Oxford needs quotas

I’m on sick leave, and so missing the delicious pleasures of Schadenfreude.   My colleagues will shortly begin interviewing teenagers to decide who should get one of the  few places to study law here at Oxford.  I say ‘Schadenfreude’ because, owing to seniority and other things, the closest I ever get to undergraduate admissions these days is dining with colleagues who, over claret at High Table, moan about what an awful job theirs is: having to choose which students they would quite like to teach, and  which ones are then most likely to go to careers at the Bar or in England’s judiciary.

My colleagues mean well.  Most of them mean better than I did when I was charged with selecting England’s elite-to-come, years ago.   There is now more centralization and standardization of interviewing than when I did it.  There is better training;  almost everyone is alert to  the possibility of unconscious bias.  (Having completed their online training, none of my colleagues is conscious of any unconscious bias on their own part.)  There is better institutional outreach, and more evidence that the senior administration are serious about these issues.  There has been real, non-negligible, improvement.

Still: however you slice or dice it, year on year, in subject after subject, Oxford admits a class of undergraduates who not only fail to mirror–even roughly–the relevant population in their age cohort; they look like an entirely different species.  Apart from sex, Oxford (and Cambridge) have made too little progress in admitting disadvantaged groups. The facts are not in serious doubt.  We debate only responsibility and remedies.

Our responsibility–setting aside our inefficient and ineffective system of interviews– -is limited.  This is mostly not our fault.   But we do want to teach in a very special way.  In some subjects, we want to teach in a class size of two or three (no; you did not misread), and so we select students who, we think, will flourish in the unique way we intend to teach.  Of course we know there are other ways to teach undergraduates.  After all, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard all seem to turn out brilliant graduates (and even to replenish the US class system) without anything like our commitment of resources.   I’ve taught in both systems, and I know that, for the faculty, it is more fun and more illuminating to teach students in pairs than in scores.  But it has been a long time since Oxford (or Cambridge) has seriously examined the tutorial model,  though I think the Equality Act probably requires us to do so.  So some share of the blame is ours.

What is manifestly not our fault is the huge disproportion of good applicants who were privately educated–pupils whose parents could give them not only the social capital, but also the cold cash, to be educated in private schools that prepare pupils well for how Oxford has decided to teach.  This state of affairs is not unique.  In most capitalist societies, such advantages can be purchased either directly, by paying school fees, or indirectly, by buying a house in the catchment area of an excellent state school.  England is unique only in how pervasive, overt, and toxic the transaction is.  There is a nice philosophical question whether it is more opprobrious to  buy advantage on the open market or to buy it as a foreseen, welcome, but strictly unintended, consequence of one’s housing choices.  (And these are, for some people, real choices: my own parents gave up a lot of personal pleasures to buy a house in an area where I was likely to get the sort of education that would prepare me for the right sort of university.  Yet being on the (far) left, they would never have considered paying school fees.)

But the fact that something is not Oxford’s fault, in the sense that we are not morally or politically responsible for causing it in the first place, does not show that we are blameless when we have the power to change it yet decline to do so. I think that is our actual position.  We could quickly improve things with quotas:

I propose that Oxford (and Cambridge) should require the over-representation of privately educated undergraduates stay below 300%, which quota should be reassessed every 10 years.

You may be thinking that a 300% over-representation of any social group is already outrageous.  Maybe.  But depending on how one counts it, the current over-representation of private-school students at Oxford is around 600%.   So we could make a huge reduction in offers to the privileged and still leave them with triple what they would be entitled to under mirror-representation.   That would be a lot easier than expanding the size of the university, or spending more on ‘outreach’ to attract new applicants who we might still reject.

Or you may be thinking that my proposal would be discriminatory.  In English law anyway, it would not.  ‘Wealth and status‘ are not ‘protected characteristics’ under  discrimination law.  There are many good reasons we should not set caps on the number of Jewish or Asian students we admit.  But these do not apply to those elevated by economic and social privilege alone, and there is no solid evidence to show that a cap on the (relatively) rich would be indirect discrimination against one of our protected groups.  In practice, all this means is that some children of the privileged will not make the cut at Oxford or Cambridge, but will instead get accepted at one of England’s other, still excellent, universities.

But maybe you are thinking that this would violate a moral norm: ‘each person should be treated as an individual, on her own merits, and not just as a member of some group or other!’  (Myself, I’d dread being treated on someone’s view of my ‘merits’.)   But if that norm is sound, it would already require a huge change in our admissions standards.  We do not now treat the hundreds of applicants ‘each on her own merits’.  Each is treated as a member of a group:  the group who got three A’s at A-level, or the group who scored high on the LNAT,  or the  group that impressed the interviewer, or the group that came from a school we know and respect.   The fantasy that our existing system is attuned to individual merits is laughable.  (And adding ‘contextual’ data–‘he grew up in a rough neighborhood’–is just another form of group-based prediction.)

So here’s an idea.  Let’s experiment.  Let’s set a 300%–or, if you like, 400%–cap on the over-representation of the over-privileged at Oxford.  Without expanding enrollment, that will make lots of space for other good students.  Then let’s see how that works out for us, and for the legal profession in England.  This would, I admit, be a big change.  So I suppose we will have to confront the Ultimate Objection:

‘How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light-bulb?’

‘What do you mean, “CHANGE”???’

2 thoughts on “Oxford needs quotas

  1. My daughter was, I’m afraid, privately educated. At her Oxford interview one of the other candidates asked her if – being from Manchester – she’d been brought in by the college’s “Northern outreach” programme. (She hadn’t.) One of the students showing her around said that it would be nice to have a Mancunian about the place, as hitherto she herself had been the “token Northerner”. She was from Leicester. Oxford has quite a lot of ground to make up in terms of representativeness. (Geography is another un-protected characteristic, incidentally, although any quota would need to be population-weighted.)

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