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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear