'While claiming to help improve social mobility, Truss’s plans actually tear up most of what has been done by Oxbridge to improve access'Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/192333790@N05/5181433515

Despite the harebrained optimism of Truss when it comes to turning around the prospects of both the economy and her party, the Conservative party is in deep deep trouble. Possibly more so than it has ever faced. Their hold on the not-so-red wall was tenuous and Brexit-driven at best. But with Boris gone, it has well and truly collapsed. This, combined with the alienation of their southern, well-to-do middle class base through inane culture war rhetoric, means the Tories now face a pincer manoeuvre from Labour in the North and the Lib Dems in the South that would make any WWII general blush. Truss and Sunak cannot take any part of their electorate for granted. And they know it.

This seemingly impossible task of balancing the interests of an impoverished North and an irked South is the backdrop to Truss’s proposals to reform the university admissions process. So quite wisely, Truss has attempted to throw both communities a bone. Unfortunately for the rest of us though, the meat on both is rancid.

“The Oxbridge interview folly won’t only hurt social mobility but also Oxbridge itself”

Let’s start with the good: Truss says she will change the admissions process to have university applications happen after A-Level results have been obtained. This is quite possibly the smartest policy Truss has proposed so far. That is, of course, not saying much but her plan would be an important improvement over the current system nonetheless.

Using predicted grades to decide university admissions has never made much sense at all and is skewed in favour of those with (rather too literally) “invested” helicopter parents who can place pressure on and even bribe teachers to predict their little angels the A-stars they need but definitely don’t deserve.

The current system also places enormous pressures on those sitting exams who have everything to lose if they cannot meet their offer. Having applications happen after the exams will take that burden off many shoulders and allow students to focus on getting the best grades possible rather than fretting about the other parts of the application process.

Sure enough though, this policy was just too sensible for Truss to make it her flagship. Instead, Truss has mustered all her eccentricity to promise all candidates with three A-stars or more an automatic offer for an Oxbridge interview.

While this scheme has been pitched as a way of increasing social mobility and building Truss’s “aspiration nation”, it is clear who this policy is really for. By taking exams as the sole metric of intellectual ability prior to the interview, Truss’s policy will inevitably favour private schools who, regardless of selectivity, achieve better exam results on average than state schools.

Oxbridge offers to wealthy, Southern, private schools have been declining precipitously since the introduction of affirmative action. This has been met by predictable outrage from parents who now have to face the prospect of their child having to do more than simply succeed at exams to secure an Oxbridge place.

“Truss knows she is playing into this new middle class discontent”

Most private school parents have heard gossip about someone’s little darling being robbed of an Oxbridge interview despite being predicted the necessary grades. By blindly giving any student with three A-stars or more (not a remarkable achievement at all in the grand scheme of Oxbridge applications) the opportunity to interview, Truss’s plan stealthily addresses this perceived injustice.

While it’s true that positive discrimination is a blunt tool that certainly results in some deserving private school pupils being deprived of a place at Oxbridge, many more bright state school students have been and continue to be deprived of Oxbridge places, simply as a result of their parent's bank balance having fewer zeroes.

Unlike the controversial affirmative action policies pursued by the Ivy League universities which underplay intellectual ability in favour of more abstract attributes like personality, Oxbridge’s policies still keep a focus on making sure it gets the brightest students. This has included making lower offers to students that have performed well in interviews and admissions tests but may not have the prerequisite predicted grades. Truss’s plans threaten to upend this progress by shifting emphasis back on to A-level exam performance rather than the less gameable admissions tests.

Truss knows she is playing into this new middle class discontent. The Sunday Times article which announced her plans placed this pledge front and centre, while the actually constructive plans to scrap predicted grades were buried in the middle of the article and only given a single sentence.


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The Oxbridge interview folly won’t only hurt social mobility but also Oxbridge itself. Especially with the rampant grade inflation that has come as a result of COVID cancelling exams, achieving three A-stars is now not particularly uncommon. Indeed, last year almost 24,000 students received straight A-stars. Anyone can see that this is simply an impossible volume of students for both Cambridge and Oxford to give interviews to through traditional means within the planned two month window between receiving A-level results and the start of the university year.

If Truss is to implement her plan, it’s likely that online interviews (another tedious COVID hangover) will have to continue. Oxbridge interviews are nerve wracking enough without having to worry about wifi dropping out or other technical hitches. So yet again, it will be less well off students that don’t have access to a reliable internet connection who are most hurt.

While claiming to help improve social mobility, Truss’s plans actually tear up most of what has been done by Oxbridge to improve access and instead act as a freebie for the privileged. This is clearly intentional. The Tories have forced themselves into a position where their two, now disenchanted, electorates have fundamentally opposing interests. And due to Boris’s idiocy the Tories will still need to get votes from both. If the Tories are to even contemplate winning the next election, policies which inevitably disadvantage one of their constituencies still need to be sold to them, even if it means adopting ghoulish doublethink. Votes are the last thing which can be sacrificed.