Monday, September 14, 2009


A reader writes in response to my thoughts on the admissions criteria set out on the website for the Oriental Institute at Oxford (which, as you'll see, would appear to have suffered from a severe shortage of relevant information):

One quick fact-check-ish thing:

The written work submitted with an Oxford application generally isn't
written specially for that application - usually it's one or two
coursework essays, written as part of AS or A-level requirements.
Coursework is required at GCSE, as well: teachers may not want to set
their classes writing assignments that will demoralise and be
difficult to mark, but nevertheless they will have done so. I think
coursework is externally moderated, though a lot of it might be marked
in-school initially. I'm sure there is a set marking scheme applied
nation-wide (which of course has its own problems). It would probably
take more than just coherence, correct spelling and a grasp of grammar
to get an A in e.g. your English Literature coursework, no matter what
people say about modern grade inflation.


I've taken part in the interview process for Oriental Studies at
Oxford - I mean, I did so twice, once as a candidate and then some
years later as a quite junior panel member. The state-school question
was pretty pronounced in my mind: my year in my subject (i mean
'cohort', i suppose) was a third international-school (so-- private,
but of a certain kind), a third UK private school, a third UK
state-school. It's not a brilliant rate. At least one of the state
school students took a long time to produce essays of the kind being
asked for-- but then so did a couple of the international school
students. On the other hand, coming out of the gate as it were, in the
first two years when past academic/social lives still affect one's
work most heavily, the state school students were the ones with the
strongest work ethics, the ones who'd been used to having to work
without guidance, make their own revision timetables, study in an
atmosphere of discouragement (I'm sure you've noticed the way Oxford
students have a tendency toward the maintenance of a front of doing
absolutely no sustained work).

Of course all this means is that this sampling of state school
students at Oxford were the kind of people who found themselves
identified as clever and fought to keep that status, despite bullying
and distraction and all the rest. Not much space for the clever kids
whose brightness led them into boredom and doing the minimum. On the
other hand-- learning a new foreign language ab initio really requires
you be the kind of person who can make their own study timetable and
stick with it. If you get distracted, you start forgetting.

One thing that's worth comparison is the difference in intakes between
SOAS and other places that do Oriental Studies, or at least the
version of events I've heard - it's said that SOAS has the lowest
grade requirements for entry, and takes a lot of students in, but
their rate of attrition is very high. As students find themselves
unwilling or unable to do the work, they drop out or are encouraged to
leave. So people who just didn't enjoy what was demanded them at
school can discover that they really enjoy the intellectual demands of
university, and do well. On the other hand it's worth noting that this
sort of thing looks very bad on league tables. There might be
financial problems involved, too-- I know that FE colleges often get
allotted government money based on the number of students left in the
course at the end of a term or a year, not on the number who started.

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