How to improve Oxford’s interviews

In my last post, I suggested that we can’t understand the persistence of the Oxford admissions interview without understanding its ceremonial function. It is an initiatory rite that expresses and secures the power of  tutors who get to select which undergraduates they would like to teach.

This conjecture has not met universal favour among my colleagues, or at least not among those who are interviewing this week.  They say, rightly, that I exaggerate the lack of uniformity among subjects when I describe our system as ‘chaos’.  Isn’t our Common Framework for admissions a steadying force? Others mention that this is ‘not a good time’ to cast doubt on the fairness or effectiveness of Oxford admissions.   And several tell me they are adequately warned against unconscious bias and that they are not, in fact, conscious of any unconscious bias in their own interviewing.

There is no doubt that admissions interviews could be, and historically have been, much worse (including when I used to do them).   Still, I think we should abandon them, for the reasons I gave.

Oxford knows how to admit talented students without the ritual. That is how we already admit people to our elite, tutorial-taught, postgraduate degrees, including the B.Phil. and B.C.L.: centrally, on the ‘paper file’, and without interviews.  Many of them come to Oxford without ever having had a tutorial or anything like one, yet they learn how to learn in our system.   Indeed, many of their tutors gave their first Oxford tutorials without ever having had one; they too learned. Yet we persist in the fiction that only by seeing the cut of their jib can we be sure that applicants can work the magic of an Oxford tutorial.

In any case, if interviews are to persist, there is one way we can improve them: No one should interview those they will have the blessing (or burden) of teaching: nemo iudex in causa sua. If an applicant really is incapable of learning in our system, let that determination be made by someone other than the tutor who will be charged with trying to help them.   This argues for more centralized, faculty- or department-led, ‘blind’ interviewing.    Perhaps it even argues for the inclusion of non-specialists (academics in other subjects, or alumni, or even students!) on our admissions panels.

I do not pretend that eliminating or improving interviews will make Oxford more representative of the communities we serve. For that, more drastic measures are needed.   I shall sketch the case for one of them in the New Year.

In the meantime, all good wishes for the holidays, and my sympathies to those of you who are interviewing, or being interviewed. Best of luck!

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