Why Ox­ford asks its ap­pli­cants ‘would you run a red light?’

Uni­ver­sity re­leases sam­ple ques­tions for in­ter­vie­wees Test of how philo­soph­i­cal or le­gal po­si­tion is jus­ti­fied

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Sally Weale Ed­u­ca­tion cor­re­spon­dent

Ef­forts by Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity to elu­ci­date its in­ter­view process and soothe anx­ious ap­pli­cants’ nerves got un­der way this week with the an­nual re­lease of sam­ple ques­tions and – cru­cially – the an­swers.

Law can­di­dates could find them­selves be­ing asked at in­ter­view: “Should it be il­le­gal to run a red light in the mid­dle of the night on an empty road?” Those ap­ply­ing to study mod­ern lan­guages might be asked: “What do we lose if we only read a for­eign work of lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion?”

Stu­dents of medicine could be asked to put the fol­low­ing coun­tries in or­der of crude mor­tal­ity rate: Bangladesh, Ja­pan, South Africa, UK. Phi­los­o­phy can­di­dates might be asked to re­flect on the in­di­vid­ual moral­ity of air travel.

The next round of ap­pli­ca­tions is about to be­gin with the Oxbridge dead­line on Sun­day. Can­di­dates with a suc­cess­ful writ­ten ap­pli­ca­tion will be in­vited for in­ter­view in De­cem­ber. At Ox­ford just over half of all ap­pli­cants will be in­ter­viewed, com­pared with 75% at Cam­bridge.

Stu­dents are en­cour­aged to re­gard the in­ter­view as a short con­ver­sa­tion tu­to­rial about their sub­ject. On av­er­age, it takes about 20 min­utes.

Dr Sam­ina Khan, di­rec­tor of ad­mis­sions and out­reach at Ox­ford, said as well as sam­ple ques­tions, can­di­dates could pre­pare by look­ing at mock in­ter­views on­line. “We know many prospec­tive ap­pli­cants are wor­ried about be­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar place and be­ing ques­tioned by peo­ple they have not met – so to help stu­dents to be­come fa­mil­iar with the type of ques­tions they might get asked we re­lease real ex­am­ples.”

Often there is no right or wrong an­swer. On the le­gal­ity of run­ning a red light in the mid­dle of the night, Jon Her­ring, pro­fes­sor of law at Ex­eter Col­lege, ex­plained he was in­ter­ested not only in what the can­di­date thinks the law should be but in their ca­pac­ity to jus­tify their po­si­tion.

“A can­di­date might say that if no one was harmed by run­ning the light, then it wouldn’t hurt to run it so it shouldn’t be il­le­gal. This would be sug­gest­ing that the law is based on pre­vent­ing harm. We might then ex­plore whether this is the only pur­pose or the dom­i­nant pur­pose of the law, and how that might shape how le­gal rules need to be con­structed.”

On the ques­tion about for­eign lit­er­a­ture, Jane Hid­dle­ston, also a pro­fes­sor at Ex­eter Col­lege, said: “We don’t do this with the ex­pec­ta­tion that they have al­ready read any par­tic­u­lar works, but in or­der to get a sense of why they think it is worth study­ing lit­er­a­tures in for­eign lan­guages. “Oc­ca­sion­ally can­di­dates are able to give ex­am­ples of fa­mous lines or quo­ta­tions that risk be­ing mis­read when trans­lated into English.”

The sam­ple ques­tion for PPE (phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics) reads: “I agree that air trans­port con­trib­utes to harm­ful cli­mate change. But whether or not I make a given plane jour­ney, the plane will fly any­way. So there is no moral rea­son for me to not travel by plane.”

Po­ten­tial stu­dents are not be­ing tested on their knowl­edge of phi­los­o­phy, said Cé­cile Fabre, pro­fes­sor at All Souls Col­lege, but on think­ing crit­i­cally about the is­sue of in­di­vid­u­als’ re­spon­si­bil­ity for harm­ful col­lec­tive ac­tion. “I would also push them to think about other cases: for ex­am­ple, the bomb­ing of Dres­den,” she said, the thought be­ing that if one bomber fewer makes no dif­fer­ence to the out­come, why not go?

On the ques­tion for stu­dents of medicine, Prof An­drew King said most can­di­dates would ex­pect Bangladesh or South Africa to have the high­est crude mor­tal­ity rate. In fact Ja­pan does be­cause its pop­u­la­tion is older. Bangladesh has a lower mor­tal­ity rate be­cause of its young pop­u­la­tion.

A ruler, sub­ject of one ques­tion, as is the lion’s mane and Corona­tion Street. Below, an Ox­ford grad­u­ate – the fi­nal prod­uct of the uni­ver­sity

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