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.