Sunday thoughts: Why should everyone who gets A*A*A* be invited to an Oxbridge interview?

Jonathan Simons
10 min readAug 7, 2022

As far as I can tell, I may be one of the few people who likes the Liz Truss plan for an automatic Oxbridge interview for those with 3 A*s — with objections spanning the traditional right press, the centrist Dads, and (less surprisingly) the liberal left.

So I want to say why I disagree with the critics. I think there’s a legitimate problem here that she’s trying to solve and I think a lot of the objections miss the point.

The problem Liz Truss has identified — of fewer high achieving young people getting into Oxbridge than might otherwise do, particularly from lower income backgrounds — is not primarily to do with Oxbridge admissions at present. The universities have done an immense amount of work, rightly, over the last decade or so to be much more transparent about their admissions processes, and the data suggests that whether you look at state school educated children, those from lower participation neighbourhoods, or (some) ethnicities, the numbers are going in the right direction. The annual publications from both Oxford and Cambridge are well worth looking at, and give a far greater level of clarity than any other Russell Group institution that I’m aware of.

The process isn’t flawless — and indeed, one thing that I’ve noticed from having reviewed this all again in light of the Truss plan is that information on interview statistics itself is a glaring omission — but it isn’t where I focus much of the potential remedy. That, I’m afraid, lies with (some) schools and (some) teachers, and a specific cultural phemonenon around Oxbridge— and it’s perfectly legitimate that Truss addresses this.

Let’s look at some of the objections raised, in the articles I’ve cited above and elsewhere:

  • There are much bigger things to fix in education than this. In particular, we need to widen the funnel of those who might be talented from a poorer background much earlier, not focus on cherrypicking from those at 18. True. But this is a classic example of whataboutery, a rhetorical argument that can be applied to any single initiative announced about anything ever, and henceforth not that impactful. It is, of course, not mutually exclusive to try and fix this issue, with taking action to widen the number of young people getting 3 A*s, and to ensure that the attainment gap doesn’t exist between richer and poorer pupils. Criticise a future Truss administration if they don’t take action on social mobility, early years education, school funding, the socio economic attainment gap and the like, by all means. But if the Oxbridge plan is a good idea, then it is a good idea regardless of whatever else might be being done or not being done in wider education policy — and it’s something that could have an effect now, not just in 10 years or more
  • It’s not all about Oxbridge — a focus on these institutions is misleading, too narrow, and there are lots of other good universities. Again, yes but. Oxbridge does indeed only take around 6,000 undergraduates a year combined, and there are lots of other genuinely superb universities and a handful of other world class institutions in the UK as well. But it’s simply misleading or deliberately disingenuous not to recognise that whether it’s through higher quality teaching, additional research funding, peer networks, societies, old school tie, or something else, that an Oxbridge degree often gives a graduate additional capabilities and opportunities in life. It’s also stretching the truth not to recognise that even among a small number of world class institutions in the UK, Oxbridge is the *most world class* on various international rankings. I think it does matter who goes to those institutions, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. (It’s worth noting that two of the three authors cited above….went to Oxbridge). It’s also true, of course, that for a number of high performing students, there may be good reasons for them not to want to go to Oxbridge — if, for example, they want to study medicine, for which Oxbridge is sometimes felt not the best preparation for a clinical medicine postgraduate pathway, being as it is more academically focused. That’s fine. No one is proposing to force any or all high attaining young people to go to Oxbridge if they don’t want to.
  • This will make Oxbridge more, rather than less, socially selective. I just don’t see any data which even suggests this could be true. All the data from the universities’ own documentation and elsewhere shows that independently educated young people, and those coming from areas of greater wealth, and higher rates of participation to HE, are already applying to Oxbridge in far greater numbers. We also know that the acceptance rates among those who apply is also greater among higher income backgrounds. In other words, there just aren’t a large pool of high performing young people out there from affluent backgrounds who aren’t already applying, and who aren’t getting in at a relatively higher rate when they apply.
  • Oxbridge can’t logistically interview all the candidates. This is harder to assess, precisely because we don’t have that much data on who they do currently interview. The best I can find is a statement by Cambridge that around 75% of all those who apply get an interview (and based on the fact that 13,000 people applied last year, this implies around 9,750 interviews, from which just over 3,000 offers were made). We know that, pre pandemic, around 6,000 candidates a year got 3 A*s, and it was 12,000 last year. And we know that of the 13,000 people who applied to Cambridge in 2021, 43% were predicted 3 A*s, or about 5,500. If we assume 75% of the 3 A* brigade are currently interviewed, that’s a gap of somewhere between 2,000 and 8,500 extra interviews a year once grades settle down (with the bigger figure being much more unlikely). Tough, but manageable at the more realistic lower end.
  • This requires PQA. I think it does, yes — to avoid the issue whereby schools could simply inflate marginal candidates’ predicted grades from say A*AA to A*A*A*, thereby guaranteeing their candidate an interview. I want to park the issue of PQA here though, and just take the argument for whether an automatic interview is a good idea on its merits.

So let me now expand on what I think the biggest issue in Oxbridge admissions is currently, and what the Truss plan targets.

It’s not the differential rates of those getting top grades –though this undoubtedly is an issue (for example, in 2019, 26.3% of those getting A*A*A grades or better came from the independent sector, and there are large geographic skews on those getting AAA or above, as shown below).

Both of these charts are taken from the Oxford 2022 Statistical Admissions Report, linked to above

But the Truss plan doesn’t seek to address this, and there are a number of other initiatives which can and should look at this, specifically around academically stretching post 16 education.

It’s not the differential rates of acceptances among those who do apply. The table below which I’ve created pulls from Oxford’s own data of the last three years of applications and acceptances, pre pandemic, and shows applications and offers as a % for each subject, comparing independent school and state schools as a simple proxy. It’s clear to see that the % offer rate doesn’t really advantage the independent sector other than in a couple of subjects (engineering, computing, physics, law) — and indeed, there’s some subjects (geography, biology, and both classics and theology, most intriguingly) where state sector applicants have a better chance of being admitted than their independent sector peers.

Of course, the state sector category hides a wide variety of socio economic statuses — and that’s the key.

Because the biggest gap as I see it — and what the Truss plan targets — is young people who are on track to secure good grades, but who never apply to Oxbridge in the first place.

We know that this is an issue. Both Oxford and Cambridge’s Access and Participation Plans talk extensively about work to raise aspirations, as well as attainment, and broaden student and teacher knowledge and understanding of the two universities. Indeed, the universities spend a significant amount on outreach activity — Cambridge alone seeks to engage with over 100,000 students and 1,000 teachers a year, and Oxford is restructuring its college outreach programme to better target geographic and educational coldspots. In the upcoming year, the universities will spend a combined total of just over £8m on outreach activity.

And the reason they do this — apart from it being a regulatory requirement in exchange for charging higher fees (!) — is that it’s generally understood that of all the myths flying around HE, Oxbridge has a disproportionate share of them, and that this acts to put off some potential applicants. The “Oxbridge is not for me” phenomenon is real, and much bigger than the “university is not for me” or “[Russell Group unis / selective unis] aren’t for me” phenomena.

Two items of teacher polling, most dispiritingly, show that the barriers may exist beyond young people and their families and communties. The Sutton Trust asked a representative sample of secondary school teachers in 2007 whether they would ever advise their brightest students to apply to Oxbridge. 43% — almost half! — said they would “rarely” or “never” do this. Almost a decade later, they asked the same question. A decade of more information, of more outreach, and of more young people from state schools going to Oxbridge. And the answer in 2016 was…..exactly the same, 43%, who would “rarely” or “never” advise their brightest students to go to Oxbridge.

We don’t have a more up to date version of the question than this (though believe me, it’s pencilled in for a future Public First poll at some point!) But it’s hard to imagine that it will have shifted that significantly. And this, in a nutshell, is the issue. Oxbridge can’t interview or admit those who don’t apply.

And from some other work that the Sutton Trust did in 2018, as well as other qualitative work Public First have done with teachers more broadly, we know a little something about who isn’t applying. The table below, from that 2018 report, shows the percentage of young people who come from the quintile of schools with the highest exam results and who are applying to Oxbridge. This table controls for (to an extent) some groups of schools having higher results and more young people projected to get top grades and applying. And it shows that top performing comprehensive schools were less than half as likely to have candidates applying to Oxbridge as top performing independent schools were, and 50% less likely than top performing grammars. (Incidentally, that the lowest performing independent schools also had 1 in 4 of their applicants applying to Oxbridge anyway suggests even further that a move to automatically interview all those with good results won’t be pulling in lots of wealthier kids — almost all of them with even the faintest chance to get in are applying already).

The fact is that there are young people out there on track for good or outstanding grades, who are not being helped by schools systematically to consider Oxbridge, or to apply. We don’t know of course how many of them would apply if given that push, and we don’t know how they would perform if called to interview. In fact, one thing the Truss plan has revealed is that for all Oxbridge’s transparency generally around admissions, we have very little data on the interview process in terms of who gets one. Both universities would do well to have similar levels of transparency in their reports — which set out application and offer numbers cut in various ways — to include the interim stage of who makes it to interview.

But it is seeking to tackle this issue of those who don’t apply that is what I think the Truss plan can and should do. Maybe it is just inspired by her bitter memories of her being treated poorly at her own school (though of course, she went from there to….Oxford). And maybe her memories are thirty years out of date or wrong. But it’s undeniably still the case that there are young people — many of them living above the Bristol to the Wash line — who could and perhaps should be thinking of themselves as Oxbridge candidates, and who deserve the chance to be scrutinised at interview.

Maybe they won’t get in. Maybe they turn down the invitation to even go to the interview. Maybe they’ve made reasoned and logical choices to want to go to other universities which are closer to home, or have better courses for what they might want to do as a career, or for any other reason. But given the efforts made by Oxbridge to use the interview process alongside all other manner of contextual data to identify high potential (and this article from Alan Rusbridger describes it well) it’s hard not to imagine that circumnavigating the barriers and the misconceptions that some students have, and going directly to them to say “you’re on track for / you’ve got the grades — come and have an interview” wouldn’t do more to raise the proportion of those going from state schools and lower participation areas, than many of the other outreach activities that are cheered from the very same groups that are dismissing this proposal out of hand.