The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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New road for Oxford entry
- 800-year-old admission system up for change

London, Dec. 15: Indian students applying to Oxford for undergraduate courses may have to apply to a university department in the future rather than to an individual college, as has been the practice for nearly 800 years.

Oxford ' like Cambridge ' is under pressure from the government, the main source of funding for the university, to increase the proportion of pupils it takes from state schools as compared with fee-paying public schools.

The figure is currently about 50-50 but the government wants that changed to 70-30 in favour of state school entrants.

Oxford feels the changes in admission procedure, if agreed, will further ensure “the brightest pupils” are admitted.

“The changes are not a done deal,” an Oxford University spokeswoman told The Telegraph. “There is some support for the idea, some opposition, so there will be a lot of discussion. The changes won’t be considered until summer 2006.”

There will be no change, however, in the admissions procedure for postgraduate students because they apply anyway to university departments which farm out the research scholars to the colleges.

The way the system has worked until now is that the colleges, which now number 39 at Oxford, were autonomous in choosing the candidates they liked and rejecting would-be undergraduates they didn’t.

This has sometimes led to whimsical choices but today the underlying problem is that there simply aren’t enough places to go around. Of the 12,500 pupils who apply to Oxford currently, 80 per cent have three or more “A” grades in their school-leaving Advanced Level exams. But there are only 3,000 undergraduate places.

The government now wants the university to discriminate positively in favour of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It argues, for example, that a working-class Bangladeshi Muslim girl from an inner-city comprehensive school who gets, say, grades A, B and C in her A levels shows greater “potential” than the son of an Indian tycoon who is “coached” to get four As from a top-flight public school like Eton or Harrow.

It is true that in the Wodehousian past a candidate, who said, “I want to come to this college because my Dad was here,” would be looked upon with a kindly eye. Today, the same candidate would be out on his ear if he expressed the same sentiments.

There have long been apocryphal stories about how a candidate got in if he caught the rugby ball the admissions tutor tossed on entering the room. The candidate who drop-kicked the ball into the tutor’s wastepaper basket was in with an open scholarship, it was alleged.

Much has changed. The open scholarships have gone, as have nearly all the single-sex colleges. In practice, this has meant the men’s colleges have been admitting women for many years now.

What the colleges zealously guarded was their right to decide whom they wanted. Under the proposed changes, that right is about to be taken away and given to a central department-based admissions group. Successful candidates would be allocated colleges, perhaps taking into account the candidates’ preferences.

Given that over the centuries Oxford ' and Cambridge ' have encouraged loyalty to college rather than to the university, the change being proposed is quite radical.

According to Oxford University’s official statement, “the discussion paper proposes that there should be a single model for handling undergraduate applications covering all subjects. Building on best practice as it currently exists in several subjects, it outlines two possible options.

“Both options envisage a single university-wide model for handling undergraduate applications in all subjects, but with differing approaches to the involvement of individual colleges in the process.”

Under the first model, all those shortlisted would have, at least, two interviews. Successful candidates would, if they so wished, indicate a first and second college preference. Colleges would then select from amongst them. All successful candidates would be found a college place.

Under the second model, candidates would continue, if they wished, to state a college preference at the time of application. They would be ranked at shortlisting and final offer stage by subject tutors collectively. Those shortlisted would be interviewed by tutors in two colleges. Colleges would be guided but not absolutely bound by the rankings.

The chairman of the working party, Sir Tim Lankester, president of Corpus Christi College, said: “At Oxford we keep our admissions procedures under constant review, and in autumn 2004 we set up a working party as part of that ongoing process.”

Lankester emphasises: “We are committed to upholding the colleges’ traditional commitment to excellence in the teaching of undergraduates, and the proposals do not affect the autonomous status of colleges or the way teaching is organised.”

The discussion paper will be considered by various committees representing the colleges, divisions, departments and faculties, and by college governing bodies. In the light of their views, recommendations will be put to the university’s Educational Standards and Policy Committee and to the Conference of Colleges. A decision will not be taken before summer 2006, the university states.

However the proposals are phrased, middle-class parents, who have begged, borrowed and scraped to send their children to public schools, regard the changes as an assault on their way of life. No one believes that letting in “the brightest pupils” will mean admitting more public school candidates.

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