long history of sending their students to Oxbridge, so that they have a network of Oxbridge students as an extra channel of information. The best advantage, however, goes to students of top public schools, where some of the teachers may even have been Oxbridge dons with first-hand experience in making admissions decisions at Oxbridge themselves.

These privileged students will, at the very least, have the advantage of being proofed from making easy but fatal mistakes, like choosing a wrong combination of subjects and writing a wrong sort of personal statement - the kind of mistakes often made by state school candidates. But the advantage does not end there. Students of private and grammar schools, in many cases, are also trained by their schools to tailor their applications so as to tick Oxbridge boxes. And the best of all, they get taught the etiquette of academic discussion.

So Oxbridge, by not completely opening their admissions processes to the public, are complicit in preserving the over-representation of privileged students. They are giving undue advantages to those who can afford special channels to information, at the disadvantage of those who cannot.

If they want to take more students from state schools, what should they do? Well, the answer should now be obvious: they should make their admission processes as transparent as possible. Cambridge is one step ahead of Oxford on the road towards transparency, but both still have a long way to go.

Prach Panchakunathorn is a graduate student in Philosophy at Robinson College, Cambridge. He previously studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Jesus College, Oxford.