Merit is the only access to Oxbridge

1st September 2000 at 01:00
IN his article on this page of The TES two weeks ago, Dr Paul Kelley presented himself as an innocent American who inadvertently stumbled into a British political morass. Fiddlesticks!

He unleashed the row by pitchforking his excellent pupil Laura Spence into public controversy just weeks before her A-levels, six months after her initial disappointment and just nicely timed for Gordon Brown's attack on "privilege".

Now he repeats his accusations as if they had not been fully and repeatedly refuted.

Laura Spence was applying for a place at one of the most competitive colleges on one of the most sought-after courses at Oxford. There were 23 applicants for five places. All of them were predicted to do extremely well at A-level (and in the event they all did so). Those are the facts.

In a competition for a limited resource, an exam qualification cannot be an entitlement, only a starting point. Your horse may be a thoroughbred in tip top condition, but it has still to win the race. It is precisely because of the difficulty of distinguishing between candidates who are equally well-qualified on paper that Oxford - uniquely - has such an exhaustive process to select its students, a process that includes, generally, two academic interviews.

Consider the course for which Laura was applying. The candidates were interviewed exhaustively by five academics over two days. All those dons (who included three professors of international repute) were looking for the brightest pupils with the best potential they could find. They are simply not concerned whether the candidate comes from the inner city or a baronial pile - they are trying to judge academic potential and in this case also identify students who might turn into the best doctors.

The only discrimination involved is in favour of excellence. Of the five who pipped Laura to the post, three were women and three from ethnic minorities. Perhaps Dr Kelley would like to say which of these five he would have discriminated against in favour of Laura? Which would he have turned down?

Oxford is a university of international standing (by no means the only one in the UK) and must keep refreshing itself with the brightest and best students it ca get in every generation. It cannot afford to jeopardise its reputation by indulging in crude social engineering. But it goes to great lengths - and great expense - to persuade bright and able students, wherever they are at school, to think that Oxford may be right for them. In this respect, there is much still to be done, although much progress had occurred during the past decade. At my college, for example, the percentage of students from state schools has increased from 34 per cent to 48 per cent in five years. And we have achieved that not with targets or quotas, but by going out to schools and encouraging intelligent pupils to apply.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Chancellor hinted that he might link funding for university access programmes to how many students are accepted from a particular social or economic group. Dr Kelley called this "a bribe". For once, I agree with him. Not only would such a policy erode our credentials for excellence, but it may well be illegal, contravening the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

Such a policy is wrong but also unnecessary, since the trend is in the direction we all want. To intervene now with the blunt instrument of quotas and targets would be disastrous - and deeply insulting to the many thousands of state school candidates who win their places on merit alone. Some colleagues are currently experimenting with ways of enhancing our present admissions processes by adding a new kind of test designed to identify innate academic ability. And we are trying to raise more money - with no strings attached - to spend on persuading more schools to send candidates to us.

One good thing that I hope might emerge from the Laura Spence affair is that more of this year's really able sixth-formers could now be thinking of trying for a place at an Oxford or Cambridge college. One hopes that more teachers will exhort their brightest pupils to aim high now that there is wider public understanding of the criteria on which we select candidates. Yes, the competition will be fierce and many will be disappointed. But those who gain places will know that they have succeeded on merit alone.

Tony Smith is president of Magdalen College, Oxford

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