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Universities alone cannot redress inequality in society, says Oxford academic

Published 13/10/2016

Universities alone cannot redress inequality in society, an Oxford academic has claimed
Universities alone cannot redress inequality in society, an Oxford academic has claimed

Universities alone cannot redress inequality in society, despite their best efforts to seek out talented students during admission interviews, an Oxford academic has claimed.

Dr Ian Phillips, who interviews potential undergraduates for the university's Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) degree, said that it was easy to blame those in charge of admissions at higher education institutions - but doing so simply shifted focus away from problems elsewhere in society.

He said: "Universities are spending a huge amount of time and effort identifying students who really have the capacity to do well here, but it can't just be the universities that do that - it's got to be something that's done throughout school level education, but also even earlier than that.

"Universities are absolutely keen and up for doing whatever they can, but their expertise is being a university."

Dr Phillips was one of a handful of academics who published an example Oxford interview question earlier this week to help demystify the process for prospective students.

His question - 'What is involved in blaming someone?' - was similar to those faced by PPE candidates at interview.

He admitted that while it was not an "easy" question "at all", he hoped it countered the "silly stories" that imply Oxford academics "deliberately scare" candidates and ask "completely wacky" questions.

He said interviewers do their best to "find out who the talented people are and try and set aside the contextual factors that might mask that from us".

But Dr Phillips said that only when candidates "go for it" and apply can the university do its bit in redressing the balance of students in higher education.

A report by the Sutton Trust, published on Thursday, found that more than 40% of state secondary school teachers rarely or never advised top pupils to apply to Oxford or Cambridge.

Dr Phillips said it made him "very sad" that able pupils were not being encouraged to apply.

He added: "Because interviews are scary it does require you, as a 17-year-old, to really back yourself and get on the train down from wherever to come here and you might think 'oh no I won't do that, I've been told by a teacher after all, who I should respect', or maybe your parents don't want you to leave your local area either.

"It is a kind of a big thing to do and if you're discouraged then it could be easy for that to have a big impact."

He advised prospective interviewees to "forget about any myths or preconceptions they have about Oxford and it being 'elitist' or 'snobby' or not for them, and to have confidence in themselves".

"All we are asking them to do is to just bring themselves and their natural abilities and just have a chat with us," he said.

Press Association

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