Simon Hughes’s Oxbridge-bashing masks wider assault on higer education

The Government’s ‘Access Tsar’ Simon Hughes has launched a broadside against tutors interviewing candidates as part of a university admissions process.

By David Barclay, President of Oxford University Student Union (OUSU); OUSU is a leading voice in the No Confidence movement against the government’s higher education policy

The government’s ‘Access Tsar’ Simon Hughes has finally emerged onto the public scene, six months after his appointment, to launch a broadside against tutors interviewing candidates as part of a university admissions process. While this might seem like just another example of that most noble of political sports known as ‘Oxbridge bashing’, it is in fact part of a much more profound assault on the relational foundations of Higher Education, and as such demands a response from students and academics across the universities sector.

Speaking to The Times (£), Hughes claimed that the problem with interviews is that they allow candidates to ‘bond’ on an intellectual level with the academic who will teach them, thereby disadvantaging other candidates. Tutors, he said, should be “absolutely removed” from the admissions process.

Forgive me if I missed this lesson somewhere along my own studies, but isn’t the formation of a public learning relationship, an ‘intellectual bond’, the entire point of Higher Education? It has been my experience that all the beneficial outcomes of university stemmed essentially from the fruits of these relationships – the ability to think critically, the application of intellectual skills to different scenarios, the social capital to build professional networks.

On the same page as it published Simon Hughes’s attack, The Times announced that Oxford and Cambridge have once again been named number one and two in the ‘Good University Guide’. Can it possibly be a coincidence that these two universities are also the only ones in the country where the intellectual bond between students and academics is so highly valued that it is enshrined in a unique one to one learning environment.

Our universities need to put the relationship between students and academics right at the centre of their educational mission, and interviews are one hugely valuable way to do so. Only in an interview can the possibilities of the intellectual relationship between tutor and student be truly tested and explored and examined. If that relationship is going to flourish, both sides need to be fully committed to entering into it, and interviews ensure this buy-in before the course has even begun.

Of course interviews are vulnerable to attack because they are surrounded by myth and legend. But if, as Hughes claims, they are focused on the testing of an intellectual relationship, then they can even be positive engines for social mobility.

At a recent access event, students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had the chance to take part in a ‘mini Oxford interview’ were overwhelmingly positive about them, describing them as an opportunity to put themselves forward in a more complete way.

The reason is that intellectual relationships know no boundaries of class or background. In fact, academics in an interview scenario are much more likely than admissions officers looking at exam results to spot the kind of student who has been trained in an elite school but doesn’t actually have much going on between their ears. They are also much more likely to spot the student from a disadvantaged background with huge academic potential.

The facts speak for themselves – in the last three years there has never been higher than 1% difference in the chances of private school versus state school students getting offers from Oxford after interviews. Put simply, interviews are not the access problem Simon Hughes was supposed to be solving. In fact, they might be part of the solution.

The deeper issue is that this misguided assault smacks of much more than just the confusion of a politician who famously couldn’t bring himself to vote either for or against the trebling of tuition fees. Because when Hughes attacks interviews he attacks the true value of the relationship between students and academics, and in doing so he is far from alone.

David Willetts’s intended reforms, which will be announced in the White Paper due out next week, are designed to fundamentally undermine this relationship through the introduction of a market which would turn students into consumers. As he has said himself, he wants to “unleash the force of consumerism” on our universities, and such a force cannot help but remodel the student-teacher relationship at the heart of Higher Education learning.

That’s why in Oxford a movement has started in which students and academics are intentionally coming together to say publicly that we have no confidence in the government’s plans for Higher Education.

In building actions like the recent Congregation debate around this central partnership we are not just making a point about a public policy agenda which has gone horribly wrong, we are also asserting the power of our relationships to shape the future of our institutions. The time is ripe for others to do the same.

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