A plea to Oxbridge colleges to honour their offers…from someone who would have missed out
My most cherished correspondence dates back to December 23, 2002: an offer letter from St Anne’s College, Oxford, to pursue a degree in mathematics. The dream subject at the dream university, and the catalyst for my development as mathematician and educator. I sat my exams, earned my grades, gleefully took my place. I didn’t realise it then, but that made me one of the lucky ones.
If history does not repeat itself then surely it rhymes. At around the same time I was preparing for my A Levels and looking ahead to Oxford, the SARS coronavirus emerged. I knew little of it then; truth is, I know little of it now. As a would-be pandemic, it scarcely registered on my radar. I was blissfully unaware of the disruptive force of deadly viruses (though a sensationalised plot in television series 24 kept me up some nights). That a virus could thwart my exam grades never occurred to me.
Almost two decades on, I remain among the lucky ones. COVID-19 has not, so far, affected my health or job prospects. I have embraced the middle-class trope of converting my conservatory to makeshift home office in a sleepy Oxfordshire town. Here I can remain productive and isolated from the threat of infection. My good fortune owes much to the safety net afforded by my Oxford and Harvard degrees, underpinned by an eight-year stint at St Anne’s. My work, as it happens, resides in the education sector, exploring innovative approaches to learning and assessment. Never has it felt more pertinent.
Exam results day usually prompts a small bout of nostalgia as I revel in former glories and think back to those pivotal moments in my education. This week, my nostalgia was laced with a profound sense of injustice. When I hear accounts of state-educated students being downgraded on the basis of their school’s past performance, I know full well that in a different time and place, that could have been me. It would have been me.
My school had little precedent for straight-A students. One exception was my older brother, though a single data point would surely not be enough to rescue me from algorithmic judgements (and, I hasten to add in the spirit of enduring sibling rivalry, his results weren’t quite as good as mine). The problem with forging predictions from past data is that it condemns us to repeating the very histories we are often desperate to escape. No student in my school had earned a place at Oxford…until they did (yes, it was my brother). No student had self-taught themselves Further Maths or attempted 5 A Levels…until they did (I take the plaudits this time).
My grades bailed me out of any suggestion that an Oxford mathematics degree was beyond the reach of a state-educated student on free school meals. That and the belief expressed by my trio of maths tutors at St Anne’s. The Oxford admissions process remains my most gruelling application procedure to date. In those days, we sat an entrance exam and two interviews in a heady 48-hour period. I bombed the test, but my problem solving exploits at interview were apparently enough to warrant a place.
As a graduate student several years on, I would see admissions from the other side. In preparing and delivering interviews for prospective candidates, it dawned on me just how effective the format is for identifying the most promising students. I also recall the lament among us tutors of the woefully inadequate exam system that pervades education; at best, these grades were a loose indication of a student’s academic potential. They are a crude, and possibly cruel, filter for shortlisting interview candidates. It was the interview itself that sharpened our minds to a candidate’s potential. In my professional roles, I have screened over a thousand candidates across every role type you can imagine, interviewing hundreds and hiring a handful. Never once have academic grades determined the outcome. Interviews and sample projects are far more revealing.
Universities may feel they are in a bind as they contend with the chaos of this year’s exam grades. But Oxford has a way out, one that has been demonstrated already by Worcester College. By honouring its offers, Worcester is simply keeping faith with a robust (if still imperfect) admissions process that largely offsets the bias of an outdated exam model that has been brutally exposed in this most extraordinary year. I would urge all colleges to follow suit. You will end up with some ‘false positives’ to be sure, students whose grades have been inflated. But that’s a price worth paying to prevent the ‘false negatives’; the students who have earned their offers on merit and have been tarred with the brush of low expectations. They deserve your good faith.
If St Anne’s was confronted with the same situation in 2003 and followed the status quo, my own life trajectory — and that of many others — would have branched towards destinations unknown. I would never come to know St Anne’s, Oxford, as my second home. You would not be reading this letter.
Dr Junaid Mubeen
Director of Education, Whizz Education
St Anne’s Class of 2003