Cambridge and fair access: medieval answers to a contemporary problem

This post argues that Cambridge colleges need to remember their origins and act with greater shared purpose in ongoing disputes over the format of admissions interviews, or they risk undermining the institution’s goals for fair access. It reflects on more general themes around university structure and governance with respect to centralisation and homogenisation, and the benefits and challenges of a differentiated collegiate system. An abridged version of this essay will appear in Times Higher Education.

—————————————————————————————————–

 

The application and admission process at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ought not to be as easy as filling in a quick form and leaving it at that. Rigorously assessing candidates’ academic suitability for their chosen degrees requires a certain level of detail regarding their ability and potential. 

Most successful Cambridge applicants achieve A-level results better than the stated minimum offer level, so it is rare that their academic record alone is sufficient to judge their competitiveness within the field. Moreover, qualifications like A-levels only tell you so much. This is why both Oxford and Cambridge also use admissions assessments and interviews, alongside other kinds of information.

However, to meet their goals around fair access, both universities must ensure that their application processes are only as complex as they need to be for the purposes of good academic selection. Applicants from underrepresented backgrounds are likely to be less familiar – or to be attending schools that are less familiar – with the application processes at competitive institutions with complex collegiate structures. The more complicated Oxford and Cambridge make their admissions procedures, the more barriers to entry this creates for candidates from these backgrounds.

At both institutions it is the individual colleges that admit undergraduates, not the central university. Cambridge’s 29 undergraduate colleges interview a much higher proportion of applicants than Oxford’s do – over 75 per cent – but, unlike Oxford’s, they lack a mechanism for settling disagreements about admissions policy.

Such disagreements have been growing since the pandemic. During that period, both universities switched to online interviews, and, last year, Oxford confirmed that all its colleges would continue interviewing all shortlisted applicants remotely for the next five admissions rounds. Whatever one thinks of this decision, and regardless of whether one considers in-person or remote interviews more effective, a consistent and clear policy creates an even playing field across colleges, with rules and procedures that every applicant can understand.

In Cambridge, by contrast, there is increasing policy fragmentation. A handful of colleges reverting to in-person interviews and others sticking with the remote format would still be fairly easy to navigate. Equally, there may be an academic case for some variation by subject if it were across all colleges. But the emerging picture is that applicant location, subject, and preference may each have varying levels of relevance in different colleges, and this may change from year-to-year.

If there were only three Cambridge colleges this level of divergence and flux might be bearable, but with 29 it will quickly become absurd if it continues, given there is no discernible overall academic rationale. It adds layers of complexity that will ultimately harm the whole institution by making it harder for it to meet its fair access goals.

This kind of fragmentation is what can happen to a medieval collegiate university after the death of God. By this I mean the loss of a strong sense of common purpose and identity. Since God is not coming back any time soon, at least in the way Nietzsche meant (as a shared and unquestioned locus of belief across the broad mass of society), Cambridge is going to have to work its own way out of these problems. What exactly has been going wrong, here?

One of the main ways that society was imagined in the Middle Ages was as a body with limbs. We could use the same analogy for Cambridge and its colleges. If the whole body is harmed, including any one part too badly, all parts will be harmed as well. Say my college is a hand. The hand can legitimately opt to wear a ring, with no impact on the rest of the body – and Oxford and Cambridge colleges do indeed adorn themselves in various ways. But the hand choosing to inject itself with ink will ultimately harm the whole body because the shared blood circulates. At some point the different parts of the body have to understand where their interests coalesce.

The medieval imagination had a high regard for difference as something that could be integrated harmoniously into a larger whole. By contrast, modernity tends to centralise and rationalise, creating streamlined management structures. While this maximises efficiency, it tends to homogenise. A collegiate structure creates inefficiencies, then, but from a medieval perspective these are worth putting up with because the differences it permits are valuable: a range of colours are better than one block red. Rothko may or may not agree, but this is indeed an aesthetic point as much as anything, because the college system was established in a context where beauty, truth, and goodness were still seen as coinciding.

As a member of a Cambridge college, I do not like centralisation and homogenisation for their own sake. I like the variety among the colleges, and I believe our students do too, for reasons consistent with the old medieval wisdom that reality is various, but that this variety is – or, at least, can be – harmonious and good. However, that can only be so if, when appropriate, the different parts are able to look beyond their local interest, understand how they fit within the larger body, and to act on that basis. Otherwise, the body will make itself ill.

That is particularly true regarding admissions. Fair access at Oxford and Cambridge is not primarily about attracting applicants to particular colleges, but, first, to the universities as a whole. It has been said to me that by having some interviews in one format, my college might poach a few candidates from others. But if, in doing this – in acting on our local preferences irrespective of what others are doing – we generate a system so complex that it erects barriers to Cambridge, this cannot be in line with our own long-term interests. The good decision here might be the one which does not maximise our local benefit in the short-term, but contributes more to our shared, overlapping goals, because we trust that this will ultimately rebound to our benefit as well.

The problem is that Cambridge colleges are by nature introspective and self-protective. And some are particularly rich and have therefore given up attempting to situate their own local interests within the broader, shared goals of the collegiate commonwealth. This attitude must change. Because of their histories, Oxford and Cambridge hold unique power and influence in British society, and this confers particular obligations. It is absolutely right that the attention on us is greater than on other universities and that we are held to the highest of standards of fairness around admissions. 

Cambridge colleges need to find a way to resolve their differences and harmonise their policies before the entire interview system fragments. Local sacrifices and mutual compromises may be necessary, but, most of all, we need to recover a sense of shared vision and purpose in this area. Whether this is ever going to happen remains to be seen.

—————————————————————————————————–

Simon Ravenscroft is a Fellow, Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, and Director of Studies in Theology, Religion, and Philosophy of Religion at Magdalene College, Cambridge