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The unreliable Oxbridge signal

Oxbridge seems to recruit extraordinarily heavily from a small group of southern private schools (presumed to include Eton and Westminster) according to a new analysis by the estimable Sutton Trust.

So what? Why do we care? The answers probably seem obvious. An Oxbridge education appears to unlock the upper echelons of the British establishment.

As work by the Sutton Trust has previously shown, a startlingly high proportion of judges, senior civil servants, business executives, cabinet members and journalists (disclosure: I went to Oxford) were educated at those two quadrangle-festooned institutions of higher education.

If Oxbridge is drawing disproportionately from fee-paying private schools, these are likely to be children from relatively wealthy (if not super wealthy) families. Those children of the rich thus appear get a sizeable additional advantage in their adult life (at least if one considers entering parliament, law, the civil service or the higher reaches of the media to be a desirable destination).

This is poisonous for British social mobility, a monstrous affront to any reasonable conception of fairness.

That’s why we should care. But let’s take a step back. Imagine we were designing a system for selecting capable and ambitious graduates for advancement in those kinds of professions.

What would that system look like? Once you ask this question, the central importance of Oxbridge as a recruiting pool starts to looks absurd, no matter who goes there. The numbers studying at Oxbridge have risen since higher education steadily opened up to the masses after the Second World War. But the growth in new places has not kept pace with the explosion of total student numbers over the past half century.

Perhaps they should double the number of Oxbridge colleges and build on the green belt around the two picturesque cities to accommodate the secular rise in demand. But, in the real world, the annual Oxbridge undergraduate intake is destined to remain tightly limited by geographical constraints.

The two universities currently accept around 7,000 new undergraduates each year. That’s now less than 1.5 per cent of national total undergraduate acceptances in 2017 (533,890). Since Oxbridge receive around six applications for every acceptance, admission is a zero sum game: one person’s place is a place not won by five others.

Why are Oxbridge students so dominant in the upper reaches of certain professions? Many will say it’s because so many smart children tend to go there. And that may well be true to a certain extent. But it’s not the whole story. And it misses a vital economic mechanism: signalling.

Oxbridge transmits a “signal” to employers and gatekeepers of a capacity on the part of a candidate for exceptional perseverance and capability. (For some it will be signal of social class too but let’s park that for the purposes of this argument.) Many employers faced with a hiring choice between two equally strong candidates for fast-track training or some other opportunity will opt for the Oxbridge one because of that signal.

Yet the signal may not be accurate. Indeed, it may be becoming less accurate over time given the rise in the numbers attending higher education. To put it another way, what reason is there to believe that those five ambitious children who didn’t get in to Oxbridge have less potential to be a top lawyer, accountant, journalist, business executive or an MP than the one who did? But note the incentives the signal creates. It gives smart and ambitious children an added reason to apply to Oxbridge because they correctly discern that their chances of future advancement are higher there. This battle for places among bright kids reinforces the signal of quality, creating a vicious circle.

None of this is to argue that efforts to reform Oxbridge admissions are irrelevant or unimportant. They certainly aren’t. But perhaps the bigger challenge is to, somehow, erode the prestige of these two institutions in employers’ eyes, to interfere with the signal.

We need to encourage a culture where employers and gatekeepers, whether in the public or private sector, do not look at these two midsized universities as some kind of gold standard. We need recruiters to wake up (more fully – many, in fairness, have) to the reality that there are also vast numbers of extremely able and talented people elsewhere too.

In other words, do not simply concentrate on making access to the elite recruitment pool fairer but try to make that pool much bigger too. Bear in mind too that, in such a transformed environment, bright students would not have such an overwhelming incentive to apply to Oxbridge and to engage in that zero-sum competition for places. The vicious circle could become a virtuous one.

The problem with “elitism” is not so much that it privileges ability (leaving aside concerns about the social implications of a true meritocracy) but that it is so arbitrarily exclusive.

It’s a sad irony that the intense media focus on Oxbridge admissions may serve to emphasise the institutions’ signalling power. If everyone thinks it’s terribly important how these universities select students, doesn’t that underline that they are also terribly important institutions, that “the best” are to be found there? University-blind admission processes, like the one introduced by Deloitte a few years ago, are welcome experiments and we should hope for more of them. If we paid less attention to where others went to university the world would be a less tedious place. It could also be more just.


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