Abstract: Educational transitions in the UK are related to social background characteristics such as social class and, to a lesser extent, ethnicity and gender. This thesis presents a case study of admission to the University of Oxford to understand why, conditional on application, admissions patterns into selective higher eduction in Britain show an advantage for already privileged strata of society. Specifically, net of attainment, the professional middle class, white, male and state school applicants fare particularly well in securing offers for undergraduate study at Oxford. With the exception of the state school effect, the admissions privilege advantages already privileged strata of society.
In the first empirical section, the analysis of purposefully generated survey data on 1,929 applicants for admission to the University of Oxford finds that quantifiable measures of merit fail to fully explain differential admissions patterns. The logistic regression models also uncover that while applicants from the private sector initially have similar gross chances of gaining an offer to their state school educated peers, they actually face a penalty in the selection process when taking into account their higher levels of prior academic attainment. Furthermore, the analysis shows that while measures of cultural capital, motivation, aspiration and learning style are meaningfully related to selection decisions, they do not explain the lower transition rates for ethnic minority applicants, those from non-professional class backgrounds, female applicants and private school applicants.
The second step in the empirical investigations then aims to understand the generative mechanisms behind these findings from the perspective of the decision makers in the selection process. This section draws on interviews with 25 admissions tutors and the observation of eight admissions meetings. The analysis here finds that selectors view the admissions exercise as involving risks and uncertainties. Also, many participating tutors routinely considered schooling in their selection decisions and discounted the performance of applicants who had come from very high achieving schools but who were not top achievers within this peer group. The mechanism of homo-social reproduction in decisions involving uncertainty is then put forward as a possible explanation for the unequal transition patterns.
Finally, the third empirical analysis section investigates links between degree performance in final university examinations and admissions relevant factors. This section includes the degree performance of Oxford students as well as those who subsequently embarked on their degree course at universities other than Oxford. The most striking finding is that among the Oxford graduates, female and private school students are less likely to achieve first class degrees than their male and state school educated peers. One interpretation of this finding is that the discounting that selectors apply in the admissions process for these applicants is not only justified but may not even go far enough. But it is also possible, in particular with regard to the female effect, that the Oxford study environment or the examination system, or both are more conducive to male achievements.
This thesis contributes to sociological theory by showing that existing models of educational transition have paid insufficient attention to the role of gatekeepers and their individual preferences in generating aggregate selection patterns. Incorporating selectors as actors in transition models increases our understanding of unequal access to educational institutions and the challenges faced in striving towards equal opportunities in an education based meritocracy. The findings presented here have implications for other fields of sociological inquiry that need to account for the role of individual decision makers such as labour market research. The work presented here has implications for policy making regarding selection processes within the University of Oxford and British higher education more generally. It could also aid university systems such as Germany, that are moving towards selective admission, to think about the challenges of designing truly equitable selection processes.