Thursday, December 15, 2005

Brideshead Reformed

The Telegraph's headline this morning - "Oxford caves in on state selection" - must be one of the biggest exaggerations in headline history, and that is saying something. The article goes on to detail something that, whilst a huge change (and undoubtedly significant for an institution historically resistant to change), remains merely a proposal, and is a reform, or a tidying-up of the admissions process, rather than a means of making Oxford a glorified vehicle of social engineering.

Trust People is unconvinced by the changes, believing that the right of colleges to select their own pupils should not be abridged. I don't want to see college autonomy lost, because that is one of the factors that helps make Oxbridge as strong as it is. The college community allows you to widen your social network, provides opportunities for activities that might not be available in the wider university, and makes the university a more diverse place. However, the bedrock of the university must be academics. To that end, the best candidates applying to the university should be accepted.

Under the current system, I'm not certain that does happen. Application rates differ wildly from subject to subject, and from college to college. A good candidate applying to an oversubscribed college will almost certainly have a worse chance of getting in than a slightly poorer candidate applying to a less popular college. That isn't right, and there should be a method of addressing this. Handling admissions on a faculty, rather than a college basis, seems to me to be a good way of getting round this.

However, this should not be done at the expense of losing college input over these decisions at all. There is no doubt that candidates should still be interviewed; therefore they should be asked to choose a first-choice college, where their first interview at Oxford should take place. After that, however, they should be sent to other colleges, or possibly to a faculty panel with staff from two or more colleges, to have a second or maybe a third interview. This way, a wide range of feedback could be provided on each candidate, that takes away some of the randomness of the college system.

When, as in many subjects, this information would be provided on top of a written test, and pieces of work that have been submitted, then a collation of all this information would allow for some ranking of all the candidates in a given subject. Candidates can then be matched up with their first choice colleges.

Changing the system that way sounds to me a pretty fair way of ensuring the best candidates do get in. That may mean more state school candidates get in, it may mean that more private school candidates do. Whichever way, I don't mind, as long as the system is fair and judged on merit. There is a danger that the proposed changes to the system will help promote supposedly objective criteria above the assessment of academics. That would be a real shame, and demaning to the admissions process. Yet simply removing some of the control of admissions away from colleges, to ensure the best candidates are admitted, is not a huge problem to me. And it certainly isn't caving in to the state sector.