Comment: An End to Oxford Application Fees?

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If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, is it a duck? Yes. So if there is something that looks like a barrier to applying to Oxford, and seems to act like a barrier to applying to Oxford, is it a barrier? Not always. The £10 application fee for undergraduate admissions quacks because it is a barrier. But we should be wary of throwing out babies out with the bath water. Or, to hideously combine these already out of control metaphors, rubber ducks with the bath water. There are some extra processes built in to applying to Oxford, like aptitude tests and interviews, that look like a barrier to applying, seem to act like a barrier to applying, but aren’t a barrier to applying. So why don’t they quack?The short answer is that some perceived barriers benefit applicants: they allow Oxford to gain a much greater understanding of a student’s potential, so the University can confidently choose the very best from the brightest. Working out who is really, really good, rather than just really good, when everyone who applies has perfect grades and a treasure chest of extra curricular achievements, is a challenge to say the least. Few universities benefit from this challenge. Oxford needs different admission processes to meet this challenge.By barriers, in the context of admissions, I mean things that block the progress of students of greatest potential, whatever their background. For Oxford to admit the best from the brightest, it must invest in extra stages to get rounded pictures of applicants. After all, academic potential cannot be accurately represented by a series of past achievements printed on a piece of paper. Therefore the University invests more time and energy than other higher education bodies rigorously interviewing applicants. The interviews allow tutors to stretch potential students’ thinking, to analyse their motivations, and to assess whether they will respond successfully to tutorial teaching. Candidates will not receive adequate care and attention from tutors if there are ten people being interviewed per place. To ensure tutors can conduct meaningful interviews, aptitude tests are used in some subjects to help short-list candidates to approximately three per place during interviews. This also prevents students with no chance of getting an offer wasting time and money coming to Oxford. This guarantees that the University admits the very best from its talented pool of applicants.Charging £10 to apply to Oxford quacks, waddles and swims like a duck, and is one that should be shot. The fee is a barrier that discourages students from applying to Oxford, because they see the application as a costly gamble. By charging students to apply, this university encourages a false assumption that life here is more expensive than everywhere else. Considering the relatively small sums it raises, compared to the millions the University invests every year into its access work and bursaries, there is no reason why the University should undermine its good work on outreach by demanding that prospective applicants buy the opportunity to be considered by Oxford.It is inevitable that this fee will go – Oxford is the last remaining University to charge for this – but its demise is also desirable. I believe applications will increase as more talented students apply speculatively; after all, it won’t cost them anything to do so. This will help our work widening access and making sure Oxford University admits the best students, whatever their school, and whatever their background.
James Lamming is the Vice President of OUSU.

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