This guest blog has been kindly contributed by John Plowright, a former History teacher in an independent school and the author of various History textbooks, who has advised hundreds of pupils on their admission to higher education, including Oxbridge.
Oxbridge, despite the best endeavours to widen access by the two universities, constituent colleges, successive governments and the Sutton Trust, is still widely viewed as a bastion of elitism, with the Oxbridge admissions interview at the dark heart of the process perpetuating privilege.
The cases of Tracey Playle and Laura Spence certainly focused attention on the alleged iniquities of the Oxbridge interview. For any who don’t remember, Tracey was reduced to tears in 1997, after Dr Eric Griffiths allegedly mocked her ambitions and Essex accent at her interview to read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, whilst Laura, another state school pupil with excellent GCSEs and A-level predictions, was rejected for a place to read Medicine by Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1999, on the grounds that she was thought to have performed less well at interview than the other candidates.
Laura’s headteacher expressed the suspicion that her being from the north east of England had counted against her, and Gordon Brown made a speech in which he claimed that she had suffered discrimination by ‘an old establishment interview system.’It is still assumed in some quarters that the privately-educated applicant, having the benefits of received pronunciation, personalised tuition and practice interviews in architectural surroundings not dissimilar to Oxbridge by ‘beaks’ as eccentric as any Oxbridge don, need have no reason to fear the real thing.
Expressions of discontent with the Oxbridge interview system have not, however, been restricted to the left of the political centre. In 2001, for example, following a survey of more than 10,000 students from 460 schools conducted by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in conjunction with the Girls’ Schools Association, independent schools complained that many of their applicants suffered ‘rude, abrasive and arrogant’ treatment at the hands of their Oxbridge inquisitors.
It seems Oxbridge can’t win. Short of equipping dons with bodycams, their interviewers are always liable to be accused of disadvantaging some applicants as the result of rank snobbery or misguided social engineering.
This is not to say that unprofessional conduct never occurs or to condone it if it does but it’s worth reflecting that interviews are, in their very nature, highly unsatisfactory as a means of assessing people – even if they are rarely as disastrous as that conducted by Ed Kemper’s parole psychiatrist who judged there to be ‘no psychiatric reason to consider him to be a danger to himself or any other member of society’ at precisely the time when part of Kemper’s latest victim lay outside in the boot of his car.
Oxbridge appreciate the limited value of interviews and have a battery of other means of assessing the suitability of an applicant, including: examination performance and predictions; submitted work; the UCAS Personal Statement and school report; and the results of tests taken during the interview process or beforehand, such as the Cambridge Law Test or Oxford’s History Aptitude Test. But it is also true that the difference between success and failure may ultimately come down to a highly subjective interview assessment of something as nebulous as an applicant’s ‘potential’.
Any interviewer worth their salt knows an interviewee needs to be put at their ease if they’re to have a chance to perform well. But time is at a premium, notwithstanding the fact that fewer applicants are now called for interview (having been weeded out by written tests), and thus candidates should expect quite swiftly to be taken out of their A-level (or equivalent) comfort zone and tested on their ability to think for themselves. As the late Kevin Sharpe put it ‘interviews are not tests of knowledge, or even primarily of reading. They are intended to explore the potential of candidates, their capacity to make connections, to think broadly and freshly … to think “outside the box”.’
One problem is that questions designed to elicit candidates thinking outside the box can easily be seen, especially taken out of context, as impossible, esoteric or passive aggressive. A classic instance is ‘Tell Me About a Banana’, the subtitle of Rachel Spedding and Jane Welsh’s So You Want to Go to Oxbridge?: a guide to the Oxbridge admissions process, which offers many other examples of apparently bizarre interview questions. In fact, it appears that the seemingly random banana question arose from the fact that the candidate to whom it was posed had written about plantains on their personal statement. It’s worth remembering that several enterprises which present themselves as shedding light on Oxbridge admissions actually have a commercial incentive to retain the sense of mystery, particularly that which surrounds the interview.
Oxbridge have taken important steps to try to demystify the process by releasing sample interview questions (and answers), offering advice and posting mock interviews, although one suspects that the latter bear about as much relation to the real thing as Christopher Hitchens volunteering to be waterboarded.
In 1985, the BBC broadcast a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary series called Queens’: A Cambridge College. ‘Getting In’, the first of its ten episodes, followed students – both state and privately educated – through the admissions process. Although obviously edited, this recorded the questions and responses from actual interviews, as well as showing the dons engaging in post-interview reflections on what they’d seen and heard. This enlightening programme is still available via YouTube, although changes to admissions procedures have rendered it dated.
Wouldn’t it therefore be a good idea for a new documentary of this type to be made? The number of applicants to Queens’ shot up in the aftermath of the series being televised and even those who didn’t get in at least had the opportunity to vent their spleen on film. Everyone would be a winner, not least those who still find the Oxbridge interview an object of suspicion and distrust.
HEPI’s work on Oxbridge includes How Different is Oxbridge by Charlotte Freitag and Nick Hillman