A Gold Star for Cambridge University Admissions

In his blog in the Sunday Times, 13/01/13, Andrew Halls, head master of King's College School, Wimbledon writes about the new timings of Oxford and Cambridge entrance results.

The Christmas holidays were unusually relaxing this year – for headteachers who fret about Oxbridge, at any rate. I had initially been disappointed when I heard that neither Cambridge nor Oxford would release any results until everyone was back at school. However the enforced lack of information – and the feeling parents, pupils and headmasters have in equal measure that we must “do something” about unexpected, or even sometimes fully anticipated, disappointments – has meant a whole holiday has passed without the depressing annual ritual of calling fraught admissions staff and asking the question, “What went wrong?” The call is made no easier by the fact we already know the answer – they could fill their places three times over with good candidates and many of those who have lost out on a place would, of course, have thrived there.

Until this year, we could expect virtually all of the Oxford results to be in before Christmas; Cambridge results would filter in after New Year’s Day. From some pupils we would hear nothing: were they elated with good news – or suffering quietly in the midst of a family Christmas that had somehow turned to ashes? Others would rush to email us good news, or to beg us to ring the college and ask them to reconsider – however often we had told them beforehand that a No is always a No from an Oxbridge college.

This year, all Cambridge results came through with supreme efficiency on January 4th, and all Oxford results are expected on January 11th – the day after I write this. I know the candidates themselves have now had an even longer wait, but for each university to release all of its results on one day must remove some of the unsettling pressure of hearing that your friend had won a place while you had heard nothing.

Another improvement this year has been the streamlining of the Cambridge pool – where candidates rejected by their first-choice college are placed when it is thought they are exceptional enough to be considered by another college. As always, a significant number of our pupils were placed in the pool, and I was expecting their situation to remain uncertain for some weeks, as they waited to be called for depressing “last-try” interviews – or to be ignored altogether – as the month dragged on. Here, too, I have been pleasantly surprised. Perhaps we have been lucky, but significant numbers of our pool candidates heard within a few days that they had a place at another college, without any further interviewing or tests. This must have happened to at least five of our sixth formers this week. Several others have been called back for an interview – but these are occurring very soon, so again there is a real sense of speed – and humanity. There are, certainly, some splendid candidates who know they are in the pool and have heard nothing, and for them the situation is as painful and slow as ever, but the number in this position is vastly reduced this year, and the whole process seems, for the great majority, less agonising, and more efficient.

Others again in whom we had absolute faith have been, or will be, turned down by Oxford or Cambridge, and nothing we can say can make those aspirational boys and girls, who have aimed for two of the most competitive universities in the world, feel very positive right now. However, I will try. What I will tell them is that where a candidate does seem to have been very unlucky, but goes on to gain outstanding results in the summer, then both Cambridge and Oxford are very interested in them: at King’s, five of last year’s leavers have won Cambridge places alone this year.

In fact, we have been delighted by the outcomes from the Cambridge applications across the board: twenty-eight have so far been awarded Cambridge places, with several still waiting for final news, or about to go up for a final interview. Soon I will hear how the Oxford applications have gone and will be able to see whether we can feel that the process has been, on balance, as fair as we can realistically hope. As someone who has been preparing or in some way overseeing Oxbridge candidates for over thirty years, I have never felt the system was deliberately unfair to any type of candidate. I have sometimes been taken aback by an outcome, and I have sometimes felt a boy or girl has been incredibly unlucky – but I am not sure I have ever felt this was because someone within the process worked to an unfair set of criteria.

Shrugging off the thinly veiled threats of those politicians who, never having worked in the real world, are gripped by an inveterate distrust of successful institutions, most of our leading universities have stayed true to the belief that they will select their undergraduates on merit. They must continue do this. They are already under enormous pressure: for the second year in a row, applications from UK students have dropped – this year by nearly 7%. However, whenever a market is tough, there is a flight to quality. The universities that are still great in twenty years’ time will be those that, like their international competitors, thrive according to the principles they have established and believe in. In an institution of learning, surely little can matter more than this?

By Andrew Halls, The Sunday Times. Click here to read the blog © The Sunday Times