An Oxford professor has suggested that “getting a blindfolded boy to draw lots from a bowl containing the names” of candidates may be a more effective entrance criteria for the
university than the current system.
He made the comments while expressing concerns over the inadequacies of the interview process in whittling down the number of prospective applicants.
In an article published in The Times Education Supplement, New College fellow and Psychology tutor Professor Miles Hewstone highlighted a practice common in the Coptic Church in which a blindfolded child is used to select their Pope at random.
He said: “Odd as it may sound, there is an argument that this would also be the best way to make the final cut of Oxbridge applicants.”
Hewstone stated that “foretelling how well someone will perform academically at university is a difficult task”.
Most subjects are highly competitive at Oxford, with around 20 per cent of applicants successful, and Hewstone claimed that interviews were insufficient in deciding who made the cut.
With thousands of sixth-formers set to hear this week that their applications have been unsuccessful, Hewstone added that this “is my least favourite time of the year (it sometimes feels as though we are looking for reasons to reject), [and] it is right to leave no stone unturned in the search to do better”.
Hewstone argued: “We can and must try to test how well all the different pieces of information at our disposal help us to predict final grades.”
The professor also offered three proposals to improve the selection process: “First, we should commit to a scientific assessment of our decision-making that looks at the predictive validity of each piece of information we currently use. Second, we should drop any data that are found to lack validity. Third, if we find that interviews do not improve our decision-making, we should drop them, too.”
Despite the attention-grabbing remarks, the Oxford University press office was supportive of Hewstone’s calls for reform:
“As a research university we are committed to an evidence-based approach for our selection procedures, and Professor Hewstone’s suggestions are very much in line with what the University and colleges strive to do.
“Aspects of the selection procedure are regularly reviewed and scrutinised. His article is indicative of the level of discussion, self-scrutiny and commitment within Oxford to getting the admission process right.”
However, Ryan Widdows, a second-year historian at St Anne’s, expressed concern with the inequalities of a system which mimicked that of the Coptic Christians:
“Will those privileged applicants with treble-barrelled surnames not be more favoured by this process as well, as their lot will have to be larger, and therefore have a greater chance of being pulled out, than a poor boy’s standard surname?”
A second-year psychologist was more positive about calls to alter the admissions process: “State school pupils are rarely prepared to face the questions given in interviews, and it would be fairer if everyone was at an equal disadvantage.”
They added: “Although if Psychology applicants are picked out of a hat, that does explain how I got in…”