This month saw those two elite universities, Oxford and Cambridge, issuing their offers for undergraduate places. The lucky candidates must now buckle down to achieve the stratospheric grades most will need to take up their places.
No easy ride, then. But at least they’re spared the dual pain of those who, turned down, subsequently gain the three A*s demanded of their successful rivals. “Why them,” they might ask, “and not me?”
Such questions lend strength to the recent proposal in a Higher Education Policy Institute report that elite universities should allocate places at random among suitably qualified candidates to help disadvantaged students.
Superficially, it may appear persuasive. Closer scrutiny reveals that it’s a barmy idea.
Only the start
First, the practicalities. It’s implied that the elite universities offer places solely on the basis of qualifications. Yet currently most students apply while still at school. They’re not yet qualified at all (except at GCSE), let alone equally.
So a lottery system could only be implemented if candidates applied after the publication of A-level results. That approach – post-qualification application – would actually be a vast improvement for many reasons, but not for this one.
Next, a factual correction. For Oxford, Cambridge and other top destinations, A-level results or predictions are only the start.
These universities not only interview candidates who produce strong applications (based on GCSE results, personal statements, school references and predicted grades), but also make them sit specific tests, some to gauge their subject knowledge, others their aptitude for their chosen course.
As a result, applicants are not “equally qualified”, but graded and ranked in considerable detail. The interview is a powerful discriminator and is nowadays (if not in the past) systematically conducted to be as informative as possible.
But here’s where the lottery idea becomes a nonsense. Top selector universities are just that: selective. They employ a raft of measures to identify not the strongest A-level prospects, but the applicants who will go furthest in their degree studies: in other words, those with the greatest potential.
Moreover, with so much pressure on them to widen access to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, these universities already leave no stone unturned to find them. When they do, and reckon they’ve spotted the promise they’re looking for, they routinely lower the hurdle of the conditional offer as appropriate.
The universities aren’t daft: they acknowledge the political, social and moral imperative. But they’re frustrated by not getting enough bright applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re not claiming they don’t exist, but they’re not seeing them.
Heather Hancock, the new master of St John’s College, Cambridge – a top destination by any measure – blames schools, complaining that pupils are being put off from applying to Cambridge by their teachers, who tell them it's "not for the likes of you".
She’s wrong, harking back to a former dark age: one that may once have existed and in which she perhaps grew up. But present-day schools are all about aspiration and I refuse to believe that teachers are discouraging pupils from aiming high.
Clumsy social engineering
Nonetheless, there remain influences that act against children’s own ambitions and those of schools for them, mostly stemming from a continuing lack of hope within disadvantaged families and communities.
Schools probably cannot overcome these difficulties on their own. Universities can help. But the government is best placed to improve matters by looking at financial support for the most deprived.
However, just as it doesn’t help for the government to bang schools over the head with messages about expectations, so too would tying the hands of some of the best institutions in the world (Oxford is ranked top) do nothing but harm.
The academic path is not the only route to health, wealth, happiness and the nation’s intellectual richness and economic prosperity. But it is one of them, and it is important.
Preventing top universities from selecting the very strongest candidates – the intellectual elite, indeed – is not the right way to widen access.
Such a clumsy form of social engineering risks doing damage to higher education in this country and its academic standing in the world.
And playing lottery games with young people’s chances is unpardonable.
Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford