The main quad of Worcester College at Oxford University. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Making the grade

View from Oxford: there may be lessons to be learned from this year’s fiasco

“Clap for Admissions Tutors”, tweeted Dr Claire Lynch of Brunel University on the afternoon of Monday 17 August, “tonight at 8pm. Pass it on.” The sentiment struck a chord up and down the country, as university admissions offices continued to deal with the chaos unleashed by the Department for Education’s A-Level results algorithm on 13 August.

It certainly sounded loudly in Oxford, where results are processed and offer-holders’ places confirmed — or not — by the Academic Offices of individual colleges. Each is led by an Admissions Tutor, a Sisyphean role often held by an overworked fellow who on Results Day has to do what can realistically be done to keep various stakeholders happy.

Results Day always has a febrile character to it at the college end. This year it was a total nightmare, as Admission Tutors and their offices across the University worked flat-out to come up with a way of ensuring that no-one would be unjustly denied a place. Then, out of the blue, Worcester College spoke.

“At Worcester we made offers in 2020 to our most diverse cohort ever,” ran its statement on 14 August, a day after the controversial grades first emerged, “and in response to the uncertainties surrounding this year’s assessment, we have confirmed the places of all our UK offer-holders, irrespective of their A-level results.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that if any college was going to go it alone, it would be Worcester. After last year’s unexpected departure of its Provost, Sir Jonathan Bate, the Governing Body has recently elected David Isaac—the Chair of the Equality & Charity Commission, and formerly Chair of Stonewall—to succeed him.

Only a cynic would think that Worcester’s announcement had anything to do with a desire to shore up its income stream

The college’s announcement of Isaac’s election to the Provostship emphasised that Worcester regards him as “the perfect fit for the College as it steps up its commitment to equality, diversity and inclusivity, continues transforming its undergraduate admissions and refreshes its traditions to meet the needs of a 21st-century community with three centuries of history.” At the end of the day each college is an independent entity with the absolute right to do as it pleases. In times of crisis, however, a sense of pan-University responsibility and a reluctance to embarrass colleagues elsewhere usually prevails. Perhaps it makes sense, however, that a college with such an overt agenda should now cast off any sentiment of responsibility to the wider University in favour of unfurling a banner for its own prophetic cause.

In any year the admissions process is a finely-balanced and inexact science; colleges invariably offer too many places and then rely on results-based atrophy for a cohort of the right sort of size at Michaelmas. Worcester is fortunate, then, that it has the physical space to take all its offer-holders — a fact that has not been lost on many observers.

More students means more rent, of course, and so it is a happy coincidence — perhaps even a benison— that Worcester’s determination to admit the whole of its “most diverse cohort ever” means that it will also be able to fill college rooms that might otherwise be empty, with a downturn in the number of international students looking likely across the University next year.

Only a cynic would think for a moment that Worcester’s breaking of ranks had anything at all to do with a desire to shore up its income stream behind a thick cloud of virtue-signalling, which in turn placed Admissions Tutors across the rest of the University in an unenviable and impossible position until the Government’s U-turn three days later. Strangely, Oxford seems to have no shortage of cynics at the moment.

The University has now committed itself to admitting all offer-holders whose teacher-assessed grades met their respective offers, either this year or next. Where this year’s intake are all going to live is anyone’s guess. The press release on 17 August acknowledged “significant capacity constraints” — particularly at a time when strict social distancing is still expected to apply — and some colleges have suggested that they will need volunteers to move into private accommodation.

Another question hovers over the maelstrom, which hardly anyone dares contemplate. For years the obvious inflation attached to the steady increase of the percentage of top A-Levels being awarded has been a cause of concern; it was for that reason that some subjects introduced their own assessed tests at interview stage in the 2000s.

This year the admissions process has, in the end, amounted to the colleges choosing to admit students based on a series of interview conversations with tutors, a series of in-house assessment exercises, and what essentially amounts to a satisfactory reference from their schools. The crisis has effectively produced a version of the old system.

If the University is satisfied with such a system in 2020, then it surely could be so in the future, too. This may well be the time to construct a set of rigorous but broad parameters — based squarely on national curricula — by which all applicants could be assessed centrally, while disregarding A-Levels entirely. The obvious solution has not been seen since its controversial abolition in 1995: the Oxford Entrance Examination.

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