Before making an application to Oxford or Cambridge virtually all students are aware that in order to secure a place they will be expected to have attained some of the highest grades in the country.
So notorious is this focus on academic achievement in the admissions process that the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) concluded last week that many students are put off applying to the UK’s elite universities, thereby limiting the effectiveness of university outreach programmes and hindering social mobility. This insistence on a strong academic record has resulted in a world of “snobbery and discrimination”, argues the report, which leads students to overlook any “systematic differences in teaching quality” between universities, and ultimately form an application based on their individual likelihood of securing a place.
What the report highlighted was the difficulty experienced by many universities in combating the perception of exclusivity which accompanies high entry requirements, whilst still insisting on a basic standard of entry needed to maintain both quality and reputation. This problem is further exacerbated if academic ability is seen as the product of previous educational opportunities, rather than naturally-endowed talent.
Yet the solution to perceptions of elitism at top universities cannot be a recalibration of focus away from academic merit. To do so not only exposes UK universities to renewed accusations of ‘dumbing-down’, but also, critically, it runs the risk of misleading applicants about the pressures they can expect to face as an undergraduate at an internationally-recognised institution. Study at Oxbridge is hard, and for the most part, attainment is assessed through pure academic achievement. It is only fair to prospective applicants that this reality is reflected in university admissions policy.
This is not to deny that the fearsome reputation of the much-mythologised Oxbridge admissions process is enough to deter some suitable students from applying. Professor Tim Blackman, the report’s author, certainly has a point that elite universities suffer from an ‘image problem’ – though he makes an unhelpful assertion that insistence on high academic standards amounts to snobbery. If anything, this only reinforces the false perception that access to an Oxbridge education is limited to those identified at a young age as conventionally clever, impeding the commendable efforts made by colleges to expand their outreach projects.
Blackman’s comments raise another issue. Clearly, from Oxbridge’s perspective, there is a problem in the way that elite universities are perceived, particularly by students who might not consider themselves suitable for study at places famed for their gruelling admissions processes. But the implication behind the HEPI’s report is that students looking to apply to elite universities instinctively avoid those with lower entry requirements, regardless of teaching quality or potential future career prospects.
If this is the case (and there is no reason to presuppose that it is – the nature of the UCAS admissions system encourages students to temper their ambitions with a more realistic ‘insurance’ choice), then perhaps a more constructive conclusion is that we must seek a different metric by which to judge the quality of educational institutions. Challenging the assumption that tougher entry requirements equate to a better overall education would encourage students to focus instead on the quality of teaching or the likelihood of obtaining a good degree – all the more important factors in a world where tuition fees look set to rise even further.
Undoubtedly, elite universities need to be honest about the effect that their high admissions expectations have on dissuading credible potential candidates. Equally, it is important to recognise that this results as much from individual confidence and disparities in external encouragement and assistance offered to students during the admissions process, as from the actual suitability of a student to study at Oxbridge.
No-one would suggest that current university outreach projects have been unsuccessful – in 2015, 20.3 per cent of undergraduate places at Oxford were filled by students from target schools identified by the university’s Access Agreement (schools with little or no tradition of sending students to Oxford). Still, there is considerable room for improvement.
There is scant evidence that reducing focus on academic achievement in admissions policies encourages a diversity of applications, but doing so runs the real risk of misleading students over the intensely academic environment at the UK’s world-class leading institutions.
Instead, the solution lies in inspiring confidence in students who might not otherwise consider making an application, not in misrepresenting to students what it is they are actually applying for.