A lesson in winging it

This piece by Simon Kuper in the Weekend FT is so close to the bone it makes you wince:

I recently went on a business trip with three members of the British ruling classes. The late-night banter over drinks was predictably excellent. Sometimes, though, we had to work. When that happened, my companions showed up unprepared and without notes – and did just fine. No wonder, because their entire education had been a lesson in winging it. They knew that all you need to succeed is to speak well, and that’s what the British ruling classes do: they speak well.

… You also need to perform in a peculiarly British ritual: the Oxbridge interview. It works like this: you are 17 years old. You are wearing a new suit. You travel to an Oxbridge college for your interview. You find the tutor’s rooms. Perhaps you’re served sherry, which you’ve never seen before. Then you talk. The tutors, sprawled on settees, drawl questions about whatever is keeping them awake.

For my interview at Oxford, I sat in an ill-fitting new suit and had to explain the difference between ‘precise’ and ‘accurate’.  If this was an issue keeping the tutor awake, he concealed his excitement at my answer pretty well.

The focus on speaking well is mainly an Oxford and Cambridge thing. The tutorial system – in which you have an hour-long meeting once a week with your tutor, at which you read out your essay – teaches people to wing it, and very often not much else.   Life was quite different at the LSE, where I benefited from a fairly technical, mathematical education in economics.  The trouble is too many people in the British establishment have been educated only at Oxford or Cambridge.

The article would be fun if it wasn’t also rather serious:

Numbers remain a challenge for Britain’s ruling class. It treats the City as a magical moneymaking machine, whose demands are best granted because lord knows how the thing works. Even the finance minister, George Osborne, has no education in economics beyond whatever he picked up studying history at Oxford. British public debate just doesn’t feature many numerate people such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or China’s ruling engineers. Britain’s own excellent engineers and quants are stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train.

More than a decade ago a report for the UK Government reached pretty much the same conclusion. It called for “a comprehensive and coherent programme for creating the conditions in which rigorous analysis is routinely demanded and delivered.”  (The present Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, was on the steering committee for the report.) I wonder how much has really changed since then.

15 thoughts on “A lesson in winging it”

  1. Owen, I think you might have been at the sherry yourself with this one!

    – Having spent over 7 years in Cambridge (for BA, MPhil and PhD), I have never heard of sherry being offered in an interview. This is the kind of silly stereotype that makes bright people from less privileged backgrounds think Oxbridge is some kind alien world which they could never feel part of. Please don’t give this rubbish oxygen.

    – Do you really think the primary effect of one-to-one supervisions and tutorials is a training in blagging?! Do you not remember how difficult is trying to defend your ideas to leading experts in the field? As I recall, if you try to ‘wing it’ in supervisions with no preparation you usually get wiped out. Do you not remember how hard people ended up working?

    – Surely spending time closely examining, defending and questioning arguments is exactly the way to develop the skills of ‘rigorous analysis’ that you are arguing for! Why are you implying that rigour is about numbers?

    Owen, it’s always a mystery and a wonder to me how you manage to produce so much material for this blog and pop up in so many different policy debates. Could it be that blogging and blagging are two-halves of the same coin? As someone with a busy schedule, asked to comment on a wide range of policy areas, I imagine that you spend a good amount of time ‘winging it’ yourself.

    Are you sure that the bee in your bonnet is actually the tutorial system at Oxbridge?

    1. @Amy – I certainly wouldn’t want this caricature to put anybody off applying to a any university. And you are right, I wasn’t offered sherry at my interview but it was otherwise pretty much as Simon Kuper’s article suggests.

      But I think you overstate the value of the tutorial system. I left Oxford with a first class degree knowing almost nothing. I am immensely grateful to the LSE for giving me my education.

  2. An old friend of mine called this the “Angels from the realms of glory” moment. As in the Christmas carol with the lyrics that continue “wing their reign o’er all the earth”. Describes the ruling elite perfectly I think.

    More seriously, winging it is a far more useful skill than you (and Simon Kuper) suggest. It only works if you have a solid grounding in logic and analytical thinking, the capacity to take on new ideas quickly, and it helps to have a general grounding in the subject area, if not necessarily with the specific topic for discussion. Why not choose Oxbridge applicants on the basis of those skills, not to mention senior civil servants? After all, many countries have the opposite problem: water, health and education ministries full of engineers, doctors and teachers but a lack of generalists bringing a wider perspective and applying sound principles to decision-making.

    And before you ask, yes I did go to Oxford but not to a private school. And I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as part of any ruling elite.

    But a generalist with the ability to digest new information on almost any topic and make reasonable decisions on that basis? Yes, and proud of it.

    1. @Ben – Fair enough. There are some professions – especially journalism, law and politics – in which these are critical skills.

      But what if by valuing those abilities too highly, we crowd out complementary skills?

  3. If you really learnt nothing at Oxford I think you need to take some responsibility for that. Three years with a copywrite library, and the chance to engage with people at the top of their fields is a major opportunity in anyone’s book.

    Education isn’t something that is ‘given’ to students, sitting openmouthed in classrooms like baby birds. You have to ask questions and be genuinely interested – which is impossible for people who want to do as little work as they can get away with. Maybe by the time you got to LSE you had just grown up a bit.

    1. @Amy – I think that is largely fair. You are right to say it is the responsibility of students to learn.

      But what students learn, and how they learn, isn’t entirely independent of how universities teach and, importantly, how they examine and grade. And for that, I think Oxford and Cambridge do bear some responsibility for maintaining a system which values eloquence and quick wits over depth and technical ability.

  4. Thanks Owen. Don’t forget though: Supervisions and tutorials are entirely ungraded and make no contribution to examination results.

    In terms of eloquence and quick wits versus depth and technical ability, I’d be more worried about the blogosphere than the tripos system.

  5. I feel you (and the FT article) are mixing two different things here Owen:

    1 – Whether or not enough British politicians have a high-level quantitative backround (economists, scientists, engineers).
    2 – Whether or not too many British politicians went to Oxbridge.

    Or do you think that a parliament of ex-Oxbridge scientists would have the same view on “rigorous analysis” as Oxbridge arts graduates, based on the ‘winging it’ nature of the tutorial system?

    (Disclosure: I did undergraduate engineering at Cambridge and generally found the tutorial system a good way of getting help when I didn’t understand a concept and needed some further explanation to work through it. Trying to wing it too much then would have been self-defeating when it came to exam time, as Amy suggests).

    1. @Stephen – That is a fair point. I wasn’t being entirely serious. But I think it is both the excessive number of Oxbridge types and the general level of scientific, numerical and analytical illiteracy which I don’t like.

  6. @Owen – thanks for the reply and I broadly agree with you. But I share Amy’s concern that repeating the stereotype of ‘Oxbridge types’ doesn’t help encourage people from less privileged backgrounds into Oxbridge or politics. I acknowledge you don’t take the stereotype fully seriously and are using it to make a point – but for people who see/hear about it in the media and don’t have any positive experience to counter it, it’s perhaps not helpful.

  7. I underwent admissions interviews at both Oxford and Cambridge colleges (Oxford wouldn’t pay me to go there so I went to Cambridge, which did: those were the days!) but that was a great many years ago. In retrospect, the interviews were all culpably amateurish, subjective, unstructured, impressionistic and unscientific. A lady I know, someone significantly more intelligent and scholarly than me, was interviewed after applying to an Oxford ladies’ college and was asked primly what made her think that someone who had been to a run-of-the-mill state primary school (as the applicant had) would be able to cope with life at Oxford. This unanswerable and humiliating question, implying a snobbery not previously encountered by the lady in question, reduced her to jelly and predictably she was rejected (she went on to get a good degree at an illustrious college of London university). The whole thing used to reek of class. I suppose it must have changed a lot since those days, but sometimes I wonder.

    Much later I worked for a few years as a member (including as chair) of two public sector promotion and selection boards, the selection process including in both cases extended one-on-one interviews with all the candidates. Before being let loose on real-life candidates, I underwent rigorous training courses for both boards to learn the skills of interviewing: how to structure an interview, how to identify beforehand exactly which qualities and skills the interview was intended to assess, how much weight to attach to each skill or quality in the overall assessment after the interview, and how to prompt answers and behaviour most likely to encourage the candidate to display them; how to ask open questions that would elicit revealing and informative answers, not long rambling closed questions to which the likeliest answer might legitimately be Yes or No (a skill that Jim Naughtie, for example, has conspicuously failed to master); how to put the candidate at his or her ease but at the same time how to exert sufficient pressure to permit a judgement on how he/she responded to it — and how to deal with the special problems for a male interviewer interviewing a young and attractive woman candidate (and of course vice versa). I learned how to take brief notes throughout without slowing down the pace of the interview and without distracting or intimidating the candidate. I learned how to make an overall assessment at the end of the interview to be deployed in the final conference with each of the other two examiners (each of whom would have conducted equally long separate interviews with the same candidates) when each examiner’s assessment would be constantly challenged by the others with the classical question: “Evidence?” I would be interested to know how many admissions tutors and other dons, not only at Oxford and Cambridge but also at other universities, where so much may depend on success or failure in an admissions selection interview, have been similarly trained in interview techniques.

    (I should add that the records of both the selection boards on which I sat had a high predictive value: the ranking of successful candidates after the battery of tests and interviews correlated remarkably accurately with relative success in subsequent careers; and both the tests and the interviews were rigorously designed to eliminate as far as possible any tendency for the selection boards to pass people culturally and in class terms most like themselves and most like the successful practitioners of the relevant career, so that the test and interview results would be in danger of self-validating. By contrast, there have been a number of studies which tend to show that untrained interviewers conducting unprepared and unstructured interviews, which rely mainly on the interviewer’s confidence in his or her ability to spot talent by sheer instinct, do no better at selecting subsequently successful candidates than they would by blindfolding themselves and sticking a pin in the list of candidates.)

    Evidence from *recent* Oxbridge and other university admission selection interviews would be very interesting.

  8. Owen – I think there is a lot in what you say in this post. I recall joining the British Civil Service at the end of the 1980s as a statistician ostensibly as a “Fast Streamer” but being told by a lecturer at one of our trainings at the staff colleagues that those who worked in policy with Oxbridge classics degrees would always be listened to more, be promoted more and get more interesting jobs because they were good at talking and writing which was valued more than being good at numbers and analysis. And from what I saw in my early years there this was true.

    It’s a shame that while no-one would want to be thought of as “illiterate” it’s quite acceptable for people even in quite senior roles to boast of their innumeracy.

    I hope this is changing in the UK – but I fear there is still some way to go.

  9. Owen, you are up to something here.

    My first experience with the Anglo-Saxon world was amongst the development crowd in South Africa. It struck me that in the Anglo-Saxon world, only people that can smooth-talk are recognised as experts. While amongst economists or engineers, extroverts are rather rare, only extroverts seem to make it in the system. Timid, but numerate people don’t need to apply.

    I have a feel that the Oxbridge system raises the bar for the general populace, and by extension for the development system as a whole.

    How could you otherwise explain some conventional wisdom agreed upon in the development forums?

  10. It’s truly amazing how anyone who suggests that there is anything not entirely perfect about Oxbridge immediately gets accused of putting people off applying. First of all, well bollocks. You wouldn’t say “Don’t say Windows sucks, you might put someone off buying a computer”.

    Second, arguably you should put state school kids off applying, because statistically they are wasting their time. 40-odd % of Oxbridge students are drawn from something like 90% of the school population (and by construction, from a similar % of the top A-level scorers). Go to Warwick or Imperial – or Shanghai Jiaotong!

  11. I have just been shown this article by a friend.


    I am afraid that your arguments shows an incredibly weak grasp of statistics and logic.

    “40-odd % of Oxbridge students are drawn from something like 90% of the school population (and by construction, from a similar % of the top A-level scorers)”

    I assume you are referring to the % of state school students at Oxford (just over 50%) despite over 90% of students being educated in state schools.

    However, this does not consider three vital factors:

    1. For A-Level students, the proportion attending private schools is much higher than pre-A-Level (approx. 20% meaning approx. 80% are at state schools).

    2. Those at private schools are much more likely to get top A-Level grades. This is due to a combination of better educational quality, more supportive home environments and more intelligent students (due to the fact that private schools also give scholarships to lots of very able students and most private schools also have competitive exams).

    3. Although it hurts me to say this as a supporter of the Comprehensive system but private schools do a better job of encouraging and assisting applications to Oxbridge.

    4. An anti-Oxbridge attitude (as typified by your comment) discourages students from state schools from applying and also causes the above problem of schools not encouraging applications.

    I attended Oxford from a Cardiff Comprehensive and didn’t feel at all disadvantaged. Finally, like most who attended Oxbridge, I would argue the tutorial system is the best thing about the institutions. With most of my tutors, you would have been eaten alive if you had tried to ‘wing it’ in the interview/tutorial. This would not work!!

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