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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change