13 June 2012

Are Oxford Admissions Fair?

Chris Cook at the FT wrote an article a few months ago breaking down admission rates to Oxford by type of school at different stages of the process (see graphic below). Jonathan Portes summarised the stages thus;
  • first, the relative probabilities that students from different types of school got "very strong GCSEs"; ranging from 3.4% for a student from the poorest tenth of schools, to 23.4% for those from independent schools;
  • second, the probability that a student from each type of school who got "very strong GCSEs" did in fact apply to Oxford at all, ranging from 14.1% to 24.6% (even higher for pupils from the richest tenth of state schools;
  • third, the probability that such a student who did apply got admitted - over half for pupils from independent schools, but only about 15% for students from the poorest schools. 
So there were disparities at each stage of the process. Students from state schools in poor areas were less likely to get very good GCSEs, less likely to apply, and less likely to be accepted.
Oxford Application Success probabilities (FT Analysis) 
Source: FT

Which sounds pretty damning. I sent this analysis to a friend involved in the admissions process, and he highlighted the important role of the special admissions aptitude test in the process, ignored by the FT and Portes.

There is now some evidence backing up his position, from a new working paper by Bhattacharya, Kanaya, Stevens, all at the Economics department in Oxford, and two of whom who have also been involved in admissions themselves (and thus had access to that test data, which is not in the public domain).

They describe the admissions process as follows:
About one-third of all applicants are selected for interview on the basis of UCAS information, aptitude test and essay, and the rest rejected. Selected candidates are then assessed via a face-to-face interview and the interview scores are recorded in the central database. This sub-group of applicants who have been called to interview will constitute our sample of interest. Therefore, we are in effect testing the academic efficiency of the second round of the selection process, taking the first round as given. Accordingly, from now on, we will refer to those summoned for interview as the applicants.
They then find no difference between admission rates for independent and state schools for those invited for interview. This implies that all of the gap in admission rates between independent and state school students (with equal GCSE scores) found in the FT analysis, is down to poorer performance by state students in the Oxford-set aptitude test. Now, of course the average independent school applicant is undoubtedly better prepared for this aptitude test than the average state school applicant, but this does seem to somewhat let Oxford off the hook.

And finally some advice for potential applicants from a survey of admissions tutors (52 responded) contained in the paper; don't spend too much time on your UCAS statement. Do make sure you get good grades and prepare well for your interview. 

Weight attached to different factors in Oxford admissions process 
Source: Bhattacharya, Kanaya, Stevens survey of Oxford admissions tutors


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