Oxbridge may be exclusive, but getting in is more about luck than anything else

The media is fascinated with the UK's two oldest universities and the demographics of its students, without acknowledging the randomness of its interview process.

Every year, the British media will bang out the same predictable stories about the Oxbridge entry process. In December they’ll write about crazy interview techniques; in August, they’ll debate the existence of systemic bias towards posh people. These stories have been written since time immemorial, as regular a feature of the British newspaper diet as Diana conspiracy theories and Winterval.

You don't get these kind of stories about Exeter or LSE, do you? The obsession with Oxbridge is entirely unique. It'd be nice to think this scrutiny reflects the fact Oxford and Cambridge graduates are more likely to end up with their hands on the levers of power in this country, but I suspect the truth is simpler: the media is disproportionately fascinated by Oxbridge entry largely because it’s disproportionately populated by Oxbridge graduates.

I am, I’m afraid, one of them, so what follows is probably just as self-indulgent as everything I was just complaining about. But I’m going to say it anyway because, in all the acres of newsprint about the class system and questions like "why is a banana", there's one substantial point that no one ever seems to mention: quite how much of the entry process is down to luck.

This is a strong claim, so will take some unpacking, but the reasons why mostly come down to two things. One is the collegiate system; the other is the interview process.

Consider. When you apply to Oxbridge, you generally apply to take a specific course at a specific college. Some courses receive lots and lots of applications; others, relatively few. Now, you can make an open application, and let a computer choose your college for you instead, which evens out the odds slightly; and anyway, the universities maintain it’s not possible to use this information to game the system.

But none of this changes the fact that some courses are simply more competitive than others: the playing field is not entirely level. If you’re good, but your chosen college doesn’t have a place for you, they’ll stick you in the “pool”, and if you’re lucky you might be plucked out to plug a gap at another college. Then again, if the right person doesn’t look at your paperwork, you might not. Bad luck.

The other reason Oxbridge entry can be ever so slightly arbitrary is that admissions are largely based on interview – and, as anyone who’s ever been interviewed for anything can attest, interviews are an art, not a science. Great candidates will be petrified and under-perform; lesser ones may have a natural confidence that sees them through. And anyway, how you do will depend to an extent on the rapport you have with your interviewer. One candidate may click with the tutor and shine; another doesn’t and won’t. If they’d applied to the college next door, it might well have been the other way around.

The result of all this is that those who are accepted will, to some extent, be those for whom the fates aligned. A few kids are so bright they’re all but bound to get in; a few won’t be academically strong enough, and won’t.

But in between, there's a vast swathe of candidates that could go either way. Maybe they performed well on the day. Maybe they were up against relatively weak competition. Maybe they got an interviewer who just happened to like them, and decided that this was a person they'd like to have around for the next three years. Any of these things might well have gone against them.

None of this is “unfair”, exactly. Oxbridge does remain disproportionately populated by the bourgeois and well-heeled, but whether this is the fault of the admissions process or some external factor is very far from clear. And, despite the horror stories, relatively few admissions tutors go out of their way to terrify nerve-wracked 17 year olds. The most detailed look at the application process from the inside is probably this excellent piece from the Guardian, which shows the admissions tutors taking contextual information like social background and school quality into account, and all but agonising over which candidates to take.

But it also shows them making subjective judgements about how to balance grades, confidence and background, and taking split second decisions about marginal candidates that it’s easy to imagine going the other way. And these, remember, are decisions that are going to have a massive impact on the opportunities open to those kids when they graduate. An Oxbridge degree isn’t an automatic ticket to fame and fortune (believe me, I know). But it still opens doors that many other degrees, with similar grade requirements and at excellent universities, just don’t.

Maybe, under the circumstances, it shouldn’t.

The courtyard of Keble College, Oxford University. (Photo: Getty)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt