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How to get into Oxford. Climb in through the window

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Riazat Butt Riazat Butt 17:45, Monday, 31 January 2011

Oxford undergraduates

Editor's note: Riazat Butt is The Guardian's religious affairs correspondent. Listen to her programme on Radio 4 at 2000 tonight - SB.

Oxford University's admissions system is one of those subjects that really winds people up - and that's why I wanted to look at it. It enrages those who think the institution is predisposed towards fee-paying white toffs, creating a breed of graduates that go on to dominate public life (Exhibit A, Andrew Neil's Posh and Posher on BBC 2 last week). Or it puts people (usually those who have studied there) on the defensive, saying the university is elite rather than elitist and that bright students, whatever their background, have as much a stab at getting a place as any public school pupil.

There are also those who think there is too much emphasis/attention on Oxford and Cambridge and there are plenty of other universities providing a first-class excellent education and a much better social life to boot. The rows have been rumbling on for years and look unlikely to be resolved any time soon unless, you suspect, there are radical changes to Oxford's admissions policy. But rather than assemble a collection of well-meaning, well-informed talking heads referring to events that occurred 20 years ago (or more) I thought it would be more interesting, and human, to follow pupils through the application process and talk to the people deciding their fate.

Few teenagers will have had to big themselves up or experience such a competitive environment - more than 17,200 people chasing 3,200 places for 2011 entry - at their age and I wanted to know what they thought of the procedure. Is it fair? Does it work? So we follow four students from my hometown of Southampton - they don't fit an Oxford stereotype, sorry to disappoint - as they try to grab a slice of academic glory.

I expect people will disagree with the content - and the conclusion - of the programme. I will probably be accused of not going hard enough on the contentious issues of educational or racial diversity. But I started making this programme thinking people could get to Oxford on merit alone. Do I still think that? Yes, but there are caveats. Doing your homework - not just for your A-Levels - really helps. Know what you want to study, why and where otherwise there is little to distinguish you from everyone else who is applying. Did our Southampton students manage this? You'll have to listen tonight to find out.

Riazat Butt is religious affairs correspondent for the Guardian and presenter of How to get into Oxford


  • Comment number 1.

    At last, someone has the courage to say, on national media, that the role of a university is to attract the brightest and the best students.
    If this country wants to maintain it first world status we need thinkers, not people who are taught how to pass exams, by a flawed system that confuses high grades and a high position in league tables as a "proper" education.

  • Comment number 2.

    What any good university is always hoping to find is that rare jewel, the student who is not only bright but also self-motivated. Students from private schools are particularly unlikely to be self-motivated, being conscious of the financial sacrifice their parents have made to send them to such schools. Such students are under a huge burden of ‘oughts’, ‘shoulds’ and other obligations towards their parents. This may get them to perform well at school, with straight ‘A’s and even into their early twenties, but sooner or later this externally derived motivation will burn out (unless it is replaced by some other form of duty, to a large corporation perhaps or a very ‘conventional’ family life). Such people do ‘all right’, in a tame conventional way, but to have a stratospheric career with its concomitant satisfaction, you need to be self-motivated.


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