Oxford Quotas: A Lazy 'Solution' to Deep-Seated Problems

19/05/2016 10:32 | Updated 19 May 2016

Co-authored by Anna Lukina, First Year Law (Jurisprudence) Student at Oxford University

The release of Oxford's latest admissions statistics has been met with a predictable response - namely, the levelling of the now-traditional charge against the University that it is not doing enough to be inclusive, by a commentariat which evidently sees itself as knowing better than the admissions tutors what constitutes "enough" admissions from state schools or minority backgrounds. Naturally, this has also led to the suggestion that the solution to this problem lies in quotas - measures which are patronising and ineffective, but which moreover go against the fundamental obligation of a university, which is to admit the most suitable students who apply.

This year, Oxford admissions have attracted even more attention after Oxford's Chancellor, Lord Patten, who became notorious for challenging the student left after his remarks regarding the statue of Cecil Rhodes earlier this year, commented on the government's plan to diversify the university demographics and the prospect of such quotas for low-income and BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students - a practice currently implemented in some US universities. "Nobody will explain to me how you can make a system of quotas work while retaining the highest admissions standards," - he told the Telegraph. Surprisingly (or rather unsurprisingly in the current age), these candid remarks have sparked outrage from critics, and among the Oxford students on social media platforms, describing them as classist, racist, capitalist, and the like. This, once again, proves not only the failure of those subscribing to the seemingly-ascendent paradigm in some sections of society that alternative viewpoints are unreasonable, but also how quickly the access debate becomes emotionally charged. However, we believe that one should look beyond emotions and critically evaluate the likely effects of any proposals and policies, even (perhaps especially) those which seem superficially or populistically attractive.

To begin, Lord Patten's point is neither racist nor classist, but fundamentally correct; quotas by their very definition cause a decline in quality from the perspective of the institution because they can force it to turn away the candidate that it perceives as the best in favour of a different candidate based on factors beyond the control of either candidate. Moreover, there are risks of harm to an applicant so admitted; as Sir Eric Thomas pointed out, Oxbridge is a very high-octane environment, and admitting someone who might not thrive there would be a grave mistake. The unique teaching style of Oxford is far different from nearly every other university, suitability for which cannot simply be measured in grades, and of which the interview is hitherto our best determinant. Admission under a quota system are also extremely patronising, not least because it suggests that certain people are incapable of meeting the admissions standards on their own merits. Indeed, there seems no better way to encourage the festering of impostor's syndrome than the lingering doubt that you were quite literally admitted to make up numbers, and did not truly earn your place.

More importantly still is that quotas are simply ineffective; they are but a convenient sticking plaster which does little to cover the chasms of social mobility in society today, and merely a means by which we can pat ourselves on the back for doing our good deed for the day rather than undertaking the long-term work needed to improve social mobility more generally rather than simply at the very top. A Parliamentary Report entitled "Seven Key Truths About Social Mobility" noted, for instance, that the abolition of most of England and Wales's grammar schools has in fact had adverse effects on social mobility. It is not hard to see why; in Northern Ireland, the teaching of the 11-plus on the national curriculum, coupled with the continued proliferation of grammar schools, allows pupils from all backgrounds a far higher chance to reach the standard required for Oxford than the postcode lottery of the comprehensive system - a postcode lottery which both pushes up house prices in the catchment areas of good comprehensives, but which creates a system where the demand for private education actually goes up to escape such a lottery.

Faced with the prospect of having to consider serious reforms such as this, or, for example, of reintroducing Latin and Ancient Greek to the syllabi of many schools - which would surely be necessary to widen access to Classics courses for which this is a requirement, and which are unsurprisingly dominated by applicants from private schools - which would actually help raise social mobility far more widely than Oxford admissions, the alternative of simply putting a quota on Oxford admissions and pretending that everything is OK under the surface may be tempting, but will only ensure that wider issues of social mobility remain unaddressed.

Despite all the accusations, Oxford seems to do a solid and stable job of choosing the best of the best while taking into account educational and social disadvantages many face. On the very first stage of admissions, it uses "contextual applications" (with "flags" based on prior education, place of residence, and care background) to "strongly recommend" suitable candidates for an interview. This practice, much more nuanced and restricted than quotas, allows to balance the two limbs of meritocracy - intellectual excellence and equal opportunities. Moreover, with many candidates facing obstacles long before the application process begins, one of the University's priorities is to encourage them to undertake the journey that is an Oxford (or Cambridge) application - a hard thing to do with the prevalent Oxbridge-bashing narrative penetrating the media and even secondary education.

Both individual colleges and the University host access days, try to work with low-performing schools across the UK, offer mentoring and summer opportunities (the most famous one being UNIQ programme) for prospective applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds. Last year, to decrease the information asymmetry facing candidates from backgrounds without a tradition of applying OUSU (Oxford University Student Union) has compiled a comprehensive online undergraduate prospectus with first-hand information regarding applications for almost every course. Increasingly, assistance is also given with great potential but insufficient grades - one College, Lady Margaret Hall, has launched a "foundation year" programme which prepares these candidates for Oxbridge application and boosts up their chances of getting in. Many can rightly argue that both the University and the colleges can do more to widen access to the very best education in the world, however, claiming that the status quo is an access disaster is intellectually dishonest. Instead, it shows a great concern for giving the best chances to all, regardless of their background - far greater than simply taking the easy way out and implementing a quota.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the same Parliamentary Report referenced above found a close correlation between state school admission and application rates, and the latter will not improve by continuing to use bare admissions data to bash Oxford The cultivation of the image of Oxford as inherently elitist through disingenuous usage of admissions statistics and more generally must surely have some effect on the appalling rates with which teachers discourage students to apply at all, unless we assume that such prejudices underlying them come out of thin air. Again, quotas will do nothing to solve this problem; what is needed is a culture which does not put media circulation (which is easy to increase by fuelling confirmation biases) ahead of the very people in whose interests those attacking Oxbridge claim to act. However, such cultural shifts are far harder to achieve than the arbitrary imposition of a quota - an option which may be easy but is most certainly not right.

Co-author David Browne delivered a speech on this topic at the Oxford Union in Juanuary 2015, available here. Contrary to a rider added after the original upload, he is not speaking as a competitive debater, and the views expressed are his own.