The Telegraph on Oxford: wrong, wrong, wrong

by Stephen Tall on December 15, 2005

If you read the headline, ‘Oxford caves in on state selection’, emblazoned across today’s front page of The Daily Telegraph, what might you imagine is the story?

Perhaps you would think that the University has buckled to the Labour Government’s latest social engineering whim? That it has agreed to junk independent selection by tutors on the basis of students’ academic ability in favour of a postcode lottery? And that it will now simply filter out the posh kids, no matter how bright, in favour of those from grotty state schools, no matter how thick? If you read the Telegraph this morning, that would be a reasonable inference to draw. Yet it would be utter rubbish.

The Telegraph (and its usually pretty sane education editor, John Clare) have a twin agenda: they wish to pummel Labour at every opportunity, and they wish to bait Oxford into sticking it to the Government, and declaring itself private. They are well entitled to hold both views. But what is quite wrong is to distort the facts to fit their agenda. That is what they rather grubbily decided to do today.

So how has Oxford ‘caved in’ on state selection? What is the Telegraph’s justification for its sensationalist inaccuracies? Well, a report has been prepared by the University’s admissions executive, chaired by the president of Corpus Christi College, Sir Tim Lankester. This proposes radical reform of Oxford’s admissions policy.
Currently, Oxford’s 30 undergraduate colleges are responsible for admitting students for the University’s degree courses: tutors assess applicants through a combination of submitted written work and personal interviews (and, sometimes, aptitude testing). There is an obvious downside to this. Some colleges – usually the richer, famous ones, like Magdalen – are vastly over-subscribed. Likewise so are some subject courses – such as Medicine. To apply to Oxford to read Medicine at Magdalen is, therefore, one of the toughest gigs going (as Laura Spence discovered).

Yet there are also colleges and courses – I daren’t name names – which are, relatively speaking, under-subscribed. This has two knock-on effects. First, some applicants who are ‘in the know’ play the system, applying to read an esoteric subject at a poorer college, so upping their chances of getting a place at Oxford. Secondly – and this is the fundamental problem the Lankester report is seeking to address – it means Oxford is turning away some strong candidates for over-subscribed colleges, while accepting some weaker candidates who were interviewed by a college with fewer applicants. For a world-class university such as Oxford, this is a fundamental admissions flaw which has to be addressed.

Under the proposed new system candidates will, as they do now, apply to the University. They will then be interviewed by academic tutors within the faculty to which they have applied, and ranked according to academic ability. Such a system already operates with great success in individual faculties, such as Law and Medicine. Those candidates who are successful will then be free to choose the college they would like to attend.

The proposal – which will doubtless face fierce testing at the University’s ruling body, Congregation – is not without its difficulties; most notably that it breaks the link between college tutors choosing the students for whom they will be responsible for three years. There will be many who lament such a change. Personally, I think the charge is overdone. College tutors often teach students at their own college for no more than one term, depending on which course options the student chooses. Besides, school teachers do not personally choose the students they teach, yet most find no difficulty in discharging their duty of care, educating every young person to the best of their ability. Why should university tutors be different? Are we really suggesting they don’t give a toss for a student’s performance unless they can take the credit for that student’s admission?

All of this is the usual stuff of internal university politics. The proposal has been put – one which seeks to improve selection solely on the basis of academic merit, but with some loss to college autonomy – and it will now be hotly contested, as such vital reforms should be within an academic community. There is no question that Oxford will do anything other than continue to defend staunchly its right to select on its own terms candidates with the talent and potential to achieve the highest academic goals. To compromise its academic integrity would irreparably damage the University’s global reputation for excellence.

But what totally defeats me is why any of this should be felt worthy of the front page of a national newspaper. I can’t help thinking the Telegraph will do anything to avoid making the Liberal Democrats the lead story.