I regret to inform you …

An Admissions Don at a major British university lays bare the quota-driven process of student selection and imagines what honest acceptance and rejection letters may look like


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s the most wonderful time of the academic year. Up and down the country, universities receive piles of admissions applications; some edifying, others vomit-inducing. In due course, I hear, our progressive state will replace them with TikTok videos, which we, who are responsible for admitting the leaders of the future, will doubtless watch with equal pleasure, discernment, and most likely nausea. But for now, the time-honoured rhythms of the seasons run their course. After we’ve read the piles of applications, the mêlée commences: deciding which students to admit. 

Universities fail to teach students how to think

This reveals both the academic bandwidth of this year’s generation, and the true colours of some university academics and administrators. In the pages that follow, I shall set out what it would look like, were it honestly done, at a time when honesty seems to be in short supply. 

Underneath universities’ dogmatic pursuits of agendas to widen “access” and strengthen “diversity and inclusion” lies an aporetic paradox that many academics are keen to obfuscate. Such agendas come at a very visible cost to students of lowering academic rigour and pastoral care, by failing to focus on the needs of the people we admit.

Today’s meaning of “diversity” has been contaminated, but it goes without saying that it must not mean “positive discrimination”. Different students have different needs. A university should not feel proud about placing students in an academic environment that does not suit them, or, lowering their academic standards to do so. 

Universities fail to teach students how to think. Instructing, instead, what ought to be thought. Yet, as we go about our business admitting undergraduates, I have heard my peers cry of the need to pay attention to “unconscious bias”, yet they themselves engage in conscious bias. 

The suspicion remains that admissions disproportionately reflect the criticism of academics and not the merits of those applying. All too often, we are criticised for who we allow through our gilded doors; for what those we admit are, and not for who we are. Politicians and journalists don’t seem to notice that university admissions are done by people whose decisions are far from objective. It’s not just the talking heads of news channels who shy away from this fact: even some of my loquacious colleagues don’t seem to think that who we are is a subject that requires agonising, earnest debate.

What’s happening is not a game, certainly not one that’s fairly played

It’s not just the who and the what that is troubling. The why is the most glaringly absent part of what I must term the discourse of admissions. Why is more of one particular category of student decried as “bad”? Why would fewer of this same category be seen as good? It’s not as if these decisions do not matter. We are setting aside real lives, careers and futures in favour of percentages and arbitrary categorisations. In short, we’re being selfish. Doing so makes us look good in the eyes of the statistics; it gives some administrators the hubristic ability to say that they were the ones who fulfilled “diversity” agendas. 

It’s time we stopped deceiving ourselves. We should honestly explain — at least to ourselves — what we are doing, and why, even if we never tell the applicants the true reasons behind our decisions. In the following pages, I offer a rarity for students and job-seeking individuals alike — an honest rejection letter and an honest admission letter, in the hope that you can see the ways in which we actually admit students into universities.

In the true spirit of the current ideological epidemic engulfing universities, herewith a “content warning”, aimed, this time, at the parents of John or Jennifer; school students who may one day have to upload a university application via some dubious Chinese-owned “app”. 

Many of you will have been admitted to universities yourselves. Perhaps you waited with bated breath to escape into the wide world. Weary and cynical of prevailing ideologies, you may just be thinking how, as Dylan once grunted, “the times they are a-changin’”. “In our day, we got into university by merit, but as times have changed, so have the rules. We simply need to play the game, and hope that our darlings get in.” 

But what’s happening is not a game, certainly not one that’s fairly played. Universities today are turning away from merit, skill, and thinking. Back in your day, universities were hubs of academic, personal, and cultural enrichment — and I’m not just talking about sex or post-lecture drinking. We are turning away the good, and favouring those for whom our patronage does few academic or pastoral favours. The next time a student from your former college telephones you one Sunday afternoon, asking you to write a cheque, think. Think about the academic and moral values of the institution where your hard-earned cash might be headed; and think about how they will be admitting their next generations of students. 

Dear Student,

Thank you for your application to this world-leading university. We appreciate the time that you took to apply to us. Unfortunately, however, we regret to inform you that you have not been offered a place at our institution on this occasion. The field, this year, was particularly competitive, but perhaps not for the reasons you would expect. We understand that you might wish for some feedback on your application, and as one of the academics on the admissions panel, I am pleased to tell you the true reasons as to why you were unsuccessful. 

Alas, you were also not of the correct gender

First, as we were reading your application, we realised that you had attended an independent school. Indeed, by every measurement we have to hand, one of the best in the country. Immediately, your application was lowered on our priority list. We assumed that having attended such a school, you were from an economically well-off background. As such, you are not the type of candidate whom we can claim fulfils the poorly-executed fad of widening access to universities. The fact that you may have been on a bursary or scholarship, or that your parents placed their life savings into your education, did not even cross our minds. Still less do your actual, individual merits: your background is wrong. We do hope you understand. 

In another unfortunate circumstance, we must also inform you that, alas, you were also not of the correct gender. Every year, varying numbers of male and female students apply to different universities to study different degrees. This year, however, we decided to blind ourselves to this lived reality. Even before we had discussed the applications, a senior academic decried how there were too many male applicants. Admitting you — and others like you — would not conform with the supposed desire that our intake of students ought to match ideals of societal gender equality. Irrespective of your academic prowess and potential, we concluded that there are, quite simply, too many of you at our institution. 

Your examination grades were outstanding; your school teachers lauded how you would be an exceptional university student. Yes, we — at least I — agree that you would certainly succeed at our respective institution. But being academically-gifted is insufficient to be admitted to our world-leading university in these insouciant times: your sex is wrong, and for reasons too. I am being forthright in this letter about why you have failed to gain admission, but I trust you shall not put me on the spot and ask what those reasons actually are. Senior colleagues have clearly expressed their feelings. They feel your sex is wrong. 

Moreover, in your application, you demonstrated sound knowledge of canonical thinkers. To be honest, however, your application would have been aided by conforming more with the ideological zeitgeist. By inserting the words “race”, “colonialism”, or even “violence”, your application would have met the expectations of at least some academics on the panel, one of whom explicitly made a list of candidates from particular ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and whether their application contained such used and abused buzzwords. 

We hope this feedback will not detract you from re-applying to this university in the future, even if the views of some individuals on the admissions panel look set to harden. Although you may not have secured a place at our university on this occasion, we have every confidence that you will nonetheless go to another university. That it is our university which you had prioritised — instead of others — and where you so desperately wanted to study, seems, unfortunately, to be beside the point. 

As a member of the admissions panel, I openly admit to you that I am utterly ashamed of the practice of my colleagues. I know that we have committed an act of positive discrimination in rejecting you. I know that what our university has done is dishonest, fraudulent, and morally wrong. I have seen it from the inside; how globally-renowned universities are slowly being beaten into conformity by the ideologically-driven Leviathan of institutional politics. I know, however, that there is little I can do about it. Much to my chagrin, what you see in the mainstream media is, to a large extent, far from untrue. 

A member of the Admissions Panel

The University Admissions Team

Dear Student,

Thank you for your application to this world-leading university. We are pleased to offer you a place to read for a degree at our institution. We look forward to welcoming you in September, and thought you might like to hear some feedback with respect to our deliberations, given a highly competitive field of applicants. If I may be honest, your application was not of the highest standard, and we did have to reject numerous applicants who were far stronger, academically, than yourself. We hope the subsequent feedback will place you in firm stead when you leave our university and apply for jobs in whatever field, even if you may not leave with a very strong degree. 

As I have mentioned, your application fell short in several areas. First, though you may have convinced some members of the academic panel of your skills in a few areas of the course, you will likely find that upon arrival at our university, you struggle considerably with other aspects of your degree. Second, and relatedly, the intense academic workload at our institution may, from my own judgement, not be kind to you, and could catalyse dissatisfaction on your part. 

You fulfilled some unwritten quotas, and ticked some boxes

Of course, it is far from unfair to suggest that not every university is suitable for every type of person. There is truth in the old axiom “horses for courses”. Yet, in the name of “equality and diversity” agendas ravaging across universities, we are pleased to let you know that you will be admitted to our university irrespective of your performance in your forthcoming school examinations. Everyone else to whom we have offered a place might face possible rejection, if results day in August does not turn out in the desired way. We have made a particular case for you: we hope you understand. You have needs, we have needs.

“Why me?” you may ponder. I hate to say it, but you fulfilled some unwritten quotas, and ticked some boxes. In an era when job applications pride themselves on asking personalised questions about one’s background, universities have not been immune to this trend. What is more, in a highly selfish act, some senior academics felt that by admitting you, they would feel good about themselves. 

In the future, they can say to their colleagues that it was they who were responsible for taking people from particular ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds; that they were the saviours of this movement. Questions of whether this university would be the optimal university for you were, unfortunately, ignored. You, in the abstract, also make us individually look good. Not least in the papers and on the BBC. You wouldn’t wish to be taught by bad-looking people.

“Isn’t that profoundly unacademic and highly selfish behaviour?”, you may think. The answer is a resounding “yes”. If, a year later, you feel you do not like our institution, you can leave and venture elsewhere. By that time, though, it will be too late for us to offer your place to someone whom we initially rejected. We hope you understand. 

As one of the members of the panel, I am being neither unjust nor seeking to dampen your future enjoyment of our university. In what I have said, I am being frank, which is more than can be said for some of my colleagues. I sincerely hope that you enjoy your experience here. In so doing, I have one crucial piece of advice for you. Not only must you hold yourself to high academic standards, but you must also ensure that the standards for you are not lowered. 

The ongoing diffusion of positive discrimination in academic institutions means that not all individuals are being held to the same academic standard, a pernicious logic that can have deleterious implications once a student’s time at university reaches its conclusion. 

A member of the Admissions Panel

The University Admissions Team

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