Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fifteen minutes of fame

I'm probably not the best person to talk about Elly Nowell's decision not to accept an offer to read law at Magdalen College, Oxford. For a start I went to a public school, and for a second thing I went to a college that does not immediately overwhelm you with the grandeur of its buildings (it's rugby team, on the other hand...).

But her 'rejection letter' does raise a couple of points that I think are quite serious.

I realise you may be disappointed by this decision, but you were in competition with many fantastic universities and following your interview I am afraid you do not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering.

While you may believe your decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings is inspiring, it allows public school applicants to flourish and intimidates state school applicants, distorting the academic potential of both.

The first is that one of the main reasons that Oxford and Cambridge have an over-representation of independent school students is that they are overwhelmingly more likely to apply. State school students are put off from applying (either by their teachers, or by themselves) in part precisely because of this sort of attitude - old buildings are elitist and snobby: this isn't the place for me. Oxford has been working very hard at trying to dispel this image, but if Nowell's attitude is representative then nothing short of flattening two thirds of the University (or only holding interviews at St Anne's) will be enough, though why, if Nowell has such a dislike of grand architecture, she applied to Magdalen is a bit of a mystery.

It's reminiscent of the Laura Spence affair, and as we can see from the University's response, every bit as unfair and misleading.

An Oxford University spokeswoman said: "Despite what the candidate said, we would point out that the actual admissions figures speak for themselves: of the seven UK students who received offers for law and joint school courses at Magdalen, only one was from an independent school."

The second point is that if she really believes that intimidating surroundings and formal settings are such a handicap to state educated people, I only hope she's not intending to become a barrister.


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