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January 29, 2013

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Charlie W

Public school headmasters have to be seen to go into bat for their charges, which might be sufficient explanation for Seldon's behaviour there. You can still blame the parents, though.

Phil

Not sure I see how this would work as threat rather than whine - I mean, what would the threat be? Playing off one college against another might make sense, or playing off Ox- against -bridge, but if a school doesn't put its kids in for Oxbridge at all those kids just don't go to Oxbridge, and the only certain loser is the school (when status-conscious parents get shirty).

if colleges were too aggressive in seeking out bright kids from state schools, the word would go out among private schools that they were ‘unfriendly’ and these schools would then encourage their own applicants to apply to other colleges. In other words, a discreet and unofficial boycott would take place.

Boycott or rational action? The intakes of individual Oxbridge colleges are pretty tiny - there were twelve in my English set, for example - and colleges that haven't got the inclusiveness memo just are more target-rich environments for the posh boys. (Mind you, those inclusiveness memos have been flying around for a while now. I met my wife at Cambridge; I'd come from a fairly typical anything-but-the-comp south London fee-paying school, she'd come from a sixth-form college in Preston. (She got way better A levels than me, but I did better in the entrance exam.) Our son's at a fee-paying school. Conflicted much? Yes.)

Nick L

"remove from the equation the top 30% (say) of those who gain a place and there is very little difference in aptitude between the remaining 70% of new students each year and many of those who are not fortunate enough to be admitted"

Quoted for truth, as they say.

nick s

Boycott or rational action?

And isn't there a certain amount of redistribution and even social engineering done between colleges at interview time?

jim5et

I am always convinced that, more than any other, this is a debate which would benefit from the enforced declaring of one's own experiance. EG:

"Oxford is a ghastly snobbish dump, perpetually rejecting the brightest state school applicants to benefit the toffs"

(Jim5et, rejected at interview, LMH, 1991)

jim5et

Their stated reason that I couldn't spell "experience" was an obvious smokescreen.

belle le triste

I think this is about brand maintenance (or tweaking) within the niche. Wellington is listed tenth of the top ten in the linked list (dated last November). But eight of the ten listed were in the "great nine", as categorised in the Public Schools Act of 1868 -- meaning ancient foundations of serious weight and residual quality -- . Wellington only opened in the mid-19th century -- it is very much the scrappy new-money outsider in this august (not to say absurd) context (by contrast, Dulwich, not of the nine, dates back to 1619). Wellington is not appealing to the families who have always sent their kids to Eton or Winchester, but to those who resent such families, and the unfair advantages of old landed money.

Charlie W

Also - and this may be a subtle effect - these stories of exclusion are attaching themselves more and more to just Oxford. If I were running Imperial or some place like that, I'd be getting chummy with the university that has a boat race team that's not Oxford.

Charlie W

But I don't know much about any of this, since I went to Glasgow (School of Art) for my tertiary ed. Perhaps Cambridge was always slightly different.

Chris Williams

My old place - Hertford - cunningly positioned itself in the 1970s as the place to apply for if you were from a state school. This produced a massive crop of clever comp kids applying every year, the top 70 of whom - leavened with a few of the privately-educated who made the grade - became handy Norrington Table fodder. Job done.

In other words, there are a number of ways that different colleges can position themselves in the privilege game, and 'aggressive meritocracy' is going to be one strategy. Also, given that you're going to be locking yourself in with your students for about 40 hours one-on-two, better to pick people who are more fun to teach.

ajay

The only bit of advice I got on which college to apply to was to pick the one that someone else from the school had gone to a couple of years back to study the same subject, as he seemed to be enjoying it and so I probably would too. Nothing on which ones liked private schools; nothing on what to expect from the interview.

And I am also baffled about what the threat is supposed to be. If Wellington had reacted to what Chris describes by saying "OK then, none of our students are going to apply to Hertford," how does this hurt Hertford? Especially as:

isn't there a certain amount of redistribution and even social engineering done between colleges at interview time?

Redistribution, yes. When I applied you listed your top three preferences, and if none of them wanted you there was a sort of inter-college clearing process. Quite a few people ended up at none of their first three preferences. I think you get just one preference now.

Social engineering: not as far as I know.

Richard J

And I am also baffled about what the threat is supposed to be. If Wellington had reacted to what Chris describes by saying "OK then, none of our students are going to apply to Hertford," how does this hurt Hertford? Especially as:

Donations. (No, not that way, but I suspect that your PSB can use connections to wrangle his way into pupillages, etc. that make his post-graduation earnings that bit higher on average than a northern chemist.)

ajay

Hmm, suppose so...

john b

Not wholly sure Richard's point applies. The highest-earning Oxbridgeans I know now are mostly state-schooly types who took the maths/physics>City or science/engineering>consultancy treadmill, whilst more of the posh school lot are doing academia/media/art/civil service things.

dsquared

Also, given that you're going to be locking yourself in with your students for about 40 hours one-on-two, better to pick people who are more fun to teach.

I think this probably overestimates the innate charm of chippy Northerners relative to articulate, self-confident public schoolboys. I always thought (Jesus Oxford - they also offered a random "lucky dip" option, like the National Lottery, for those of us whose schools provided no fucking clue at all) that the "people like us like people like us" factor was the biggest driver of social discrimination. The dons are by and large public school themselves, and so they objectively pick people who objectively appear, to them, to be the most like the kind of people who tend to become Oxford dons.

Chris Williams

But yr Etonians are not (say) history obsessives gagging to spend four extra years unravelling dusty sessions rolls; their default heading is towards the family firm, or perhaps the City. A hungry lass from the shires with bright eyes and OCD is going to fill the JRF slots far better than a languid type whose heart is not in it.

Phil

Me and Jamie Barter applied to do English at Cambridge; we were told to apply to either Jesus or Trinity. No reason, no further information, just pick one. I looked at whatever information was available back then - not a lot - and decided that Trinity looked bigger and more prestigious, so put that down. I then met Jamie on his way back from handing in his form and discovered that he'd also put Trinity down, so I crossed it out and wrote Jesus in. I got in, he didn't.

Now, English at Jesus was dominated by Stephen Heath (the Brechtophile I mentioned earlier), who had written a thesis on Barthes and was widely believed to be a structuralist, although nobody could explain what one of those was. More importantly, he was a brilliant teacher - one of the best I've ever known. English at Trinity was dominated by George Watson, an appalling old fart who spent a good five minutes of a lecture on American literature reminding us that "Matthiessen" had two Ts and two Ss and that there was a hyphen in the title Moby-Dick. I have no idea why the school picked those two colleges - but I'm eternally grateful to Jamie for getting his form in first.

ajay

But yr Etonians are not (say) history obsessives gagging to spend four extra years unravelling dusty sessions rolls; their default heading is towards the family firm, or perhaps the City

This is true in my experience too: all but one of the ones who ended up as academics were state-school types.

nick s

Social engineering: not as far as I know.

I was provided no fucking clue by my sixth form, picked a college that probably would have been wildly unsuited to my proletarian self, and was given an additional interview by a college that turned out to be a much better fit. (The lucky dip option back then seemed to be used mostly to get women into St Hilda's and Somerville.)

I also spent a couple of years as a postgrad overseeing logistics during interviews -- allocating rooms, getting people to the right place, waking up the ones who'd overslept, calming down stressed-out comprehensive kids with cups of tea and stories of my own ineptitude at interview. There were definitely patterns of certain colleges requesting additional interviews with certain types of interviewee, implying that the cross-college clearing system wasn't just about distributing the surplus, but also about assigning candidates to colleges that seemed to suit them.

It's always going to be anecdotal, perhaps backed up by a few conversations with admissions and subject tutors. dsquared probably has the grand unifying theory, i.e. that tutors pick in their own image, but I think Chris Williams is right that that image isn't the same as the public school types that head to London after college. Depends on the subject, of course, but if they're Etonians, they're atypical.

Phil

I also spent a couple of years as a postgrad overseeing logistics during interviews

Tangentially, I had what now strikes me as quite a weird experience in my third year: I had my first experience of being supervised by a postgrad for any length of time and had a really visceral reaction against him specifically and the idea of postgrad study more generally: a real feeling of dear God, get me out of here! get me a job in the real world! I was a 2.i student with only occasional flashes of brilliance, so nobody was pestering me to do postgrad study - or anything else - and it was quite easy for me to follow my aversion out of Cambridge and into a job as a computer programmer in Chester. The trouble is, this was the wrong choice for me in many different ways - apart from anything else, it was a full twelve months before I got that job; I could have done an MA in that time instead of just signing on.

I made it back into academia in the end - and I probably would have rebelled against my parents' (academic) expectations even if I hadn't had that glimpse of the awful arid preciosity of Cambridge postgrad life. Still, I can't help wondering how different things might have been if I'd hit it off with that one supervisor.

JamesP

I also read English at Jesus, and can testify to Stephen Heath's slightly terrifying brilliance as a teacher and interviewee. (Stephen has the disconcerting habit of thinking before he says anything, which slows down conversation. I also once fell asleep in a tutorial because I'd just drunk half a bottle of vodka after helping my stairmate mourn a friend who had just committed suicide, and he dealt with it with the greatest of tact and charm.)

There's two factors which don't get talked about as much as they should be when it comes to public school applications to Oxbridge. The first is the dedicated training for the interview. My public school friends had weekly classes for a year *just to prep them* for the interview; I had a half-hour once with a teacher who had gone to Oxford.

The second goes beyond Oxbridge applications to the exam system in general. Public schools cheat like buggery on coursework. The teachers very frequently give way more help than they're supposed to, to the point of, in some cases, essentially writing the coursework themselves. And that's a significant part of the A-level grading.

JamesP

Interviewer, not interviewee. It's early and my lungs are full of smug.

It's a little terrifying to me that one of the very few college contemporaries I keep up with is now Dean of Jesus.

gastro george

I could have done an MA in that time instead of just signing on.

Couldn't you just pay for the MA like the pretentious ones do. Or is that now in the past?

Alex

Public schools cheat like buggery on coursework

And they cheat like coursework on buggery. /fnarr

Phil

True story: I got a letter from the old college, a year or so after graduation, inviting me to pay a small fee, have dinner, go to a ceremony and go home with an MA. I would have gone for the hell of it, but I didn't own a pair of black shoes.

If that was a serious question, what earthly point would there be in getting a qualification which was academically worthless & which everybody knew to be worthless?

ajay

There's two factors which don't get talked about as much as they should be when it comes to public school applications to Oxbridge. The first is the dedicated training for the interview. My public school friends had weekly classes for a year *just to prep them* for the interview; I had a half-hour once with a teacher who had gone to Oxford.

You did better than me, then. I went to a private school and neither I nor anyone else there got any sort of training or briefing on Oxbridge interviews. Maybe I just went to a crap private school.

Public schools cheat like buggery on coursework. The teachers very frequently give way more help than they're supposed to, to the point of, in some cases, essentially writing the coursework themselves.

Again, not in my experience, though I admittedly don't know what the correct amount of help to get was. And there wasn't much coursework back when I did my A-levels in the Pleistocene Epoch anyway.

Couldn't you just pay for the MA like the pretentious ones do. Or is that now in the past?

Nope, you still get an MA from Oxford as long as you can tick these boxes:

1) you have a BA from Oxford
2) you matriculated seven years ago
3) you are still breathing
4) you can pay £10
5) you have a pair of black shoes, per Phil above

If you do an actual no-kidding postgraduate masters' course, you will get an MSc or an MSt at the end of it.

The "point" of the Oxford MA is tradition, of course, you heretic.

belle le triste

re D^2's people like us like people like us factor:

I'd be quite wary of assuming that someone on Team Public School was automatically uncomplicatedly onside with anyone else of similar background. Much more likely that affinities cluster, in ways obvious to those on the inside, if opaque and worse to everyone else. It's like football fandom: actually minding about football means that there's a lot of it -- well known teams, successful figures -- you're actively hostile to; it stands for everything in the game you're against, and so on. There are complex striations of complacency, resentment and status-mongering within the independent sector, and they certainly don't all vanish if you treat Eton as an upper outlier and the rest as an indifferentiated lump.

Adding: scholars may well be drawn to scholars of like manner and accent, but here too there's always also going to be fierce academic micro-tribalism, inflected by prejudice and the relative tininess of the sample group. "Oh god another idiot taught by that fool [insert name here] at Oundle: we were students together at Queens, he was an insufferable prat then and still is." Etc. Of course none of this makes things any fairer for those not in the know, but "in the know" is as often as not a circle of mutual loathing.

gastro george

If that was a serious question, what earthly point would there be in getting a qualification which was academically worthless & which everybody knew to be worthless?

Sorry if it wasn't transparent but, to be clear, the question was rhetorical, and your reply was the point I was trying to make.

ajay

Very good point from belle: by contrast, you can see some keen young type from a state school doing well simply because the interviewer doesn't have any associations at all with that particular East London comp or whatever. The point about being a snob is not that we try to avoid the lower orders. We don't mind them having them around at all as long as they know their place and are suitably respectful. It's not like you'll have to see him in the Senior Common Room, after all. He'll come along, quietly work hard for three years and then buzz off to a lecturership in some northern polytechnic or something.

dsquared

nah not getting it. If you're a raving football fan, there might be one or even two teams that you despise, but pick a random football fan and you're going to have more in common with him than a random afficionado of visiting art gallerys.

And I don't agree with the snob thing either - that's not the point of the PLULPLU model. After all, even if you are a snob this is an important interview situation. You are duty and honour bound to set your prejudices aside and select the people who in your judgement are objectively presenting themselves the best in terms of their intellectual ability and desire to learn. The fact that you end up with a massive heap of PLU is a coincidence, albeit a rather startling and surprisingly empirically robust one.

Richard J

Which is how, for at least twenty-odd years now, graduate intakes have been ethnically diverse and 50:50 male/female, but at the conference I was at today, one of the speakers managed to get away with the sheep tied to a fence joke.

john b

what earthly point would there be in getting a qualification which was academically worthless & which everybody knew to be worthless?

Migration points requirements.

JamesP

Also, people outside of the UK have no idea it's not a "real" MA. Trust me on this one.

Richard J

Most people in the UK don't either, TBF.

ajay

Surely all the ones who matter do.

Phil

If I see "MA (Cantab)" my immediate mental image is of an unqualified teacher at a prep school - it has snob value, in the precise (original) sense of appealing to people who are elitist but not in the elite.

Interestingly enough, according to LinkedIn the guy I knew at college who actually did become an unqualified prep school teacher still styles himself "MA Cantab". OTOH, his profile also says that he's been in IT for 25 years and doesn't say anything about teaching, so I might have been misinformed about that in the first place.

dsquared

what earthly point would there be in getting a qualification which was academically worthless & which everybody knew to be worthless?

It lets you put in brackets after the qualification that you went to Cambridge or Oxford, ostensibly out of honesty and modesty that you don't want it to be mistaken for a proper qualification, but actually for the purpose of saving a minute during every single conversation you have telling people that you went to Cambridge or Oxford.

belle le triste

Putting BA (Oxon) has the purpose of saying "Lend us a tenner till improved CV gets me a better job and I can pay you back"

Richard J

I do admittedly have a MA (Oxon.) but that's because it took me four years to get round to having a graduation ceremony, and the robes were cooler.

Phil

It lets you put in brackets after the qualification that you went to Cambridge or Oxford

In the long run I found it was simpler just to get a doctorate.

ajay

Phil wins the thread.

hellblazer

I see Phil beat me too it. (There was in the end a Master's I got five years after the PhD, but that's another story)

Various Masters and PhD students I shared houses with during my PhD weren't just unaware of the oncepted MA business, but quite annoyed when I explained it to them

hellblazer

"oncepted" should be "incepted", obviously. Damn stubby fingers...

James

I went to my grandad's MA graduation at Cambridge a few years ago. It was more than 50 years since he'd picked up his BA and he'd never got around to arranging the extra bit. Not that this stopped him using the suffix for all that time. He was, by the way, a teacher at a minor public school, and never got his formal teaching qualification either.

JamesP

Oh yeah, I'd forgotten the immensely pleasurable value of winding up American MA students.

john b

Doing my (genuine) MA at USyd, I found it enjoyable to wind up fellow students by pointing out that I already had one MA which almost everyone outside academia would view as more valuable than the one we were studying for. Particularly the Americans who'd already done four-year BA courses.

john b

Also, it's rather unreasonable of people involved with Anglophone non-Oxbridge universities to get grumpy about the fact that the universities that invented the concept of a Master of Arts degree still use the term that they invented to mean the same thing that they meant when they invented it.

OTHER UNIVERSITIES: why not rename your basic postgraduate arts degree to an MStud or MPhil, and confer MAs on your own BA students after seven years and a tenner (black shoes not required, incidentally - I got my MA by post, since I'd already had the ceremonial farce for my BA)...?

Phil

Major ceremonial farce for BA; they still wanted me to turn up in person - complete with suit and shoes - for the MA. I haven't enquired since, though.

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