Comment on “Making Oxbridge entry matter less” by Becky Allen

This is my comment that I left at Rebecca Allen’s blog entry  Making Oxbridge entry matter less. Basically, her suggestion was

Establishing robust and comparable degree classification will help fix the extraordinary stratification of universities in the eyes of employers. Getting into Oxbridge rather than, say, Nottingham undoubtedly gives people an easy ride in the labour market. […]

We could fix all these problems by introducing a common core examination in all degree subjects, set externally by learned societies. All students would sit them, say, two-thirds of the way through their degree, thus allowing specialised final year examinations to continue. Performance in this exam, by subject, would determine the number of first-class, upper-second, lower-second and third-class degrees the department is allowed to award that year. It would not determine the degree-class of the student.

Agreeing a common core of the curriculum would be more controversial in some subjects than in others. We should try this first in subjects where this is not controversial: the sciences, maths, economics, and so on.

My comment follows:

Let us have a look at the table of distribution of UCAS Tariff Scores actually achieved by entrants into Mathematics at Cambridge and at Wolverhampton in 2014 (I had no time to look up fresher data; these were taken from from the official source,

Cam Wolverhamton
< 120 0% 10%
120 – 159 0% 5%
160 – 199 0% 25%
200 – 239 0% 25%
240 – 279 0% 15%
280 – 319 0% 5%
320 – 359 0% 10%
360 – 399 0% 5%
400 – 439 1% 0%
440 – 479 2% 5%
480 – 519 4% 0%
520 – 559 12% 0%
560 – 599 13% 0%
600+ 68% 0%

Let us do some aggregation:

Cam Wolverhamton
< 400 0% 95%
400 – 479 3% 5%
480+ 97% 0%

100% of new mathematics students at Wolverhampton were within the range of the lowest 3% at Cambridge and 95% at Wolverhampton were below the Cambridge range entirely. And this did not include STEP, compulsory at Cambridge.

We have to accept that Cambridge U. and U. of Wolverhampton belong to two different nations separated by the deep socio-economic, class and caste schism. This is a “first world / third world” division. Any attempt to objectively measure “the outputs” will only increase the level of controversy.

Later addition:  Mathematics is one of the subjects where Rebecca Allen’s proposal will create outcry – exactly because “a common core examination” will be objective. And it is likely to be a death sentence to many mathematics departmenst.

Disclaimer: The views expressed do not necessarily represent the position of my employer or any other person, organisation, or institution.