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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.