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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Oxbridge, admissions, ethnicity and all that

The annual round of Oxbridge bashing has begun. This year, irony of irony,  David Cameron is leading the pack. If nothing else that  should give you pause for thought. Tories are very good at getting heavy with soft targets. The usual suspects  have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. Some making reasonable points, others just badly informed or seemingly incapable of rational argument. One particular focus has been on Oxford's record on ethnic minority admissions.

Now, as it happens, this is something I know a little about. In fact I've actually seen some of the evidence on ethnic admissions  that the critics would  have the university put in the public domain.  I too would like it to be in the public domain, but  at the moment it isn't and  the documents that contain it are headed Strictly Confidential. No doubt if I were to reveal the detail of the secrets therein I would be sacked for gross misconduct.

I would possibly also be prosecuted under the UK's data protection laws because in order to carry out a proper statistical analysis of the Oxford admission process one really has to condition on all of the information that is relevant to the selectors' decisions (not actual A level results which are normally unknown at the point an offer is made) but course choice, college choice, GCSE results and whatever additional entrance tests are applicable. Once one drills this far down into the data, identifying individuals would be comparatively easy if anyone was so minded.  This doesn't mean that data should not be available to bona fide researchers but it does imply that, under the current legal framework,  it should be subject to the same kinds of secure access restrictions that apply to all data  that are potentially disclosive of the identity of living persons.

Without giving away anything that couldn't be worked out from publicly available information the scope for ethnic bias in the internal processes is almost certainly ruled out at the point of selection for interview.  The numbers simply confirm this. It could hardly be otherwise because in most cases these decisions are made on an algorithmic basis combining information on existing academic performance and whatever entrance tests are required. At this stage human judgement doesn't really enter into it. There is a threshold; if you pass over it you move on to interview; if you don't you get a "wishing you every success" letter.

The lack of ethnic representativeness at Oxford  is mostly attributable to who applies and what their prior academic record is like. Mostly. If there is a smoking gun, and prudence prevents me from confirming or denying it, it can only concern what happens at the interview stage.

There could be several entirely natural reactions to this statement. One is disbelief. If you don't believe me, then there is little I can do at the moment to persuade you except hope that eventually the relevant data will become available for public scrutiny and my story  vindicated. Another is to accept that a large part of what we observe is driven by who turns up at the door and what their academic record shows but then go on to say that Oxford must try harder to persuade the no shows to join the party. 

Fair enough, but the university does actually spend a lot of money on outreach activities. No doubt it could spend more, but it is not obvious that spending more will make that much of a difference. It's also not obvious that anyone really knows what works and what doesn't.

I was once approached to carry out an "evaluation" of outreach activity, but it was immediately obvious that the people I was talking to had no real idea of what evaluation actually involved and were horrified by how much it would cost. It became entirely clear that they were not going to take away any money from their core activities in order to fund a serious evaluation of what they were doing.

A third reaction is to point the finger at the interview. I've got a lot of sympathy for that point of view and I'm not the only one. Oxford is not a monolith. You wouldn't guess that from the shrill condemnations of its critics. People within the walls actually do have different opinions about the interview process. A significant number would be happy to get rid of it. An equally large number of diehards believe the world (as they know it) would come to an end if interviews were abolished. They are right and that would be a good reason for doing it.

But, in my view, this is all fiddling around at the margins. I actually believe that the entire structure of English higher education is warped by the existence of Oxbridge. The problem is that entry to Oxford or Cambridge is viewed as a prize that should go to the swift and that is what turns it into a social club  and finishing school for those that have already done rather well out of the educational system. 

What is needed is radical and rational change. My prescription for the entire HE sector would look like this:

1) A baccalaureate style education up to 18 with all candidates for higher education having to be examined in a range of science and humanities subjects;
2) Post exam selection - none of this predicted grade nonsense;
3) Entry by threshold ie all universities must make publicly available a grade threshold for entry to their programmes. All applicants attaining the threshold must be admitted and in the case of oversubscription places to be allocated by lottery.
4) Special entrance examinations and interviews would be forbidden.

My prediction is that if we were to introduce something along these lines the Oxbridge problem, at least in its present form,  would go away, the talent would be dispersed over a wider range of institutions and teaching standards would be improved. I'm not holding my breath though.

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