Truss urged to think beyond Oxbridge after interviews pledge

Front runner for PM’s first major intervention into higher education suggests ‘narrow focus’ and ‘no regard for logistics or legalities’, critics claim

August 1, 2022
A female student at the University of Oxford
Source: iStock

A “difficult to implement” pledge to automatically give all very high achieving A-level pupils an interview for Oxbridge suggests that the front runner to be the UK’s next prime minister has too narrow a view of higher education, critics have said. 

Tory leadership favourite Liz Truss told the Sunday Times that every pupil who gets three A*s in their exams should be offered an interview by the universities of Oxford or Cambridge as part of a bid to improve social mobility. 

Such a scheme would require a switch to Post-Qualification Admissions (PQAs), whereby pupils apply to university after they have received their exam results, something Ms Truss said she would also “look at” changing for the sector as a whole, despite the Department for Education deeming a similar idea “no longer a priority” just six months ago. 

The first major intervention into higher education policy was part of Ms Truss' attempts to position herself as an “education prime minister” but was branded “disheartening” by Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former adviser to three universities ministers. 

“It is disheartening to see Liz Truss base her education reform pitch solely on increasing admissions to England’s most famous two universities,” she told Times Higher Education. 

Dr Beech said while both institutions had rightly earned outstanding global reputations, they may not suit students who “cannot easily embrace a full-time ‘residential’ higher education experience and need to balance their studies with other work or caring commitments”. 

“As well as showing no consideration that Oxbridge might not necessarily be the right choice for everyone, Ms Truss’s proposals reveal no regard for logistics or legalities,” she said, referring to the staff needed to hold interviews and universities’ autonomy over admissions. 

If the policy were to be enacted it could see the two universities compelled to hold thousands of extra interviews every year. In 2021, nearly 13,000 pupils achieved three A*s in their A levels.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed that automatic interviews “would not be easy to implement” adding that they were also “often not very fair”.

But he said it was good that Ms Truss had “original ideas for tackling social mobility” and that there was “certainly something” in pupils having “very different levels of confidence”.

Ms Truss, the current foreign secretary, is considered the favourite in the leadership race because she is seen as more popular among the Tory base than her rival, former chancellor Rishi Sunak.

A alumnus of Oxford’s famed PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) course, as a student Ms Truss was president of the university's Liberal Democrat society and told the Sunday Times that her own interview for Merton College was difficult. 

“They interviewed me twice more before they decided to let me in, probably because I kicked up such a fuss. I was amazed. I thought I hadn’t impressed them enough,” she said. 

Explaining her rationale for the automatic interview policy, she said her own experiences studying at the comprehensive Roundhay School in Leeds showed as a pupil you often have to “put yourself forward” for Oxbridge at schools outside elite private institutions.

“There were supportive teachers but there were also other teachers who said Oxford is full of toffs,” said Ms Truss, who graduated in 1996.

On 1 August about 150,000 Tory party members began receiving their ballot papers for the leadership vote, which must be returned by 2 September. The outcome of the contest is expected to be announced on 5 September.

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