David Lammy grabbed the headlines, which was fair enough.  There was a slightly combative moment near the end of our widening participation symposium at LMH on Friday when the former Higher Education Minister clashed briefly but a bit heatedly with a few members of the audience.  You'd have been a dozy old reporter not to lead off on that.
But journalism - as I think I recognised even when I worked in it  - is a distorting lens as well as a magnifying glass or prism.  The Tottenham MP was passionate and forthright in questioning Oxford's progress on diversity.  But the verbal fisticuffs took up a couple of minutes right at the end of a two hour meeting which was full of positive things about a variety of things currently happening in Oxford and beyond.
The symposium was designed to compare a number of approaches  - in Oxford, Harvard and Trinity College Dublin - to the problem great universities have of being elite (a good thing) without being elitist (a bad thing if it's taken to mean a place more easily accessible to a group of people who have the most power, influence, money or privilege in society)
No-one produced a silver bullet: if nothing else, the session showed that this is a complex, not a simple, problem to begin to solve. But there was plenty of evidence from these three universities that there's no shortage of engaged and imaginative people thinking and acting to change both perceptions and realities.
That included the (not so) new Oxford Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, who opened the gathering in the Simpkins Lee Theatre at LMH. She said she wanted a diverse Oxford, not because it met a regulator's target but out of self-interest.  LMH itself, she said, was evidence of a crucial form of diversity - the first college to encourage women to come to Oxford. She often wondered what diseases had not been cured, what problems left unsolved because Oxford and other universities had denied access to so many of the smartest students over so many years.
She praised the UNIQ programme, which attracts low-income young people to Oxford for summer schools; and she relished the diversity of a collegiate university in which, as the evening showed, there were a number of different experiments and approaches.  But she also said (acknowledging that this could set the cat amongst pigeons) that devolved structures could also lead to duplication and be a block to meaningful change unless properly coordinated.
That was a nice way of teeing up the Provost of Oriel, Moira Wallace, who is leading a university-wide review of Oxford's targets for students from low-income or under-represented backgrounds.  Moira's review has not yet been published, but one of the things that clearly frustrated her was the data that shows Oxford loses people too early: why were there so many young people from these backgrounds who simply didn't apply, even though they had perfectly good enough grades?
Another head of house, Ken Macdonald, Warden of Wadham and a former DPP,  talked about his own college's approach to "grade forgiveness". This was not about lowering standards, but about being prepared occasionally to prioritise potential over past performance.  Any system which was dependent on the individual decisions of hundreds of admissions tutors would always be slow to change. He took a side swipe at the Norrington Table - the annual college-by-college rankings of final degree performance   as "one of the main barriers to access because people are so frightened of slipping down the table."
This session - moderated by the University's head of admissions, Samina Khan, heard about three other college initiatives.
Andrew Bell talked about University College's scheme to offer 10 additional undergraduate places to young people from under-represented backgrounds who narrowly missed a place – but only on condition that they attended a month-long bridging course before their time at Oxford began.  The initiative was brand new, but had already led to a marked increase in low-income ("flagged") students applying to Univ, he said. The college's own thinking had been changed internally as well as externally by the project.
Peter Claus, access fellow at Pembroke, spoke of a different approach aimed at getting at school pupils earlier: his college’s network  of hubs and linked schools that had begun to create a region-wide ripple effect.  "Are we a global university? Certainly," he said. "Are we a national university? Not so sure."
And, from LMH, there was Jo Begbie, director of our pilot Foundation Year course, which has picked 10 students from households with an average income of £13k - right at the heart of the demographic Oxford has agreed with the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) to target - and give them a three term course to ready them for life as Oxford undergraduates.
Next up was Bill Fitzsimmons, the veteran Dean of Admissions from Harvard who, like Louise, spoke of his university’s realisation of the latent talent they had been missing out on through being relatively undiverse. He went further, talking of the danger to the overall social contract in societies today – and of the responsibilities of universities to play their part in countering that potential disintegration.
Cliona Hannon, who was the launch director of the TAP programme at TCD on which the LMH course is modelled, talked of the 2,000 students who had now passed through their courses which have modified entry for low income candidates. Each student becomes an agent of change in their own communities. TCD is now trying something even more ambitious in trying to embed different types of pedagogy in schools. But, like David Barrett from OFFA and Rick Dalton from College for Every Student USA, she thought there was still a long way to go.
In between these panels the true stars of the day were four students from TCD and LMH. AnnMarie Collins, Kenny Olanyi, Michael Clark and Varaidzo Kativhu spoke from the heart.  They came from a variety of backgrounds in Dublin, Liverpool, Zimbabwe and from the Irish travellers’ community.  None had ever imagined they could be destined for an elite education of the sort offered by TCD or Oxford. And all spoke eloquently of what they had learned – not least about themselves – on the access courses upon on which they had stumbled.
And so to David Lammy. He was blunt: he thought progress at Oxford, Cambridge and a “whole raft of Russell Group universities” had been slow. He acknowledged that he had been critical of Oxbridge in the past after being Higher Education minister “and knew where the bodies were buried.”  His view was also coloured by his own experience at Harvard, easily the most diverse educational institution he’d attended.  
He wanted to pose what he called ‘the hardest question”:   Harvard, Berkeley, Yale  and other US universities had centralised admissions processes and were thus able to corporately flex their muscles on issues of diversity. He was not sure Oxbridge, other Russell Group universities, had yet cracked that corporately. He thought there was a huge variance  in effort across different Oxbridge colleges and felt a profound sense of colleges not being willing to judge candidates on merit – “It’s almost as if we’re being generous in letting you in.”
“In Harlem as you walk out of the train station you’ll see a poster saying ‘we want you to come to Harvard.’ It’s that which we haven’t cracked as an institution. Individual colleges are certainly doing a lot, but across 38 colleges, hand on heart, I don’t think so. There’s a lot more to do.”
We were now into the final five minutes of the evening. It had been good to have an external critic to correct any tendency to complacency (though in fact all speakers to date had acknowledged there was a long way to go).  And then, as thoughts began to turn to the drinks waiting in the next room, the temperature was raised a little in an exchange between David Lammy and Peter Claus – both members of the same political party and both, in their own way, passionate about diversity in education.
It happened like this: in response to a question from the audience David Lammy turned to the subjectivity of the interview process in Oxford and how we all tend to recruit in our own image.
He asked what unconscious bias training was undertaken by admissions tutors “You’ve got academics here writing about it yet I suspect the training is not actually happening across the system. It’s about that young Somali girl …
He was interrupted by murmurs of disagreement from some members of the audience. Heads shaking: “Absolutely not….nonsense” etc.
Lammy: “Are you saying there’s no unconscious bias?”
Claus: “Well there’s unconscious bias everywhere, of course. But interview is only one part…”
Lammy:  “Is there any training?”
Many voices: “Yes!”
Lammy:  “How extensive? For how long?”
Claus: “The interview is but one part. A lot of people in this room spend hours - 80 person hours - on the interviewing and admissions process..”
Lammy:  “All I can say is, as a black politician serving the most diverse constituency in the country, I find it worrying that there’s a roar of ‘Oh we can’t possibly be racist’ [cries of No!] … When I speak to my constituents, and they come into an institution like this,  and they’re coming for an interview with an academic  and they’re coming from a tower block called Broadwater Farm on the 15th floor as a Somali girl… I’m sorry but the burden is on this institution to demonstrate there’s no unconscious bias and I’m concerned you don’t believe that.”
Claus: “I believe that,  it’s just that you were just misrepresenting the admissions process. that’s all.”
Lammy (smiling):  “Well let’s end on that” (laughter)
Moderator: “Let’s all go for a drink.”
Hence the headlines “Oxford University accused of failing to deal with admissions racism..”…”acrimonious debate.”…etc
Well, yes, up to a point Lord Copper. There was this brief exchange at the end – partly people speaking at cross purposes about the nature of unconscious bias training at Oxford.  Some people think it’s quite good: others think it doesn’t amount to much. Not many people in the room would quarrel with Lammy that the university has still got room for improvement.
But the overall session – packed out with students, admissions tutors, outreach officers,  other heads of colleges and academics – showed that the university is not short of ideas, commitment and experimentation.  I haven’t even mentioned two heads of colleges in the audience who are similarly working hard to open Oxford up – Mark Damazer at St Peter's and Maggie Snowling, President of St John's, who has been heading up another group thinking about broader diversity issues.
At the end David Lammy had an amiable drink with Louise Richardson and Peter Claus.  The conversation with the speakers continued over food and drink. And then more drink in a local pub.  There may even have been an Anglo-Irish rendering of Gilbert and Sullivan in the early hours: the memory is foggy.


Important PS: Applications are now open for the second year of the LMH Foundation course. We have 12 places for young students from under-represented backgrounds starting next September. It’s completely free – but don’t delay applying.

Posted: 16/01/2017 16:24:14 by Catarina Vicente

There have been two obvious and remarkable changes at LMH this past term.  The first is physical: a new entrance and graduate centre for the college. The second is both social and educational: the creation of a new Foundation Year for young people from under-represented backgrounds.
The first change may be more obvious. As you come down Norham Gardens today you're not faced with the slightly unforgiving facade that the architect Raymond Erith designed for Lady Margaret Hall in the late 1950s. Now there is a new front quad flanked by neo-classical porticos.  The new Porters' Lodge will be one of the most magnificent in Oxford. We are lucky indeed to have these wonderful new buildings.
The second change may well be equally profound. Ten students enrolled in the Foundation Year scheme in September - arriving a week before the regular undergraduate cohort - and have been studying and living at LMH all term.  The idea was to seek out young people from the kind of under-represented groups which Oxford University has promised the government to target;  and to give them the sort of educational help they need to be ready for an undergraduate course.
Oxford is looking for more students from people who come from areas of economic deprivation, or from schools which have historically sent few, if any, students to the university.
Our cohort meets both criteria. The average household income for our students is just over £13,000.  Until we advertised the scheme, none of them had believed Oxford was for people like them. Some have had very disrupted educations (two of them attended more than 30 schools between them up to A level). Others have had to overcome significant family difficulties. For some, English was originally their second language.
Yet these young people emerged with A level scores which - while not good enough across the board to secure a place on an Oxford undergraduate degree course - were in many cases just a few points behind contemporaries who had performed outstandingly at A level, most of whom had benefitted from a more secure start in life.
That is the nature of the potential of this group. And that gap is the one we aim to bridge with the Foundation Year.  We have teamed up with Trinity College Dublin, whose Access Programme has now been running for 17 years. TCD has found that, over time, nine out of 10 young people on their foundation year go on to matriculate - and that, thereafter, they perform as well as any other student.
Our group - seven girls, three boys - are diverse, hard-working, bright and resilient. They arrived at LMH with a fair measure of trepidation. They did not have the self-confidence of some of their peers. Would they be able to cope with the work? Would they be accepted by their student contemporaries?
After eight weeks the transformation is well under way. Their teachers have observed a group of young people that has grown remarkably in confidence, knowledge and ability.  Their fellow students have been tremendously welcoming. The Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, came to greet the students in their first week. The wider university has pointed to the existence of the course to rebut the usual complaints about lack of diversity. A picture of the LMH cohort with Professor Richardson was used on the front of Oxford's website to mark the start of the new academic year.

Our Alumni have been most generous in their support of this pilot scheme - the first to be pioneered in Oxford or Cambridge.  Most of the cost of the first year was met by just one remarkable donation - from Neil Simpkins, who studied Physics at LMH in 1984. Neil went to a comprehensive school on Teesside and told me when I first met him that he would always do his best to help people like him - a young lad from a modest background whose life was transformed by LMH.
At the end of their first term the students decided to write to their benefactor to tell him of their progress. Two told of attending schools where teachers had come and gone with such regularity that they had no consistent education. One wrote: "I no longer think that the Oxford experience is exclusively for well-off students." Another said: "I assumed Oxford was for the rich."
One described a background in a very deprived area of Britain: "I was always embarrassed by this fact but I now say it with a sense of pride because I regard it as an achievement to come where I am from and end up making it onto a foundation year in Oxford… Everyone has been lovely, kind and incredibly welcoming. I have made friends with people I didn't think I could ever be friends with."
Another wrote: "Oxford had always been a distant and unattainable goal for me: it might as well have been located on a different planet." All spoke of their hugely growing confidence in writing, thinking and speaking.
I leave the last word to one of their tutors: “They are bright, easily on a par with my students who are obtaining 2.1 classifications, but they have an ambition that outstrips many of the students I have seen…None of them would have even been recommended to apply to Oxford, despite the fact they were top students in their schools.  It is clear to me that the field they play on is certainly not level and had they had access to better tuition, they would have been able to compete well against our normal candidates.
As they go back to their communities at Christmas the ripple effect of the Foundation Year will begin. Their families, friends, schools and peers will, we hope, realise that Oxford is not always how it is portrayed

Posted: 02/01/2017 12:54:34 by Alan Rusbridger

We have now found 10 extremely interesting and impressive young people who will make up our first cohort of students for the LMH Foundation Year, starting this autumn.
Since I last blogged on the subject we’ve been busy. We had set ourselves a tight timetable and we worked hard to make sure the right people knew about the opportunity.
We started with the core groups of schools in the six local authority areas with which LMH is linked.  We couldn’t possibly travel round all those areas in the time available, but we made personal visits to at least a dozen schools.  There were other schools with which members of the college had had links in the past. We Skyped into a few more schools and as the information travelled by word of mouth we began receiving applications from all over the UK.
The visits were labour intensive, but productive. For some, they were the first contact they’d had with an Oxbridge college for a long time.  In other schools they’d had virtually no dealings with Oxford or Cambridge in years, if ever. Nearly all of the heads or deputy heads we saw felt they could identify a student or two who could be good candidates for the Foundation Year, even at what was, admittedly, short notice.
One head had a student he felt had the potential to be an outstanding scientist but who had not managed to secure even an interview at Cambridge.
Another had someone in mind who had just scored a B in history – not enough to catch the eye of an admissions tutor. “But she’s only been speaking English for two years,” he said excitedly. “Imagine the potential there!”
These visits were very useful for us: we hope to have made connections with  schools who will think of LMH in future – either for the Foundation Year or for general undergraduate applications.
Given our timetable we had no idea how many applications we’d have for the first course in the six week window we’d allowed. In the end we had more than 90.
All the applicants had to write a personal essay saying why they wanted to come to LMH. If they’d encountered obstacles in their lives which had made their education difficult, they were encouraged to tell us about them. We asked them to tell us about any financial, family or educational circumstances which might be relevant to their academic journey.
We invited 28 for interview. Each was seen by the relevant subject tutors. Some very hard decisions were made to whittle the cohort down to 12.
We went into this with no idea who might come. What we got were excellent students from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The average joint parental income for the nine of the 12 who declared it was £13.3k.
The references from schools speak of young people who have sometimes overcome hardship or difficulties, and shown resilience and determination. One referred to the student’s formidable work ethic and love of learning which would be enhanced by further study skills support. Another spoke of a student who was the most highly motivated young person they had come across in their 15 years of teaching; wisdom and maturity characterised another. The financial support available was cited by one teacher as helping to reduce strain on the family which might have been an obstacle to applying.
In turn, some of the young people spoke of the challenge of leaving home. One said being able to study at Oxford felt like a realised dream, another said it made them feel like they had a chance, despite the challenges faced throughout their educational life. Some spoke about how confidence and self-doubt was holding them back academically and that Oxford felt beyond their aspiration, an unknown world both financially and emotionally. One said how the Foundation Year would inspire others from similar backgrounds to consider applying to Oxford.  
We strongly believe – as Trinity College Dublin discovered with its own 17-year old scheme – that the multiplier effect of these young people back in their own communities will be significant.
When A level results were published on August 16 it was evident that two of the 12 who had been offered conditional places would not, alas, make the final cut.  So we will start the new academic year with a cohort of 10. They will be studying Biology, Biochemistry, Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, English, Law, Maths, Music and Physics. 
We can’t wait for them to start.

Posted: 09/09/2016 09:46:55 by Alan Rusbridger

Today we’re announcing a new pilot project at LMH:  a Foundation Year for students from under-represented backgrounds who might otherwise not find their way into Oxford.
We’re intending to start it this autumn in the expectation of finding 12 exceptionally bright candidates who are interested in coming to Oxford, regardless of any obstacles they may have encountered so far in their lives.
Like many good ideas, this one started in a pub – a Dublin bar.
Last December I’d been asked to Trinity College Dublin (TCD) to speak and receive a small award. Afterwards I ended up having a pint of Guinness in the Long Hall with the academic/journalist, Elaine Byrne , and the Provost of TCD, Dr Paddy Prendergast.
Over the second pint we ended up talking about the problem extremely sought-after universities often have in recruiting students from diverse, or “non-traditional” backgrounds (reflecting, as we talked, about how difficult it is to get the language exactly right).
The problem is easily understood: nearly 20,000 young people apply for 3,200 places at Oxford. More than 45,000 UK students have AAA+ or equivalent.  Oxford has therefore raised the barrier in terms of starred A grades, while also creating its own aptitude tests and a “flagging” system to make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have a chance of getting at least an interview.
Quite an industry has sprung up to coach people on how to prepare for the assorted tests and interviews. I can’ t say whether they are at all helpful, but an Oxford preparation weekend will set you back £1,795. The question of what constitutes a “level-playing field” is a complicated one.
Nearly 44 per cent of those admitted to Oxford went to independent schools, compared with seven per cent of the country as a whole. But Oxford argues that independent schools produce a third of all those getting three As at A level.  There is, in other words, a problem earlier on in education. How much should a world-class university make adjustments to “correct” the wider failings of an education system?
 “We had that problem too,” Paddy said. “There were too many people who felt TCD was not for the likes of them. They were perfectly bright enough to study here – but were they yet ready? So we started an access programme. That was 17 years ago.”
The Trinity Access Programmes [TAP] took young people with obvious potential who could demonstrate they had coped with, or battled against, some form of social or economic disadvantage.  They would be admitted with slightly lower grades than would be demanded of acceptance to an undergraduate degree and given nine months of intensive tuition.
The students are evaluated throughout the course. More than nine out of 10 succeed in winning an undergraduate place the following year. Once admitted, they perform as well as the rest of the student cohort.   Since 1997 around 1,000 young and mature students have completed the TCD foundation course.
“Why don’t you come back and see for yourself?” suggested Paddy.
A few weeks later a group of us from LMH was back in Dublin – and given extraordinary access to the people at TAP who had made the scheme such a success – along with quite a few of the people who had progressed through it.
We met extraordinary young people whose lives had been transformed by education, not one of whom would have had a chance of being admitted to the university via the conventional route. Some had been through the course for young people, some for more mature students. One was now a successful solicitor, one a reader in psychology. Another was training to be a surgeon, yet another is currently president of the TCD student union and is running for the Senate.
This last student, Lynn Ruane, said this in her election manifesto:
‘As a child, I was bright and eager to learn. However, something happens to aspirational children growing up in underprivileged areas. As you move toward their teenage years, you begin to recognise that your parents and neighbours aren’t doctors or pilots and that begins to shape your idea of what is expected of you. I left school at sixteen as a young mother before returning to education via a community education project… [later] securing a place in Trinity College Dublin in 2011 through the Trinity Access Programme.”
The faculty members we met were also enthusiastic advocates for the scheme. One or two confessed to initial reservations, but said they had found the experience of teaching these young people deeply satisfying  - and sometimes very challenging (in an entirely good way), forcing them to rethink some fundamental ideas of how to teach.
My colleagues liked the TCD scheme very much. But would it work in Oxford? Here we had a stroke of good luck, in that TCD volunteered us the help of Cliona Hannon, who started the TAP scheme 17 years ago and who has overseen it ever since.
We collected together all the possible questions from the LMH governing body – they stretched to 11 pages – and worked through them one by one with Cliona over two days.  We have spoken to colleagues in the wider university – faculties, central administration and some other colleges - and consulted with schools.
We became convinced that a version of the TCD scheme could, indeed, work in Oxford.  The new vice chancellor, Louise Richardson – herself a TCD graduate [“People from my background didn’t go to Trinity”] – recently told a Washington audience that she thought the collegiate structure of Oxford was well-suited to trying such pilots. She wanted Oxford to act with “agility and generosity in trying to ensure that children with the greatest potential have the chance to study at Oxford.”
All but three subjects volunteered to be involved in the first year. But it would need money.  LMH is truly fortunate in having alumni who feel great loyalty to the college. Two in particular – Neil Simpkins and Michael O’Sullivan – did not hesitate in making donations to ensure that the majority of the costs of the first two years (of the four year pilot) were covered.
Why did they give? Neil, now a banker in New York, went to a comprehensive school in the North East. Michael, now the President of a US American clothing company, was a from a second generation Irish migrant background. Both felt strongly that LMH had been a transformative moment in their lives: they wanted others to benefit, as they had.
We were nearly there.  Some were surprised by the speed at which we were moving.  But virtually everyone I spoke to privately – including a good many other heads of house – conceded that something needed to be done to improve the diversity of intake at Oxford.  Prof Richardson herself acknowledged in her Washington speech that the university’s success in outreach, while extensive and well-resourced, had been “limited.”
There is, in fact, a great deal of concern and hard thinking going on around the university about how to address the issue of under-represented groups.  There are working parties here, breakfast groups there, consultation exercises over there.  At least one other college is planning a kind of bridging course for students who might otherwise be “near misses”.
As Prof Richardson said, the advantage of a collegiate system is that small-scale pilots can help us understand better “what really works.”
The external reaction has so far been supportive. The Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson, has welcomed it, as has the Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), Professor Les Ebdon. One of the areas of the country linked with LMH is Haringey, whose MP David Lammy, has also spoken warmly of the pilot scheme.
The scheme is obviously a tiny one in the wider context or Oxford and Cambridge. But, so far as I know, it’s the first time it’s been tried in Oxbridge – and we’re fortunate that TCD has agreed to be our partner in this pilot.  You can find more details of how it will all work and how to apply at https://lmhfoundationyear.com/  
If you want to support the project please email foundation@lmh.ox.ac.uk .
Why LMH?  Well the college was founded in 1878 by a small committee of people who felt it simply wrong that a significant group in society – women – were excluded from an education at Oxford.  At the time, most of the wider university was unsympathetic to the experiment and, for 40 years, they refused to give women degrees. LMH politely shrugged and got on with it.
The parallel today is not exact.  But there are groups of young people today who are markedly under-represented at Oxford, even if it is not quite right to call them “excluded”. They are as bright, resourceful and determined as anyone who has succeeded in getting here, but many things may have conspired to stop them even considering Oxford as an option.
If we can devise a way of enabling such people to study at Oxford that seems to me to be entirely in keeping with LMH’s founding mission.  Wish us luck.
 Write a Comment




Martin Garthwaite

Dear Alan,

This is a great idea, why it has not been done before is a mystery, but you have solved that problem.

I come from the sort of background that you are recruiting from. Solidly working class, no one in my family had been to university. 

My education journey has been a bit different, graduated from the OU at 40, went on the LSE, Imperial and finally Oxford. Importantly all my studies have been part time, whilst holding down a full time job.

So I think I can add a few comments / suggestions. There is a massive social divide that seems to me to be more important than the academic ability. How do you square the circle of taking someone out of a environment that is nothing like an Oxford college and the wider university.

Once you become normalised to Oxford life becomes easier but making the transition from the East end of London is never going to be easy.

The sense of entitlement, my perception or otherwise is something that really strikes an outsider; I don't believe its academic ability that is keeping younger people away but all the baggage that is associated with Oxbridge. The question I ask myself is, why would I put myself through that?

This foundation year is a brilliant idea, I assume it is not as full on as being a 1st year undergraduate. I personally think that undergrads get a raw deal compared to post graduates.

21/04/2016 10:48:36

Delete Reject Report abuse


Frances Carey

A brilliant initiative. I would like to add a special plea for mature students and those who have turned to further education to try and redress opportunities missed in mainstream conventional schooling. Further education offers greater scope for social mobility than any other sector, yet is the poor relation. Look at the terrific work done by the London Working Men's College and many others besides.

20/04/2016 16:52:20

Delete Reject Report abuse


Lewis Purser

Good to see sharing of good practice. The above reminds me of the ‘Steamboat Ladies’. These women were students at the women’s
colleges of Oxford and Cambridge who, between the years 1904 and 1907, were
conferred with ‘ad eundem’ University of Dublin degrees from TCD, at a time when their own universities refused to confer degrees upon women. See http://www.wardentrinityhall.tcdlife.ie/Documents/RosaPilcher-Thesis.pdf

20/04/2016 16:07:38

Delete Approve Report abuse



Great idea, but I'd go further - whey don't you just do away with any entrance requirements, interviews or exams entirely? After all, it's almost impossible to tell whether an applicant has been exposed to some form of toxic social or material privilege which might give them an unfair advantage during the admission process.

I would also like to propose an intensive nine month pre-foundation course for those who feel that they might like to take the foundation year, but - because they don't have quite good enough grades to qualify as not quite good enough - just don't have the confidence.

20/04/2016 14:58:38

Delete Reject Report abuse


Mary Hamer

Dear Alan
How satisfying to see LMH making this move and drawing on the experience of TCD in order to avoid reinventing the wheel. At last Oxford joins the ranks of institutions concerned to put in place the support disadvantaged candidates are owed.
A great day for LMH!

20/04/2016 14:08:03

Delete Reject Report abuse


Kath Ford

Dear Alan

I think this is a fantastic initiative and very proud that LMH is the first Oxbridge college to take forward such a scheme.

Having come from the comprehensive system, I have always considered myself very fortunate to have read Human Sciences at LMH (1990); the barriers to entry for state school educated students appear to be greater than ever, and it's great to see LMH taking a lead to identify new ways to help tackle this complex issue.

Best regards
Kath Ford

20/04/2016 12:57:23

Delete Reject Report abuse


Eleanor Watts

About time too! Great idea. Well done.

20/04/2016 12:25:07

Delete Reject Report abuse


Rebecca Miller

Fantastic idea, so pleased LMH is doing this. I hope it's a great success.

20/04/2016 12:23:10

Delete Reject Report abuse


Fiona McKenzie

I'm delighted at the launch of this initiative, and hope it attracts a wide-range of potential students who would never have dreamed they could benefit from an Oxford education. I was at LMH in 1975 and was very-aware of the sense of exclusion that prevailed because of the private school bias. Luckily, that did not define my experience - it too was 'transformative'.

20/04/2016 11:32:29

Delete Reject Report abuse


Chris Saunders

This a great project. I came from the sort of background where this kind of initiative could have helped more of my peers to LMH. Social mobility is so difficult at the moment and if this project can encourage diverse people to take the great opportunity of Oxford, it has the potential to become a importat force for good.

20/04/2016 10:50:13

Delete Reject Report abuse

Posted: 20/04/2016 10:00:00 by Catarina Vicente


Over the past few weeks I’ve been dotting around the college – and the wider university – interviewing people, which is sort of what I used to do for a living. My subjects have been part of the LMH academic community – graduate students and tutors – and pretty soon we’ll start posting the results on the LMH website.
First, and least important, it gave me an excuse to go round asking nosy questions of my new colleagues and to find out what sort of research was going on in the offices and labs of the academics who live and work here. But, in conducting around  25 interviews, I discovered that most colleagues have only a hazy idea of the precise nature of the research being done across the college. When we sit down for lunch or supper the talk doesn’t necessarily turn to the distributional properties of critical random hypergraphs.
After 40 years of mainly telling stories in text – I’ve found it quite liberating to perch behind a camera and allow people to speak for themselves. Almost without exception my subjects apologized in advance for their anticipated inarticulacy. And, almost without exception, they then spoke fluently and fascinatingly. Only one had had any form of media training, which so put her off that she vowed never to speak to the media.
The first film – showing the work of a small number of our graduate cohort – is here. You’ll see the extraordinary range of research life at LMH – from jet engine blades to 14th century painters; from muscular-skeletal injuries in rugby players to how much sex took place between Neanderthals and humans; from French Canadian dialect to alcoholism.   
The film also features possibly the finest moustache in all of Oxford.


Write a Comment

Posted: 29/02/2016 11:20:34 by Alan Rusbridger

I am not sure I understand rowing yet, but LMH had three teams out on the river at the weekend taking part in something called Torpids. I think this involves trying to steer your boat into the back of someone else's craft. And to avoid any other team whacking your boat while your concentration is elsewhere. A Facebook comment described it as dodgems on water. I'm sorry to sound so vague, but nearly all the action happens round a bend in the river, invisible to the eye. There is a commentator of sorts but he's no David Coleman. So it's pretty difficult to have any clue what's happening at all until the boats arrive back on dry land and the crews look cheerful or, er, not.

How did LMH fare? Well, the men's second boat apparently managed to wham Worcester III in short order, which is good. Our women's team seem to have put up a gallant fight but took something of a scenic route (I am paraphrasing) that involved one or two unscheduled detours from the planned course. The OURC (Oxford Rowing Club) twitter feed used the words "so much carnage" and the hashtag #worstdayever to describe whatever was going on round the bend. But the team looked cheerful enough when they eventually made it back to the clubhouse and the boat was still intact. As for the men's first team, they put up a good chase of St Anne's only to be rammed by Mansfield. I think.

Anyway, it's the taking part that counts. No?


Write a Comment

Posted: 29/02/2016 10:47:51 by Alan Rusbridger

Philip Hensher, who was an undergraduate at LMH before becoming a distinguished author, wrote the following observation on Facebook, reproduced here with his permission"

"What a great idea. When I was an undergraduate at LMH some of the encounters that meant most to me were passing encounters with visiting speakers who came out for dinner with the Beaufort Society (the literary society of the mid-80s). If you'd grown up in a provincial industrial city and gone to a comprehensive, there was no particular reason why you'd ever have met a creative figure. It was wonderful to spend even an evening with someone like Adam Mars-Jones or Kazuo Ishiguro or Elizabeth Jennings. To have these people in LMH as regular presences for undergraduates to talk to and engage is going to transform lives. I'm thrilled to see LMH innovating like this."

Write a Comment




Annette Haworth

Both the 11 visiting fellows and the film are great ideas. College really isn't far from anywhere, but there is a perception it is. Hope it goes down well.

07/02/2016 11:48:53


Posted: 05/02/2016 19:14:09 by Alan Rusbridger

Today we’re also launching a little film to show prospective students what LMH is like. When I arrived last term I sat down one–on-one with every single new undergraduate, visiting student  and graduate – about 240 in all – and asked each one how they knew of LMH.
Some had done extensive research on us and were attracted by some aspect of our culture or history. But a sizeable number had ended up here by chance and had known little about who we were, what made us tick – or even where we were. Once they arrived, nearly all of them said, they found the surroundings to be glorious and the atmosphere to be incredibly welcoming. But to most of the world LMH has remained a slightly hidden gem.
How to show people the true LMH? Well, would-be students are nearly all of a generation to which images and video are second nature – the “pics or it didn’t happen” era. So I asked my old colleague and fried Graeme Robertson to bring his drone down to Oxford for the day. You can’t really get a sense of where LMH is, nor its 11 acres of gardens, without seeing it all from the air. Graeme was about to solve that.
He had spent a year getting a pilot’s licence to fly his DJ1 Inspire drone and arrived one autumnal day to send it high over LMH’s warm red brick-and-stone buildings and out into the neighbouring University parks and back. The drone swept over our football pitch and gardens down to the river. At last we had a vivid way of showing outsiders what insiders know: that LMH is a place of extraordinary beauty… and is no more than a three minute cycle or 10 minute walk from most of the places any student is likely to want to visit or study.
That was the start. Then we asked the wonderful award-winning photographer Sarah Lee to spend some time capturing the feel and life of the college in stills. And finally we asked a wonderful video journalist, Laurence Topham, to edit it all into a crisp little video that gives a short sharp taste of LMH.
It is, of course, only a glimpse. Recently I’ve been filming interviews with several tutors and graduates about the college’s scholarship and research – another aspect of Oxford life which can also remain hidden and poorly understood. Soon, we’ll start posting those films. In time, I hope the website will be a kaleidoscope of insights into what makes LMH such a vibrant and eclectic place of research and teaching.

Write a Comment



Sandra Evans

Fantastic video. Shows spirit of the college. Daughter applied to LMH due to friendliness and inclusive atmosphere shown on open day by students. She has been given conditional offer for autumn 2016. Fingers crossed.

06/02/2016 20:56:30



Joy Hendry

Great! I love it! I chose LMH because I liked it, but this film picks out most of the things I liked!

06/02/2016 14:20:52


Posted: 05/02/2016 11:15:20 by LMH Admin

LMH is today announcing a group of 11 visiting fellows to join the community of people who live work and study in Oxford.  Nothing much is new in Oxford, and I freely confess I stole the idea from another college – Nuffield.
That college’s funder, Lord Nuffield, was keen that there should be a form of bridge between the academic and non-academic worlds and came up with the idea of temporary fellows drawn from government, politics, trade unions and other public institutions. When editor of the Guardian I was one of them and used to relish occasional trips down the M40 to sit in on (or even give) a seminar in the David Butler Room, followed by dinner in hall.
Some of those dinners were eclectic affairs. Alongside the students and tutors there would be bishops, bankers, spies, journalists and economists. Lord Nuffield, it seemed to me, was on to something: this was a way of enriching the life of a college and its students, and of blowing oxygen through the corridors.
The governing body at LMH was very receptive to the idea and we came up with our own long list of people in public life we admired and could imagine bringing varied and interesting insights and experience to the whole community – students, staff and tutors. A small committee  drew up a short-list. Only one person we approached said no – and purely on the grounds of overstretch.
The obvious thing to note is that – deliberately - only one is an academic. The college already has many very distinguished honorary fellows, most of whom have had notable careers of scholarship. Our visiting fellows bring a different kind of experience. Some never went to university. One left school at 16. But they have all, in their different ways, achieved great distinction in their chosen fields, professions or callings. One or two are very well-know, others are on the route to some sort of stardom. Others will never be gene rally recognised, but are deeply admired in their own area.
What will they do? Well, they are appointed for three years. At a minimum we’d like them to drop in occasionally at college, eat with us and meet informally with a variety of the LMH community. We’d like them to do one thing a bit more structured: it could be a conversation or debate, a performance, a lecture or seminar, a form of outreach – or something we haven’t thought of. We can imagine fascinating interactions or collaborations between them.
They are welcome to come and stay in college if they’d like a place temporarily to think or work. And some have already suggested other ways in which they might engage with a body of 700 incredibly smart students and tutors in order to stimulate their own thinking or work in progress.
LMH is already a deeply interesting place. It just got even more interesting.


Write a Comment

Posted: 05/02/2016 11:08:08 by Alan Rusbridger

This is the third in a series looking at the Oxford admissions process. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to sit in on their deliberations

They jokingly call it horse-trading – the meeting when admissions tutors from different colleges get together to agree a pool of candidates who deserve a place at Oxford, but aren’t among the first choices of the individual colleges.
We’re meeting in a modern, light faculty room with representatives from the undergraduate colleges that teach this subject. “Horse-trading”  is slightly misleading: colleges no longer “swap” applicants in the way they once did. Today’s meeting is about making collective decisions about entry to a course. The task of herding all the representatives in the room falls to a senior colleague from one of the colleges. We’ll call them Hilary.
On the screen in front of the academics is a university database of candidates  - a giant spread sheet with around 30 columns of information.  There’s the candidate’s name, the school they attended and the two colleges that have interviewed them so far.   
Most of the academics in the room have the same information open on laptops in front of them. They also can see applicants’ GCSE and AS results , along with their predicted A level grades. They can read some contextualised information – including the GCSE school performance compared with the national average and how the individual candidate performed against the average at the school. Personal statements and references from schools are there at the click of a mouse.  
By changing view on the screen an admissions tutor can also see if a candidate has been flagged for some form of socio-economic disadvantage or has come from a school which may not regularly send students to apply to Oxbridge.  
The information is certainly comprehensive. Whether or not it is easily digested and readable at speed in the cut and thrust of the next 80 minutes is a different matter. 
This is the final stage of an exhaustive process in which a large number of would be candidates has first been gradually whittled down to a manageable number for interview. Candidates are then each interviewed at two different colleges. By this stage the colleges have already decided on the vast majority of applicants. It is, says Hilary, a “drawn-out, detailed, and, we believe, fair and caring process.”
As the academics settle down Hilary explains that they have a number of candidates in front of them today – all of whom have scored A1 after individual colleges have seen their work and interviewed them. Today’s task is to reduce that number by about a third.
Hilary reminds the group that the pool is needed because – for whatever reason – a number of candidates fail each year to achieve the grade necessary to secure their place at Oxford.  So the extra candidates selected today will create a large enough pool to allow for those who fall at the last fence. 
“You have to be really, really sharp and critical today,” Hilary urges the colleagues. “If you really feel someone should have a place, then fine. If there’s doubt in your mind I’m afraid we have to say no to that person.” 
The first candidate flashes up on the screen.  An admission tutor from one of the two colleges to have seen him speaks up. “I think he was pretty good, but he didn’t get on our long list.”  
Hilary looks doubtful. “I’m not convinced by this chap. I’m going to put him as a question mark.” His name is chalked on a black board at the front. 
The next candidate. One college’s verdict: “quite strong”. Someone looks at some of her grades and queries why they were weak. She’s a question mark at this stage. 
Another applicant. “We thought she was quite good, a good breadth of knowledge.“ It feels luke warm. 
“You wouldn’t say she was brilliant?” asks Hilary.  “I don’t think she’s going to make the cut. I’m sorry.”  
The next candidate has good contextualised GCSE scores but, says a tutor, “we thought she’d be an interesting candidate but we got very little out of her.. a very good case why we shouldn’t do interviews. It’s about the substantially reduced chances of people from non-public schools.”  
 “We haven’t heard that for a few weeks,” says Hilary drily.
Another candidate illustrates the problem. He was better than the previous candidate in interview – “but he was really well prepp’d,” says a tutor. It’s illustrative of why interviews are problematic, says one tutor.
Now there’s an applicant who did well and was from a widening participation school: she’s through with little discussion.  
Here’s one the two colleges who have seen her can’t agree on. One thinks she was “very disappointing, but clearly knows her subject.” The other college’s view: “she was very good.” 
You begin to sense some frustration on Hilary’s behalf in trying to interpret the conflicting views. There are worries that they’re not moving fast enough to get through the business.  
The next candidate doesn’t help  – at the bottom of one college’s list of people who didn’t quite make the cut, but “absolutely at the top” of the other college’s list. No immediate decision.
We arrive at a candidate who is “flagged all over the place.”   
“I think I terrified the life out of him in interview,” jokes a tutor. “He started off answering quite well and then petered off.” 
The other college partially disagrees: “He did the opposite with us. He clearly wasn’t prepared for an Oxford interview, but, given his track record it was greatly to his credit that he’s done well. It was difficult to get answers out of him, though.”  
The applicant’s details flash up on screen and the academics peer at his predicted exam results.  His personal statement scrolls down and the group looks at the school he’s at.  “It’s not the best preparation … he seems to have done quite well.” 
But suddenly one tutor registers his unhappiness at the drift of the discussion. “That’s my whole frustration about this process. You can’t take him on the basis of that,” he says animatedly. “Should we be putting people into the pool on the basis of all these flags? This person will be imposed on a college who hasn’t seen them.”  Others disagree with this view.
It looks as though the candidate is heading for a “No.”  Another tutor from a different college expresses disquiet at the discussion around access and flags in the context of this pooling meeting. 
The unease doesn’t seem to be about encouraging “access students”: it’s obvious that many tutors in the room have a keen appetite for that. It’s over how much, at this stage of the process and on the information in front of them (and without having the benefit, most of them, of having met a particular applicant) a challenging background should be taken into consideration.
”This process is quite embarrassing,” says this tutor. “We’re not talking about access places. This process is for people who we’re pretty confident will make their grades.” 
A tutor from another college appears unhappy at the likely rejection of this applicant, and declares that she, too, was an access candidate once.  ‘I’m hearing this candidate did quite well in one interview.” 
One of the tutors who interviewed the candidate contests this. “Someone is going to have to take this student for three years. The test is, would we be happy to have them?” 
Hilary intervenes to cut the discussion short.
But a similar problem soon crops up with another candidate: poor exam grades, and/but from a failing school. You could argue she’s done very well to overcome the obvious hurdle of a challenged school. How should she be treated?  The candidate hangs in at this stage.  
By this stage some tutors are becoming advocates on behalf of certain candidates. “Even now I’m not sure why we didn’t take this one,” says one.  Another speaks up for a student who was “fully flagged” .  
A sceptical voice in the room says: “So can someone else have him.”  
There are some easier cases who go on the Yes list and, at the end of the first cut, the group has managed to sift out quite a few applicants. It’s taken nearly an hour so far. They still need to lose more to hit the target. It’s time to revisit some of the marginal calls.
But, again, there is some disagreement about what allowances the group should be making at this stage for the backgrounds of candidates.  
“This one comes from a state school and he’s weaker than X,” says a tutor. “On paper he’s a weak candidate who’s going to be imposed on someone. I’m declaring some alarm at the whole system. There are some colleges who are going to be getting some candidates on, on paper, are not good enough. I don’t think this process is working.” 
Another colleague voices similar unease. “At this stage it’s not about OFFA (Office of Fair Access) or social engineering.  That’s a fine decision for an individual college to make, but not at this stage.” 
One tutor expresses disagreement with the process: “I’m very happy to take people from the pool, but I’m not happy to take people who haven’t got the right GCSEs.“
He threatens to withdraw his college from the pool.  “It’s not OK at this stage to take people who aren’t cast iron on paper. I’m going to unilaterally withdraw from the pool. We can’t take this risk.”  [He actually stays in the room]
Hilary looks even more frustrated at the turn of the conversation. “We can’t go on for ever,” Hilary says. “We can discuss the methodology later.”  
They move onto another candidate – one, notes a tutor, with flags for social-economic disadvantage who performed well in interview. 
“Why didn’t you take them then?” shoots back another tutor. 
One college, keen to protect one of the candidates who’s looking doubtful, offers to take him out of the pool and find a college place for him.  
The group is gradually getting to the last choices – peering at the contextualised data.  Someone argues the case for a candidate from a flagged “low-participation” school. “She did really well at interview, she answered questions quickly. She’d be good to teach.”  
In another part of the room two tutors who have both interviewed the same candidate are conferring among themselves and volunteer to take someone off the list. At the last knockings another candidate falls as a tutor concedes: “I can’t support her.”  
The department has its list – agreed by all. Around 20 per cent of the total list – chosen today and over the past week or so - are flagged up as “access” candidates.  
Hilary looks relieved to have arrived at the end. “It’s the hardest I can remember".



A Parent

My daughter has just been for an interview at Oxford but unlike your description was interviewed by only one college. So perhaps it is different for different subjects, or different colleges? She's kept in touch with state school pupils from UNIQ and even for the same subject they had different numbers & approaches to interviews. I'm not at all surprised candidates performed differently with different interviewers. It might be worth talking to candidates if it was at all possible to get a fuller picture. Or maybe UNIQ do that.

01/01/2016 15:55:03




I am curious about the attitude to access flags. If a candidate has had severe impediment to achievement, then their attainment has been harder won and suggests either greater ability or greater determination than shown by candidates with equal attainment but no impediments. However on paper the flagged candidates will always appear weaker. If you have not been able to attend school because of ill health or attended a failing school which didn't enter you for decent GCSEs, that will always show on your record as a gap, despite it being neither your fault, something you can correct, nor an indication of lower ability. It is worrying then that any tutors would consider it improper to consider flags at any stage and resort to looking at candidates' performance on paper without context. That 'flag' will not stop being relevant until the qualifications it contextualises are irrelevant.

23/12/2015 11:38:15

Sophie Ratcliffe

Just to clarify - (and maybe there's still one blog to come which will explain this), there is a critical meeting/stage in the process that differs quite radically from the pool meeting described above. In many subjects (English is one such subject) - after each day of interviews, tutors from different colleges meet in order to discuss applications. These meetings serve the purpose of ensuring that some candidates, who have been interviewed at their first College, are invited for a second round (or even third round) of interviews with other Colleges. The reasons for calling candidates for these further interviews are various, and are part of our attempt to ensure that the process is as fair as possible. These candidates may still be offered places at their first College, or may be offered places elsewhere, or may not, in the end be offered a place. (Conceivably, this could in fact mean that candidates are indeed 'swapped' between Colleges, although I don't remember that happening, and it would only happen if the candidates were interviewed at the alternative College...).

21/12/2015 22:27:19

Write a Comment


Posted: 17/12/2015 14:32:01 by Alan Rusbridger

ADMISSIONS. 2. The interview
in which the Old Testament story of the Judgement of Solomon is used to test would-be students' ability to think about economics and management. 
I am sitting in on six interviews for students wanting to read economics and management. They take place in the study of Brian Bell, Associate Professor in Economics – brown carpets and sofas matching the dark oak 1930s doors and shelves of LMH’s Deneke building. Brian is in jeans and a hoodie. His co-examiner is Pawel Dziewulski, a career development fellow in Economics, in grey flannels and an orange jumper. 
The two of them are seeing 12 candidates for four places. The process goes like this: they’ll choose a maximum of three at this stage, marking further candidates marginal rejects  or (in one case) a marginal accept. There’s then a period in which they see a few other candidates who haven’t quite made the initial cut at other colleges before settling on a final list. The interviews about to take place – 20 minutes each – will count for about a third of the overall consideration this week, the other two main factors being the scores in the essays and the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) test the candidates have already  taken. And, of course, there are past and predicted exam results, personal statements and school references as crucial parts of the mix. 
The first candidate appears, rather more formally dressed than either of his interlocutors.  In his hand is a two-page passage he’s had some time to study, which quotes the First Book of Kings, Chapter 3, 16-28 – how King Solomon settled a claim between two women, both of whom claimed to be the mother of the same child. The paper suggests that Solomon’s approach was flawed – and invites candidates to identify how. It then suggests alternative ways in which Solomon could have decided which of the two competing women was the true mother of the disputed baby. One Bell/Dziewulski scenario involves the payment to the king by Mother B if she claims the child is hers. 

Pawel leads the discussion, probing away with rapid fire questions about different scenarios.
Do the mothers have an incentive to tell the truth? What if A is telling the truth? How does it change if B is telling the truth? What if Solomon simply sold the child to the correct mother by asking a price high enough to deter the false mother? What price would he have to offer? 

The candidate – whose first language is not English – seems to be enjoying the cut and thrust of it all, smiling at each twist in the game-playing. But he can’t afford to relax because Pawel now wants to know why anyone would buy an alarm clock with a snooze button. If you want to wake up, wake up, he says. How does this make sense?
The candidate wrinkles his nose, smiles to himself, changes gear and does his best to argue his case. 

We’re half way through and it’s Brian’s turn.  From an economic perspective, he wants to know, what are the problems with a wealth tax? A series of four or five questions follow. How might the wealthy react to such a tax? In equilibrium, what are the implications for global tax rates if people move to avoid higher taxes? If the answer’s zero, how does France get away with taxing the rich? Does taxing property get round the mobility of capital? What policy  initiatives would help stop the flight of capital in response to changes in the taxation rates of individual countries?
With some candidates  - the ones who dealt most efficiently with the taxation questions – Brian moves onto ask how George Osborne  pulled off his recent budget trick of seeking to reduce the deficit while taking advantage of the £27bn the Office for Budget Responsibility found down the back of the sofa. With other candidates he goes further, demanding about the possible economic advantages to Germany of allowing a massive influx of immigrants.
There’s a break after the first three candidates. “Now what we do,says Brian, “is magically produce a mark out of our heads."
The two of them score the people they’ve seen so far out of one hundred: in each case there is no more than three marks difference between the two examiners
Anyone scoring more than 70 is likely to be well-placed. Anyone getting less than 60 would have to have performed very strongly in the rest of their application to compensate. Most are clustered somewhere in the sixties. 

What are they trying to prove with these questions?
“Well, there’s no ‘right’ answer,” says Pawel. “We’re trying to assess their ability to think as the interview progresses.”
“We try to find questions that they won’t have done at school,” says Brian. “So we tend not to ask the things they would know if they had been taught a certain kind of economics. A few years ago everyone asked about the prisoner’s dilemma. But then schools picked up on that and started teaching it. So we dropped it."
“The aim is to find the keen minds, make sure we can find people who haven’t been coached for Oxford entrance. The TSA test is supposed to be unteachable, but I’m not so sure now.”
And so on to the next three candidates. Some are nervous, some ice cool. Most  seem pretty adept at thinking under pressure - even with questions raining in on them (I counted 20 in 10 minutes from Pawel). There are moments when brains seem to freeze and the only human reaction is pity. Some visibly wilt after 15 minutes of intellectual cut and thrust. Others seem to draw energy from it. 
The day’s over and the two examiners sit down to compare their scores.

“I know we’re going to disagree about one,” says Brian. They do. One has been marked well for the King Solomon test and badly for his grasp of the Osborne budget. 
“That really annoys me,” says Brian. “I mean, they want to do economics and they haven’t followed the budget properly?”
There are six more interviews the following morning. By lunchtime Brian and Pawel have five names in order on his whiteboard. Three of the interviewees I witnessed are there. There’s one person from a flagged background  - indicating socio-economic circumstances which might be taken into consideration. The list is topped by someone whose work was so outstanding that (they say) she would have had to remained silent for 20 minutes not to have got a place.
Later the two of them compare their rankings with the fellow responsible for the management part of the course. He had, separately, come to the same conclusion about the candidates. It has, they all agree, been an easy process this year with a remarkable degree of unanimity about whom to admit. 





Hi Mike Taylor! Thank you for pointing that out. There's a visible link to the blog's RSS now.

18/12/2015 21:14:42

Mike Taylor

Fascinating stuff, many thanks for writing it.

I have tried to find an RSS feed for this blog, but so far without success. Where is it hidden?

16/12/2015 14:24:40

Write a Comment

Posted: 16/12/2015 00:44:03 by Alan Rusbridger

No sooner is term over than the admissions process begins - selecting candidates to come up to Oxford next year.  The spotlight will turn on the process later this week when, according to the Observer, a report will criticise Oxford and Cambridge for their failure to increase the number of state school pupils studying at Oxbridge colleges.

I sat in on three stages of the process to see how candidates are shortlisted, interviewed and pooled between colleges. I begin with the shortlisting...
I’m sitting in the book-lined study of a Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall.  In one hand she has a list of numbers, in the other a sheaf of densely-typed papers. At her feet there’s a carefully annotated notebook. There are two other colleagues, similarly equipped, on adjoining chairs. 
They are wrestling with a dilemma. Here’s a candidate who would like to come to Lady Margaret Hall to study – let’s call him Ash -  but his marks are not what they should be. There are more polished candidates in the pile with better UCAS applications and higher scores for written work.  But something has caught the eye of one of the fellows about Ash and the hand hovers. Does he end up on the pile of discarded forms on the floor, or should there be a longer discussion?  
As we near the end of full term – another week to go – there’s no sense of winding down among the Fellows. Quite the opposite. They’re all preparing for a week that appears to be the most intense period of the entire year: admissions. 
The complexity arises from the college system at Oxford.  In other universities there would be one central admissions funnel through which all applicants pass. At Oxford there are the faculties as well as 30 colleges (not to mention six permanent private halls) that admit undergraduates. 
 Applicants may indicate a first choice of preference tor a particular college.  But there’s inevitably a mismatch between the numbers of applicants and the places available. If they don’t choose a college they’re allocated one by computer and treated as if they had.  
Brasenose (I’m making this up) might have 50 would-be students wanting to read Serbo Croat, but only four places this year.  So the Brasenose rejects – they may include outstanding candidates who will go on to achieve first class degrees - drop into a pool for reallocation to other colleges.. 
 “It’s like horse trading,” says one of the tutors of this post-interview period. “We tried doing it digitally one year but it didn’t work. So we end up on three nights round a table.” Another tutor speaks of this period as a time of “ruthless hunting down” to find the best candidates who are floating around the system, yet to be allocated.  
That’s to come. People in college speak of it darkly as a period of immense pressure as candidates are summoned from college to college for interviews. There will be tears and long nights ahead, I’m warned. And that’s just the academics and staff running the process, never mind the candidates. 
But today, in the fellow’s room, there is a studied calm. 
By each candidate’s name are five numbers. The first is the score – from 1 to 10 – for the overall UCAS application. Each of the three tutors has marked this separately before reaching an average. On the sheet in front of me no-one has scored less than five. Five have notched up 10 out of 10. 
Then there’s a mark for written work, again out of 10. Each candidate is assessed by two of the three fellows and an average score arrived at.  
The next column has marks out of 100 for the aptitude test which all candidates sit. Here the marks range from 27 – poor – to 57 – good. Those scores feed through into the next column which places people in bands of 1 - 4. In the penultimate column there’s an overall mark out of 10 which comes from a computer munching its way through the figures in the previous four columns. 
There are three options for the tutors today: S, D or R. S is to summon a candidate for interviews in mid-December. D is to de-summon and R is to reserve a candidate: ie keep them at this stage for LMH only, and not (yet) for the horse trading. “We get first dibs on Rs,” says a tutor. 
I wonder about the algorithm used to arrive at the final mark. The tutors believe that the final score is heavily (unduly?) influenced by the score in the aptitude test. Generally speaking, a candidate below six is going out at this stage unless (see Ash) there may be special considerations. 
At the heart of the discussion today is a search for fairness. All the LMH colleagues to whom I’ve spoken want to attract the best candidates, regardless of background. But what is “fair” when there is, in the background, such a disparity of income, schooling, coaching and grooming? 
The tutors have some help in levelling out the playing field – a system of flags which show if a candidate has come from an area of social deprivation or from a school which does not routinely supply a production line of Oxbridge candidates.  The tutors take note of anyone who has attended a UNIQ summer school, an access programme which gives priority to students from low socio-economic backgrounds. 
By the time we get to Ash we’ve sifted through a few which are more easily decided. X  is open and shut: A stars all the way in life so far and high scores in the written work and aptitude test.  And here’s one who – after a brief discussion – is rejected.  Modest marks, nothing jumping off the page. 
Here’s one from a good public school. Look closer and see they started at a state school.  “You have to read the forms very closely to see what the story is,”  says a tutor.  “Sometimes they can move from one sector to another – maybe on a scholarship. Perhaps it’s improved their work, but affected their confidence.” A query for this candidate – decide later. 
Here’s one from a comprehensive with pretty good marks and an arresting writing style. She’s through to the interview stage. 
And then we get to Ash. The computer’s ranked him well below the average. His written work’s fine, but not spectacular. He has an A star at GCSE in the subject he wants to study, is widely-read and comes with a glowing reference from his teacher. Plus he has two “access flags.” But, on the aggregate score alone, he’s for a D. 
What should they do? Are they raising his hopes by asking him up when, on paper, he’s not as strong as some others? But what of the signal sent when such aspiring candidates don’t even get an interview at Oxford? On the other hand, if you ask too many candidates up for interview, all agree, you can get punch-drunk. Sometimes it’s better to see fewer, but delve into them deeper. 
One tutor remembers another such case – someone who scored similarly poorly on the aggregate score but shone at interview and went on to achieve a very high 2.1  
Time is ticking away. There’s a pile more candidates to consider. Ash is through to the next stage. 
And so it goes on. This one’s from a school which they know can produce outstanding candidates - but this isn’t one. Out.  This one’s borderline but is from an OFFA (Office of Fair Access) school. In.  This one’s scored brilliantly and comes from an OFFA school. In. This next one’s out: “The teacher’s marking the work as superb. It isn’t,” says one tutor crisply. 
They’re done. Over the next week or so thousands of Oxford applicants will get emails inviting them for interview in December… or not. 
 Is the “system” fair? That’s doubtless the subject of many more blogs. But  at LMH – on the basis of what I’ve seen so far – the existing process is done with care, thought and thoroughness.  

Write a Comment

Posted: 14/12/2015 18:06:35 by Alan Rusbridger

Incredibly comforting, the first Sunday after the atrocities in Paris, to have as our preacher Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.  

He spoke on love, reconciliation... and taking the long view.


Write a comment

Posted: 17/11/2015 10:39:29 by Alan Rusbridger

Number of undergraduates students accepted to study at Oxford in 2014: 3,161.
Number of students studying computer science: 22


Write a comment




Alan Rusbridger

There are a further 28 doing maths and computer science and eight studying computer science and philosophy. So, 58 in all out of 3,161

17/11/2015 10:29:27


Sophie Ratcliffe

Interesting. Does this statistic include those studying Maths & Computer Science and Computer Science and Philosophy?

13/11/2015 08:17:07


Sightly misleading given that there are also those studying Maths and Computer Science or the new course Computer Science and Philosophy.

But still, Oxford needs to move faster in 'adapting!

13/11/2015 07:43:17

Posted: 13/11/2015 02:15:37 by Alan Rusbridger

You are running a student union in a British university. You invite a radical speaker along to provoke debate and thinking, just as generations of student unions have always done.  John Stuart Mill would approve, believing the best response to argument was more argument.
But that is not quite how things are in Britain since the passing of the 2015 Counter-terrorism and Security Act. Now the student union cannot be quite so carefree in its stewardship of debate. It must do a risk assessment, tick quite a few boxes, make action plans, undergo training and write policies. Then see whether debate is possible.
Universities are just waking up to the full implications of the Government’s “Prevent Duty” which places a legal responsibility on them to look out for extreme views on campus.
By general consensus the Act is appallingly vague as to what’s required, and by whom it  - whatever it is - must be delivered. If the LMH JCR asks a “radical” down to speak which legal entity should be obliged to have quiet word with Thames Valley Police – the college or the JCR?
Alasdair Lennon from Oxford University Student Union came to LMH on Monday night on a mission to explain both the legislation and why OUSU will have nothing to do with it.  The union’s stance is to leave any room in which it’s being discussed rather than be complicit in its execution.
He was followed by Glen Swafford, from the university’s registrar’s office, who is coordinating an Oxford-wide response to the legislation. He said academic communities were split between those who wanted greater clarity from the government and those who relished the discretion to interpret the flabby language howsoever they chose.
The Oxford response is being led by [Lord] Ken MacDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, now at Wadham College. He is on record as saying he believes the legislation is “obnoxious.”

He wasn’t alone. The former head of the civil service, Lord Butler, said earlier this year: “The whole point of university is that they should have a good deal of freedom to hear different opinions and make up their own minds on what’s right or wrong. As somebody said, radicalisation is much more likely to go on over coffee in students’ rooms rather than at public meetings."

Further anxieties were expressed by Lady Manningham Buller, who - before she went on to run MI5 – was an undergraduate at LMH.  “I am afraid it is a profound irony that we are seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology by trying to bar views that are described, too vaguely, as ‘non-violent’ extremism, but which fall short of incitement to violence or to racial or ethnic hatred, which is already forbidden by law.”
But that doesn’t help the LMH JCR, which called Monday’s meeting in order to consider how they should frame its own response.
Its  membership includes some clever philosophers, who will know their John Stuart Mill. If any of them want to write a guest blog about what the great man would have made of it all in this space I’d be happy to host it.

Write a comment


Posted: 03/11/2015 16:57:57 by Alan Rusbridger

The path to Oxford can look like a maze.  Some pupils have the advantage of help: a teacher with the magic key; maybe a sibling, friend or parent who went before; or perhaps a private tutor.  But what if you come from a school with not much experience of sending their children to Oxbridge, or if you’re the first in your family to try?
The test and interview season is closing in on us, so on Saturday we held an open day to help negotiate the maze a little for would-be students who might benefit from a glimpse of LMH before the rigours of the real thing.
About 45 came from all over the UK.  They were lucky with the weather: the sun shone brightly on the copper, orange and yellow canopies and carpets in the gardens and quads.  LMH was, I hope, looking pretty enticing.
And then it was down to work with half a dozen LMH undergraduates who’d been there, done that, themselves and had volunteered to be guides for the day.  They told their younger counterparts what it was like to sit through an Oxford college interview and talked them through some sample test papers.
Interviews are a complicated issue.  How do you see through coaching (with some candidates) and polish to the real mind? Conversely, how do you identify real potential with someone whose brilliance may be concealed behind tongue-tied nerves or unfamiliarity with verbal questioning and argument?
Colleagues at LMH say they try to ask questions that will draw people out, not catch them out.  Since arriving at Oxford, I’ve been party to many agonised discussions at this college and elsewhere about how to use a mixture of tests, exam grades, personal statements and interviews to select people who will benefit most from what the university offers.
I sat at the back of the room while the undergraduates helped some of our visiting would-be students through a sample from the 2009 English Language Admissions Test, which asked them to compare three passages or poems concerning time from Emily Dickinson, Dickens and Milton.
In the real test they would have half an hour to read six such texts – with an hour to compose an essay contrasting the structure, language and style.  In the room were would-be candidates who’d travelled from South Wales, Cumbria, Manchester, London and Essex.
“You’ll find time flies once you’re in the room,” said one of the undergraduates, who would have been in their shoes barely two years ago. “So have a plan of action. Pick two or three points, you won’t have time to do more.”
One candidate wants to know if “structure” includes rhyme. The answer’s yes: and the group looks at the unusual metric structure of Milton’s Poem “On Time.”
“Don’t worry if you struggle with the technicalities,” advises an undergraduate. “If you have something to say, that’s what they’re looking for.”
The other group is deep into the SVO (“subject, verb object”) of Dickinson’s work, and how it changes during the course of the poem.  “The essay does need shape,” says a graduate who took her finals a couple of years ago. “It doesn’t need to be a long essay. It’s quality over quantity.”
I hope they candidates found the day useful and that, when they return in earnest, the whole process will be a little less like a maze and more like a path

Write a comment

Posted: 01/11/2015 18:04:34 by Alan Rusbridger

Professor Christina Goldschmidt is one of our mathematicians and she has just won £1m, which may tell you that she is a very good mathematician.
The money has come from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and takes the form of an Early Career Fellowship to fund a project entitled "Random graph structures and their scaling limits". She starts in January, which is nice for her, but not so nice for LMH as we will see less of her during this period.
We have coffee and I learn that she is one of those mathematicians who speak in intelligible sentences, which is a relief as I easily can become tongue-tied in the presence of some very clever mathematicians.


Most of Christina’s work is on probability theory, which, she notes drily, is now acknowledged by pure mathematicians as a proper discipline.  She’ll be assisted in her five-year research project by a group of post-doctoral students.
Since I can’t imagine how maths works at this level I ask her what she will do on day one. Will it involve sitting in front of a giant mainframe computer?
“No, more like a piece of paper and a pencil,” she says. “The closest comparison at the initial stages is like composing a piece of music, or making a piece of art than the experimental sciences. The first steps are a work of imagination, trying to get an intuitive feel for what ought to be true.”
She gently suggests that I might like to improve my conversational ability in the subject by reading Timothy Gowers book Mathematics, a Very Short Introduction. It’s now on my Kindle waiting for me to take the plunge.
Christina is an unusual mathematician in at least two other respects. She’s a woman in a very male-dominated profession (“there are very entrenched social identities and unconscious bias, rather than explicit discrimination.”) And she started out at a south-east London comprehensive with only a patchy record of sending students to Oxbridge. As so often, there was one inspirational teacher in her background who found, and nurtured, her talent.
And now – when not staring at a piece of paper waiting for inspiration to come – she’s passing on her knowledge with inspired teaching. One of her LMH students, William Hart, has won one of two IBM prizes for top performing students. And another, Raffael Singer, won the Gibbs Prize for Maths and Philosophy.





Christina is giving a pre-prandial talk at LMH-SCR Seminar on the 20th November at 6.15 pm. on 'Random graph structures and their scaling limits', followed by Guest Night Dinner and discussion - All welcome (booking required for dinner)

02/11/2015 19:04:01

Write a comment

Posted: 30/10/2015 20:46:36 by Alan Rusbridger

Things that never happened at the Guardian: a fellow comes into my office for a meeting, fresh from the labs.

Good morning so far? Well, since you ask, she says, I have just been fishing heads out of vats.

I wonder if this another piece of Oxford jargon, like torpids or sub fusc. But, no, she means literally that: pulling human heads out of storage containers ready for anatomy classes on Monday. 

She goes onto explain that most of the heads come pre-dissected and are a bit long in the tooth, as it were. 

We do not shake hands.

Write a comment

Posted: 24/10/2015 19:14:06 by Alan Rusbridger

Oxford is barely 60 miles from London, but sometimes those 60 miles have worried me, with a nagging sense that some of the discussions an hour down the M40 were just a little off the pace or behind the times. Or so it could occasionally feel from the big city.
Not last night. Nicholas  Stern, of the eponymous report, gave an absorbing lecture at a packed Sheldonian Theatre in which he spoke with customary clarity and winning modesty... and an encouraging degree of optimism about the prospects for the forthcoming Paris talks on climate change. I felt I just about understood endogenous growth theory by the end of it - handy the next time I meet Ed Balls.
In the subsequent questions Lord [Robert] May, former President of the Royal Society argued that we needed more women involved in high level climate change talks: they had less aggressive egos and more concern for the future of the world.  Stern agreed, praising Margaret Thatcher as the first prime minister really to understand the significance of climate change (while acknowledging the "negative ledger". And heheaped praise on Christine Legarde of the IMF and Angela Merkel. [A Twitter response: “sure, we women will take that on, no biggie. But some clean up will be involved. You menfolk okay with that?”]
And then it was off to a dinner organised by the Oxford Martin School in just the sort of exquisite medieval Oxford banqueting space that could lull you into a sense that this might be one of those discussions that was interesting, but just a bit …not where it was at.
Wrong. Ok, the gender balance owed something to the 1950s. But otherwise this was an extraordinary mix of world class physicists, economists, bankers, environmentalists, statisticians, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and financiers. Many of them are engaged very vitally with Paris, with the big fossil fuel companies and with cutting edge thinking about the moral and practical issues involved in decarbonising economies. And divestment. 
There was candlelight and some John Dory fillet. And then Stern challenged the table – around 20 of us – as to why physicists and economists sometimes came to such differing views about the likely effects of a warmer planet.
There followed a fascinating hour of discussion.  Who would have the greatest influence on the future: governments, or a corporate world which was developing a gut feeling that the future arithmetic around fossil fuel reserves didn’t add up? What would Stern do if he was the President of an African country  that had just discovered oil? Perhaps change will be led by the insurance industry, which was in the front line of climate change… and wasn’t it interesting the the governor of the Bank of England addressed an audience at Lloyds of London in forthright terms recently?
Keep an eye on the Chinese: they suddenly get it. What conditions would have to be in place for carbon capture and storage to be a serious option for the future?  Why were economists not more obsessed by tail risks? What would it take to educate Putin on global warming?  What sort of view did Shell take of its assets and the possibility that they might end up stranded?
Why do economists not take into account the possibility of irreversible changes in climate: if the methane gas in the Siberian tundra escape, we can’t put it back. [See under endogenous growth theory]. Should we be viewing the whole question through an ethical prism or a Ralwsian frame? Were we better off relying on top-down leadership (the Pope, President Xi, Bloomberg) or bottom-up mass pressure?
Stern disappeared off into the night and I ended up chatting with New College's Professor Cameron Hepburn, who has been thinking deeply about possible guidelines for investment committees to exact maximum pressure on corporates. Expect news of that soon. 
So, not at all behind the times. It reminded me of a similar climate change gathering I attended at the Foreign office, arranged by Robin Cook shortly after becoming Foreign Secretary. There was the same feeling of being able to convene the best minds to think urgently about this most vital of all issues.
I came away feeling cheered. Partly because Stern is himself pretty upbeat about the momentum for change. And partly because this was what I hoped Oxford would be.
Out into the medieval quad. And through a medieval window an Oxford student playing a Chopin ballade off a MacBook Pro delicately balanced on the piano…




Nicky Bull

Very encouraging - how great if Oxford can become one of the clarion voices in the call for change and action on the climate! keep up the good work.

20/10/2015 15:45:26

Write a comment

Posted: 20/10/2015 11:25:35 by Alan Rusbridger

But before I can take over properly as Principal I have first to be installed. Which happened last night in the rather beautiful Giles Gilbert Scott part-Byzantine, part-Romanesque Chapel.

There was a formal section at the beginning of the service – with the vice principal, Helen Barr, a distinguished English scholar, handing over the College Statutes, tied up in a pink ribbon. And then there was a mixture of words and music, all chosen by the new Principal. Which, if you’ve never been on Desert Island Discs, is about as good as it gets.

I chose three anthems: Illuminare Jerusalem by Judith Weir; Beati Quorum Via by Charles Villiers Stanford; and the third movement of Chichester Psalms (Adonai, Adonai) by Leonard Bernstein. The choir – a volunteer, non-auditioned group – performed them all quite beautifully, conducted by the LMH music director, Nicholas Prozzillo. The organist – poor chap, for some of it was really quite tricky and this was his very first service – was Guy Steed, who has just come up to study physics. He showed what a good player he was.

There were two readings, each of them about the birth of great 19c institutions dedicated to the cause of reform. The first was a passage from the centenary history of the Manchester Guardian, by the paper’s then chief reporter, Haslam Mills. It was written in 1921 and is almost Biblical in its prose.

The reasons which suggest and encourage the establishment of a newspaper today did not exist a hundred years ago. In our times news is as saleable and merchantable a commodity as soap. It is the only valuable thing in the world which grows everywhere of its own accord.  It is at once as common as the sands and as valuable as fine gold. It is a kind of mineral wealth, and progress has consisted not so much in creating as in unearthing it. Morning by morning and week by week there was quite as much to be told about the world one hundred years ago as there is today. The coal was always underneath the valleys, and we have merely sunk the shafts. Journalism, also, has developed on these lines; it has bored through to the Antipodes. It lifts out of the invisible and the inaudible the fuel and nourishment of an enormous universal curiosity. It has become one of the great providing industries of the world…The first number of the Manchester Guardian appeared on May 5, 1821, and it happens curiously that its first issue coincided to the day and almost to the hour with one of the most interesting and provocative events in human history. This was the death of Napoleon at St Helena on May 5 1821…We look in vain through the first issues of the Manchester Guardian for any account of the death of Napoleon. When it is at last mentioned, we find it not announced, but alluded to as something which had got into the public consciousness without the aid of newspapers. The fact was in the world and journalism knew it not. It was there, but it could not be reached through the envelope of time and space. The opening of that envelope has transformed journalism …A newspaper in that age had much soul and very little substance. It was most probably established, not to make money, but to make opinion. It had something to say, but very little to tell. It thought much more than it knew. It was printed laboriously by hand, and if its opinions were in advance of its times it was edited in dire peril of the law.

The second reading – read by the music Professor, Susan Wollenberg -  was from Virginia Woolf’s A room of One’s Own and, in a few words, captured precisely why LMH was founded.:

It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession they had sent my little fish into hiding. What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I could not now remember. The spirit of peace descended like a cloud from heaven, for if the spirit of peace dwells anywhere, it is in the courts and quadrangles of Oxbridge on a fine October morning. Strolling through those colleges past those ancient halls the roughness of the present seemed smoothed away….  I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College and a letter of introduction. That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf (1929)

And, as a slight nod to my former life as editor of a paper keenly interested in British politics, Nicholas played us out with Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster. This is a fantasia on the chimes of the Big Ben clock tower bells. Except that Vierne either misheard them or deliberately misquoted them.

If only composers, as well as journalists, had a regulator then someone could complain.




Alan Rusbridger

Well spotted. Have always thought editors need editors

27/10/2015 14:51:21

Eira Davis

(LMH 1965-68) English
I am sorry to see that Helen Barr is described as Vice Principle. And even more sorry that no-one else has commented on this yet! Shades of the Grauniad are obviously haunting the blog....

24/10/2015 20:26:52


Write a comment


Posted: 17/10/2015 16:02:00 by Alan Rusbridger

In my first two weeks I’ve sat down with all 120 or so freshers (first year undergraduates) for a few minutes each. The first batch had spent one night at LMH: many of them living away from home for the first time. Everything is strange and new. There’s too much to take in.

I was very interested as to why students pick one college over another. To the majority, Oxford is an impenetrable maze of choices. Some picked Suchandsuch Hall because of its lake, magnificent fountain or manicured lawn. Some nose around the web. With other, there’s a teacher who’s provided a firmly guiding hand. A few – but very few – sought out a particular tutor (though this is more common at graduate level.) A Chinese undergraduate had picked Magdalen because (on his researches in Beijing) it was the alma mater of Oscar Wilde and Edward Gibbon.

Why LMH? I ask all those who had applied for this college – as opposed to those who ended up here accidentally or through open applications (i.e. when they don’t stipulate any college).
Without exception the reasons for choosing the college fell into three categories: gardens, location and welcome.

The college has more than 10 acres of really beautiful gardens leading down to the Cherwell and just across from further meadows and parks. Lots of this week’s undergraduates said they didn’t fancy being slap in the middle of a town that attracts up to 9 million tourists a year. Here, they have their own football pitch, tennis courts and gardens on the spot.

As to location, though some people think of LMH as being a bit on the fringe of town it’s actually far closer to many faculties or labs than some of the grander inner-city college. Walk from LMH through the parks to the biochemistry building, for instance, and it will take you 11 minutes (3 minutes by bike). The same journey from Magdalen college would involve a 17-minute walk, according to Google Maps, or a seven-minute cycle ride. So “central” is a fluid term.

Virtually all the students have remarked on the incredibly friendly atmosphere at LMH when they’ve visited in the past.

The programme of induction certainly keeps them busy in their first week. Once they’ve moved into their rooms they have to work out the Wi-Fi, meet their tutors, learn how to use the library and discover all the clubs and activities on offer. There are seminars or workshops on emotional resilience; equality and diversity; general health and welfare and welfare and sexual consent. On Saturday here was a party. Sunday was for sleeping it all off.

And then the work begins.

Write a comment


Posted: 17/10/2015 16:01:00 by Alan Rusbridger

All Oxbridge colleges are linked with different parts of the UK. The idea is that every school in the country should have a point of contact with a particular college. 
I would guess different colleges take their responsibilities with varying degrees of seriousness. In the summer I visited a flourishing comprehensive school in the East End of London with a link to one particular Cambridge college. The college visited once a year, which is good. But so far it had not taken a single pupil from the school. Less good.
LMH is linked with Ceredigion, Gloucestershire, Haringey, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Powys. At a very rough count I calculate more than 90 secondary schools which have a notional connection with the college – quite a tall order for our solitary Outreach Officer.
How does Oxford look from, say, Haringey in North London?
In the summer, as preparation for the job, I went to see three teachers in differing secondary schools in the borough -  two sixth form colleges and one community school with an intake with 50 per cent from Afro Caribbean, Turkish or Somali backgrounds.
One Sixth form has not sent anyone to Oxford in 10 years. The extra test set for oxford students was seen as just one more hurdle – difficult to “teach,” or revise for, and therefore – in a world of measurable and predictable grades  - off-putting.
[From the Oxford end of the telescope this was met with exasperation by one eminent professor. “But the exam is meant to be their friend,” he exclaimed. “Precisely because you can’t be crammed for it, it’s supposed to provide a level playing field.”]
Another sixth form college had a dedicated university liaison teacher who had established some connections with Oxbridge colleges. Each year (she explained) a Cambridge don arrives to select a dozen students out of a pool twice the size in order to give support and help in the period up to the interview and exam periods.
All three schools felt hopelessly outgunned by the capabilities and resources of private schools.  
The Cambridge liaison exercise included taking some students to the town for an introduction to the sort of work they would have to do, with lectures in specific subjects.
One school worked with the Brilliant Club, which has a roster of PhD students to help with coaching and interview/written application techniques.
One teacher paid from her own money to take part in a Cambridge seminar largely attended by private school teachers, all of whom had their expenses met by their college. “When I got there, I thought ‘no wonder they do better.’”

Taster days – when pupils could visit a university to get a feel for it – were effective. But many universities advertised these late in the day, which meant more expensive train fares.  A teenager might fork out £12 for a visit, but not be able to manage a full fare of £28.

I found myself wondering how many Oxbridge colleges were fully attuned to the fact that a £16 gap in train fares might be the determinative factor in a young person’s entire higher education experience.

From my early encounters at LMH my feeling is that this a college which takes its outreach responsibilities incredibly seriously. There have been fellows who have done tireless work to try and open up the college to wider and more diverse pools of applicants, aided by Hannah and Marrium, young post-graduates who have been our first outreach officers.

But the world does look very different from Haringey. And a college whose very purpose was to erode the discrimination which excluded all women from further education in Oxford cannot help but be committed to taking a lead in bridging different kinds of divide.




Nicole D.

Great post on an issue that is seldom discussed (especially at the level of considering whether potential candidates can afford the train fare to open days). LMH does seem to take its outreach activities very seriously, and I would argue, based on my six years at Oxford, this sets it apart from many other Oxford colleges.

26/10/2015 09:25:35

Write a comment


Posted: 17/10/2015 16:00:00 by Alan Rusbridger

Hell's Passage refers to a corridor in LMH connecting two of the older buildings. It got its name from the time it was lined with prints illustrating Dante’s Inferno. The prints went, but the name stuck…. And is hereby revived. 




alan rusbridger

Good to know they're safe, @xon. Incidentally, the little illustration of Hell's Passage is by the brilliant Polish-born British cartoonist and illustrator, Andrzej Krause

21/10/2015 23:36:40


The prints were late– 19th century illustrations to the Inferno by John D. Batten. There are still two of them hanging in Hell's Passage, the rest safely lodged in LMH Library.

21/10/2015 00:50:01


Is this the sames hells passage that was connected to the Turf Tavern. The old story goes the passage was used by students to escape a curfew.

17/10/2015 12:49:39

Write a comment



Posted: 17/10/2015 15:59:27 by Alan Rusbridger

On the face of it, an Oxford college and a newspaper don’t have much in common.  “It must feel very strange and unfamiliar,” people say. Well, yes and no.  The differences are obvious.  But, surprisingly, the two organisations don’t feel wildly dissimilar.

Both are, in their roots, 19th C institutions founded in the cause of reform.  The Manchester Guardian was established after the Peterloo Massacre by John Edward Taylor. He was a merchant who had witnessed the slaughter of innocent protestors assembling to call for parliamentary representation.  Taylor realised the need for unbiased accurate reporting of public events: the Manchester Guardian (b 1821) was the result.  

Lady Margaret Hall was founded 57 years later to right a wrong: the fact that a great university would not give to women the same education it granted to men.  It was, according to the writer Vera Brittain,  “the quintessence of the whole movement for women’s emancipation, the context for the equal citizenship of the mind.”
So both institutions started life as outsiders. The Guardian was, until the 1960s, still mainly based in Manchester while Oxford considered it decorous for women to be safely the other side of the University Park.  Neither is particularly rich, nor particularly grand. Both feel rudely independent.
The Guardian has no proprietor: we began each day with a meeting of anyone on the staff who wanted to come along and contribute their thoughts. I think that style of discussion, conversation and collaboration is not dissimilar to how LMH (and doubtless other Oxford colleges) runs itself.
Finally, the Guardian is an internationally-focused, open institution - full of super smart people with diverse interests – who come to work each morning in a spirit of inquiry about the world around them. Ditto LMH.
Both are real communities.
More broadly, journalism and academia seem to have less mutual antipathy than existed for far too long. Telegenic celebrity academics are surely envied rather than snubbed these days in all but the most ivied of universities.
My old colleague Andrew Jaspan has set up an enterprising opinion site, the Conversation, which exists to publish commentary from scholars who are expert on matters in the headlines.
Conversely, universities are increasingly asking leading media figures to play senior leadership roles. Former BBC executives or reporters are, for example, running the Open University, one Cambridge college and no fewer than three Oxford colleges.
So, no, the two worlds no longer feel as distant as they once might. And moving from the Guardian to LMH is not quite the culture shock it might seem – or might once have been.

Write a comment


Posted: 17/10/2015 15:58:27 by Alan Rusbridger

There is first of all the problem of language. As I started to liaise with my wonderful new PA, Janet, I noticed she used a different calendar from the rest of the world as I had known it. She would say that such and such a meeting was in week minus one. Or Third week. Or, most puzzling of all, Noughth week.

I think I have managed to get through my adult life without ever using the word “noughth.”  Which is actually quite a hard word to say at the best of times.

When was noughth week? What was noughth week?

The mystery slowly unravelled. Noughth week follows on (I discovered) from Week Minus One of Michaelmas Term – that’s autumn, or the one we’re currently in. And it proceeds First Week, which begins on October 11. The undergraduates start arriving on Sunday October 4th, in the middle of Noughth. Clear?

There is no time to work out the reason for this terminology, but getting to grips with how it works is rather pressing or I will have no idea when anything at all is happening. Help arrives in the form of a Google calendar plug-in which labels each week in a most helpful way. For example, I can see at a glance that the week of Christmas is, in fact, the 11th week of Michaelmas Term. Though term itself ends after 8 weeks. Not including Noughth Week.

All would now be plain sailing except that the University of Oxford prefers to be on Outlook, not Google. And the greatest brains of California and Oxford appear not yet to have worked out a way satisfactorily to harmonise and sync Gmail and Outlook across mobile and desktop. (If I am wrong about that, please tell me.)

So the problem of the who, what, when and why of Noughth Week will have to wait.

[Meanwhile there is a handy guide to Oxford jargon written by LMH students on the college website. From this I learn that’s it’s written 0th Week.]

Write a comment


Posted: 17/10/2015 15:57:27 by Alan Rusbridger

The process of choosing the LMH Principal was, so far as I know, relatively peaceful, with most of the Fellows still on speaking terms at the end.

It’s very different in Inspector Morse, which, for many people, is the main source of information on Oxford. Only last week I came across some distinguished-looking Scandinavians wandering around the LMH gardens, and took them to be visiting academics. “Oh no,” they cried. “We are from the Danish Branch of the Inspector Morse Society.”

Morse was never, so far as I know filmed at LMH. There was an episode of Lewis shot in the college – indeed, some of it in the very room in which I’m writing. It did not end well. Well, a murder, to be precise.
How are heads of house chosen in Morse?

The subject is treated in Death is now My Neighbour (1997). [Spoiler Alert in case you are belatedly working through a box set: I am about to summarise the plot, courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Sir Clixby Bream is the retiring Master. He intimidates the wife of a potential candidate, Denis Cornford, into sleeping with him in exchange for his vote. In fact – as Bream reveals after the sex – he has no intention of backing her husband: he is taking revenge on him for sleeping with Clixby’s wife years beforehand.

Cornford’s rival is Dr Julian Storrs, who has been having an affair with a physiotherapist called Rachel, who is shot through the window of her kitchen one Friday morning. One of her neighbours is called Adele. Adele had been having an affair with Cornford. Keeping up?

Another of Rachel’s next door neighbours is a local reporter. He, too, is shot dead. It transpires he had a part time life as a blackmailer.

Meanwhile Mrs Cornford confesses her infidelity with Bream to her husband. There is a violent struggle and she becomes the third corpse in this one episode.

The local reporter’s killer turns out to be Mrs Storrs, who was being blackmailed in a way that would have harmed her husband’s prospects of becoming Master.  The dead physiotherapist was a bit of collateral damage.

Morse confronts Bream and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t give up his Mastership and leaves Oxford. Who got the top job? Wikipedia is silent on the issue. I may have to watch it. It all makes life at LMH seem very tame. 

Write a comment



Posted: 17/10/2015 15:56:27 by Alan Rusbridger

I have just been officially installed as Principal of Lady Margaret Hall. The college was founded in 1878 to educate women, Oxford believing at the time that only men deserved to be at university.  I have spent the majority of my working life as a journalist – more than 20 of it editing the Guardian – so this is a new-ish world to me.

A reporter’s instinct doesn’t die and I have ten thousand questions to ask about this new landscape. Hence this blog - partly to justify the asking of all those questions, and partly in order to help demystify Oxford - for myself, as much as anyone else.

There are 38 colleges at oxford, each with its own head of house –many of them Principals, but with a sprinkling of Masters, Deans, Rectors, Provosts, Presidents and Wardens. How are they chosen?

Most colleges, like most universities, NGOs and businesses these days, employ head hunters. Over the years I’d had a few flies cast in my direction, but the timing was never quite right. Then, last year, the Scott Trust, the body which has owned the Guardian since 1936, was simultaneously doing its own hunt – for a new Chair in succession to Dame Liz Forgan.  The jigsaw pieces moved.

The process for choosing a successor to Dr Frances Lannon at LMH appeared – at least from my end of things – to be an incredibly thorough and exacting process.

The shortlisted candidates had at least two visits for college and would-be Principals to size each other up.  There were sessions to discuss academic and educational policy; to probe the college’s finances and its fund-raising needs; and to sit down at lunch, dinner or coffee with a few students, staff and fellows.

And then came the real nightmare part: an invitation to address the entire fellowship, all 45 of them. And be questioned by them… all 45 of them. The governing body (the fellows) runs the college, and the governing body gets to choose the Principal.

My car sprung a puncture on the way. I was going down with flu. The whole experience revived school terrors of going up for a tongue-tied Cambridge interview 40-something years ago.  Back then, there was just one fellow across a desk. Now there are – did I mention this? – 45.

At the end of the presentation I felt 45 faces lean forward and peer over their half-moons with a severe and disappointed air. [This didn’t actually happen but by now the two experiences, four decades apart, were blurring into one.]

A voice spoke. “Mr Rusbridger, what is the point of a college?” [This did actually happen]

I cleared my throat to buy time. The room began to swim.

Mysteriously, they gave me the job.

I said yes to the Scott Trust, too. And so, at the end of May 2015, I handed over the Guardian to Katharine Viner and went off in July to teach journalism to Indian students at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. That was fascinating, absorbing … and very hot. But the Indian summer also succeeded in helping me decompress from a job which was relentless, in the way only 24-hour digital news can be. I went to Chennai a recovering editor: I returned cured and ready for a new life at Oxford.




Hi / great blog / what are you looking for most from your new head of comms post at LMH ?

25/10/2015 15:39:12



Alan Rusbridger

Not at all bored or restless, @jann890. Fascinating new world- and, as I say in the blog, not wildly dissimilar in many respects from my old environs

19/10/2015 14:44:07


Hi Mr Rusbridger. Interesting take on your experience. Do you think you'd ever get bored or restless without the exciting world of journalism in your life now?

16/10/2015 21:26:32

Write a comment



Posted: 17/10/2015 15:55:27 by Alan Rusbridger

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.

Blog image


Hell's Passage. An introduction to Oxford in several chapters…
by the Principal, Alan Rusbridger.

Hell's Passage refers to a corridor in LMH connecting two of the older buildings. It got its name from the time it was lined with prints illustrating Dante’s Inferno. The prints went, but the name stuck…. And is hereby revived. 



Blogs RSS feedHell's Passage RSS