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Mark Ellse: The odd thing is that Oxbridge entrance is entirely on merit


The first week back in school in January is a tense time for those students who have applied for entrance to Oxford and Cambridge. In these next few days they will find out whether their performance in exams so far taken and interviews has been sufficient to get them a conditional offer for admission to a college. Such offers will be high ones, typically A*AA or A*A*A, but few pupils will fall at this hurdle. Those who receive offers will have, on average, exam performance to date of 95 per cent. For them the 90 per cent required for an A* at A level is entirely achievable.

The Oxbridge entrance system is often pilloried because it results in the majority of Oxbridge students being from independent schools. But when one looks at the system closely, one realises that it is possibly as fair a system as one could devise.

Oxford and Cambridge are unashamedly academically elitist and selective. Unlike an Ivy League university of the United States like Harvard which, to some criticism, selects ‘at most 10 per cent…of its students on the basis of academic merit’ with the rest ‘selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel…donations, and legacy status’ Oxbridge is clearly for the academic elite. Gone are the days when a brilliant rugby player of lower academic ability will get a place. Woe betide the outstanding potential organ scholar who fails to get his three A grades. If you are not academically right at the top, you simply won’t get an Oxbridge offer. And if you don’t then get your grades, you won’t get a place. All this results from, and demonstrates the effectiveness of, a highly sensitive and competitive free market economy.

It is an accident of history perpetuated into the present that Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate institutions. One applies to a college, gets an offer from a college and lives and receives much of one’s teaching within that college. Lecture courses and examinations, however, are provided by the whole university. This inevitably results in competition between colleges to get the best pupils and the best results. Publicly available Tompkins and Norrington tables compare the class results of students in the different colleges. Inevitably there is prestige and kudos from being at the top of the tables and no college likes to be low down. The result is systematic efforts by the colleges to attract the most able students and to provide good standards of teaching.

Admissions tutors don’t care about the gender, ethnic origin or sexual preferences of an applicant. Despite a general desire to retain a good number of UK students, country of origin doesn’t matter much either. But what is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever prepared Oxbridge applicants is that colleges have no regard at all for the socio-economic class of the applicant or the school they went to. Do Oxbridge tutors favour those from independent schools? Not at all! Their job is to get the very best brains from wherever they can. Tutors will ferret away to discern ability in the worst prepared, least socially confident state school pupil because it is in a college’s interest so to do. They want the best candidates with the highest academic ability, whatever school they come from.

Of course, no selection process is perfect. Some very good students are missed: the occasional weaker student gets through. But such errors are the inevitable result of the lack of perfection of any human system, not an indication that the system could be any fairer.

Interestingly, despite the excellent Oxbridge admissions system, successful students will become aware of a sharply contrasting side of Oxbridge education shortly after they arrive at university in October. They face a situation that is shared among many of our good universities. Oxbridge students find that, though competition is highly motiving to keep colleges working hard to do their best, there is no such free market for their lectures. The command economy of the university gives students no choice. It is that lecture – or nothing! Some lectures are excellent – stimulating thoughts from the experts in the field. Others are dreadful because not all of these experts have the ability to teach well. A worrying proportion of lecture courses are badly thought out, ill-prepared and sometimes not understood even by the lecturer giving it. It rather amused me during my finals year to find that one of my lecturers had no idea what he was lecturing about because he was simply reading someone else’s lecture notes! When one talks to any Oxbridge student, one learns that the situation is little different today.

Years ago I met a chap from Harvard who was waxing lyrical about the quality of that university, which was at that time heading some international university league table. He spoke volubly about the eminence of teaching staff, the wonderful facilities and that the university would fly politics students to see live sessions of the Senate. Funnily enough he gave me the impression that Harvard had much in common with Oxford and Cambridge. He said not a word about the quality of teaching.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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