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".

Submitted by Sophie Ratcliffe (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 13:54

*this comment was originally posted on 21/12/2015 22:27:19 *

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...).

Submitted by Louise (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 13:54

*this comment was originally posted on 23/12/2015 11:38:15*

Louise
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.

Submitted by A Parent (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 13:55

*this comment was originally posted on 01/01/2016 15:55:03*

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.

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