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1 August 2022

Liz Truss’s Oxbridge plan is truly baffling

Our education system is in crisis – and this is her priority?

By Sam Freedman

Liz Truss’s proposal, announced over the weekend, to offer Oxbridge interviews to all triple A* students took me back to 2012 when I worked with her at the Department for Education (DfE). It has all the hallmarks of a classic Truss idea: bafflingly obtuse, poorly thought through, and impossible to implement.

For a start, the potential beneficiary group is tiny. In the last normal year of exams around 3,000 students got three A* grades – around 1 per cent of candidates. Numbers have been inflated over the past few years due to Covid interruptions to proper exams, but by next year they should be back to that level. This is a far smaller number than those applying to Oxbridge – around 30,000 a year – and the overlap will already be substantial. The group of those getting top grades is also skewed towards young people educated in private or selective schools. There will be a handful who go to comprehensive schools and who haven’t already applied to Oxford or Cambridge, and they may well have good reason not to. Not everyone wants to go to Oxbridge.

Moreover, because students go through the university application process before getting their results, there’s no way of knowing who will actually get three A*s, and thus who would be affected by the policy. In response to this point, Truss’s campaign have said they support moving to a new system of application after results are received (called “Post Qualification Application” (PQA) by higher education policy wonks). In an ideal world we should do this – the current system doesn’t make a lot of sense – but it’s a technical nightmare that multiple governments have failed to do and universities mostly oppose. In short, it’s not going to happen any time soon.

And even if Truss did manage to implement PQA to help this handful of students, the government still wouldn’t have the power to make Oxbridge interview specific individuals, unless they passed a law to do so. Which would be a strange use of limited government time.

So it’s not an implementable policy. Yet the biggest issue with the idea is the warped sense of priority. We have an education system rocking from the combined effect of a decade of spending cuts, the aftermath of Covid, and a teacher recruitment crisis. The gap between pupils from low income families and everyone else stopped narrowing in 2018 and is quite possibly growing again – especially given the growing number of children being forced into deep poverty by benefits caps and inflation.

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How anyone could think, given these challenges, that it was important to spend time and effort helping a small number of the very highest achievers attend a marginally more prestigious university than the one they’d have gone to anyway is entirely beyond me.

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It also shows, yet again, the pernicious effect that Oxbridge continues to hold over the political imagination. The constant assertion that there are only two universities really worth attending distorts the whole education system and undermines the achievements of those who go elsewhere. You can’t help think it’s because so many senior politicians went to Oxford themselves. Truss (or, indeed, Rishi Sunak) would be the twelfth Oxford-educated prime minister since the war. Greater educational diversity in Westminster may be the only way to break the obsession.

[See also: Can Liz Truss’s tax cuts work?]

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