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1 In 1960, Ralph H. Turner proposed that the ‘folk norms’ of upward social mobility differ between the US and England and that this difference could be observed through studying secondary schooling systems. He described the US as a contest mobility system where “elite status is the prize in an open contest and is taken by the aspirants own efforts” (Turner, 1960, p. 856). As in the popular term ‘American dream’, the contest mobility system is an open system where “victory must be won solely by one’s own efforts” (Turner, 1960, p. 857). Individual effort can be rewarded, for example, by legitimately moving up from dishwasher to millionaire or by deserving enrolment in selective higher education.

2 In contrast, Turner argues that England resembled a sponsored mobility system where “elite recruits are chosen by the established elite or their agent, and elite status…cannot be taken by any amount of effort or energy” (ibid., p. 856). An English dishwasher could become a millionaire with elite status only if the elites selected him or her for membership in their circles. “Those who are already members [of the elite] judge potential entrants on the extent to which they possess characteristics they wish to see in their future peers” (ibid.). Moving ahead in the sponsorship system in England “is like entry into a private club where each candidate must be “sponsored” by one or more of the members. Ultimately the members grant or deny upward mobility on the basis of whether they judge the candidate to have those qualities they wish to see in fellow members” (p. 856). “Individuals do not win or seize elite status; mobility is rather a process of sponsored induction into the elite.” (p. 857)

3 In a sponsorship system, ability and ambition alone are insufficient for upward mobility. Instead, sponsorship by the existing elite is key. Turner concluded his theoretical development of different mobility modes with a review of the education systems in England and the US and showed how the structure of secondary schooling especially could be traced back to different structuring norms concerning contest and sponsorship mobility.

4 Turner closes his article by calling for future empirical research to explore the “different channels of mobility in both England and the United States in an attempt to discover the extent to which mobility corresponds to the mobility types” (ibid., p. 867).

5 The present article follows this recommendation in two ways. First, it investigates university entry in England in general with a view to seeing whether the general higher education system approximates more closely the contest or the sponsorship norm. Second, it uses an extreme case study of entry to elite higher education – the University of Oxford. This is because Turner’s arguments regarding sponsorship and contest mobility were particularly developed to explain access to elite parts of the social structure, such as elite education. The analysis thus allows to draw conclusions as to whether England, and elite education within England, continues to fit Turner’s ideal-typical sponsorship model. This claim is ultimately rejected here. Instead, I argue that English elite higher education has developed a contest system with some element of what is termed ‘adjustment sponsorship’, which is juxtaposed with Grodsky’s conceptualisation of compensatory sponsorship in the US. The article concludes by offering some thoughts regarding the usefulness of using mobility modes in contemporary and comparative social mobility research.

Literature Review

6 Turner’s framework of sponsored and contest mobility never became the dominant research paradigm in England, neither for understanding social mobility nor for understanding the English education system. This lack of integration into English research can be attributed to three reasons related to (1) structural changes in the education system, (2) issues of operationalisation of mobility modes, and (3) research foci. These three issues are now revisited to facilitate an understanding of what insights Turner can and cannot offer us today.

7 First, Turner himself noted in his seminal theoretical work that the introduction of comprehensive schools might end the sponsorship system in secondary schools in Britain (Turner, 1960, p. 867; 1966). English reviews of Turner’s work furthermore argued that within the tripartite system, sponsorship characterised only grammar schools that offered upward mobility to those selected into this high-ability stream aged 11, but that other streams in the English education system, even in the 1960s, more closely resembled the US high school model than acknowledged by Turner (Halsey, 1961, p. 454; but see Turner’s response, 1961, p. 456). This disagreement between Halsey and Turner was not resolved before policy reforms ended the tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and vocational schools in England that had inspired Turner’s original sponsorship assertion. This system was largely, but not completely, replaced by a system of comprehensive schools in 1976. Comprehensive schools had more in common with American high schools than with the previous British tripartite system in terms of schooling children from a range of abilities within a single school. Subsequent researchers on British mobility indeed judged that comprehensive schools “ended sponsored selection prior to age 16” in England (Morgan, 1990, p. 39). British researchers thus preferred other paradigms to the sponsorship and contest model as the social reality of a changed education system undermined the most crucial differentiator of Turner’s different mobility modes for secondary education in England and the US.

8 Second, the idea of mobility modes shares with other far-reaching concepts – such as cultural capital – that empirical operationalisations are not always straightforward (see e.g. Robson & Sanders, 2009). When Turner’s ideas were operationalised in statistical models, the idea of ‘sponsorship’ became synonymous with measuring ‘ascribed characteristics’, such as social class or ethnicity, and the idea of ‘contest’ became synonymous with ‘achievement characteristics’, such as qualifications (see e.g. Kinloch, 1969; Morgan, 1990; Grodsky, 2007). The language of sponsorship and contest then changed to ascription and achievement. This substitution of terminology, in turn, meant that researchers could also and perhaps more straightforwardly locate their research within the framework of meritocracy and equality instead of drawing on mobility modes [1]. The meritocracy framework had, in turn, gained increasing popularity in England after Young’s publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy (Young, 1958). In fact, the amount of uncritical use of the term – in particular in political circles including the previous UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – led Michael Young to publicly distance himself from the uses of his original satirical work in a piece entitled Down with Meritocracy (Young, 2001). Nonetheless, the idea of meritocracy has proved to outlive Young’s retraction and continues to be popular in particular among English quantitative education researchers, partly because the idea is versatile to permit incorporation of other models such as the “Origin-Education/Merit – Destination” triangle (Erikson & Jonsson 1996; Breen (dir.), 2004; Heath et al., 2008). The combined effect of measurement challenges on the one hand and alternative frameworks on the other hand resulted in English social mobility research – and especially the influential Nuffield School of Stratification – happening without reference to Turner (see e.g. Goldthorpe, 1980; Erikson et al., 2005).

9 A final third factor contributed to the limited impact of Turner in England. This was a feeling among segments of the research community that Turner was not asking the most pressing policy-relevant or conceptually interesting comparative education questions. Turner asks about ‘modes of mobility’ whereas other comparative researchers were more concerned about equality in education (e.g. Erikson & Jonsson, 1996; Jonsson et al., 1996) or whether the structures of some education systems provide more opportunities and inclusivity for disadvantaged students than the structures of other education systems (e.g. Shavit et al., 2007).

10 This line of research has been, and continues to be, very important. For example, comparative research in this tradition has shown that relative mobility rates in the US are not actually dissimilar from the ones in other industrialised countries (Lipset & Rogoff, 1954; Blanden et al., 2005). Also, no advanced democracy has managed to completely break the link between position in the social structure and attainment (OECD, 2000). This suggests that, regardless of whether the US might employ a contest ideology and England might employ a sponsorship ideology, these folk norms may not impact on actual levels of social mobility (see also Featherman et al., 1975). Turner himself acknowledged that sponsorship mobility may not necessarily mean worse mobility chances for the socio-economically disadvantaged as the talented disadvantaged children are creamed off at a young age and socialised alongside those born into privilege (Turner, 1960). However, in contrast to later research, Turner maintained that how mobility was structured was of interest even if different mobility modes did not necessarily lead to different stratification outcomes.

11 Finally, scholars engaged in researching education systems at national or local levels rather than in comparative perspective were perhaps more interested in how to improve or equalise particular aspects of their national schooling, teachers’ training, curricula, or assessment systems (e.g. Lehman, 1999). This is mirrored in the absence of research or teaching about mobility modes as part of the curriculum in English education faculties, on either their teacher education or academic programmes.

12 While Turner was thus overwhelmingly forgotten in the study of English education, two studies by US scholars counter this trend. One is a national level study (Grodsky, 2007) and the other is a comparative study revisiting Turner’s original ideal-type sponsorship and contest mobility mode countries – England and the US (Morgan, 1990). There is also a much earlier empirical study on the US by Kinloch (1969) that is revisited in the methods section only. Both projects change Turner’s original focus from the structure of the secondary schooling system to the entry point to higher education. This is in line with other research suggesting that, as secondary education has become universal in advanced democracies, the transition point into higher education has magnified in importance for stratification processes [2].

13 Grodsky’s study of admissions chances and enrolment of ethnic minorities at US universities shows that admissions and recruitment personnel engage in compensatory sponsorship for minority students. This means that minority students can gain admission with lower qualifications than their white peers. This is a result of institutions’ efforts to compensate for unequal opportunities in minority students’ prior education: “Faced with a pool of potential matriculants who have, for reasons completely beyond their control, experienced wildly unequal educational opportunities, admissions and recruitment personnel engage in compensatory sponsorship for those students thought to suffer from constrained opportunities earlier in the educational competition” (Grodsky, 2007, p. 1695). Group characteristics such as race are then used as shorthand for previous inequality [3]. Race-based affirmative action thus constitutes an element of sponsorship that has entered the otherwise contest-based American education system. This also means that while contest might be the general folk norm in the US, modifications are possible to address particular historic and social circumstances in a national context (Grodsky, 2007). In fact, such modifications are necessary to maintain the legitimacy of who fails and who is successful in a particular education and employment system – an observation that again resonates with Turner’s original analysis of social control (Turner, 1960, p. 859).

14 Morgan’s comparative analyses of entry to higher education in the UK and the US in the late 1980s concluded that Turner’s contest and sponsorship mobility continued to explain the cross-national differences observed in her data. The present article shall later argue that Morgan’s finding would have been different if she had applied the same measurements of sponsorship and contest as other mobility mode scholars such as Grodsky.

15 Morgan observed that US institutions admit students more on demand than qualifications, whereas attainment was the best predictor of university enrolment in England. Her interpretation of this was that “the contest is open to all” (Morgan, 1990, p. 52) in the US whereas the UK was characterised by sponsorship because the wish alone to embark on a degree was insufficient for actual enrolment and had to be combined with high attainment (Morgan, 1990, p. 53).

16 The above review points towards two gaps in the current literature on mobility modes in England. First, there is a need for an updated, and as argued in the methods section, re-conceptualised and differently operationalised analysis of the applicability of the sponsorship hypothesis for English higher education. Second, there is a need for a first-of-a-kind study to investigate the sponsorship hypothesis for the particular case of elite higher education in England. Next, I briefly review how the present article contributes towards filling both of these gaps.

17 First, an updated analysis is necessary simply because the English education system, and in particular the higher education sector, has changed significantly since Turner’s work and also, again, since Morgan’s study. Sixty years after Turner, the vast majority of English school children attend comprehensive schools that more closely resemble US high schools than the tripartite system observed by Turner [4]. When Turner wrote his article in 1960, six percent of an English age cohort participated in higher education – in 2001, this figure had increased to 33 percent (DfES, 2002). The government department responsible for higher education – the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – estimates that now 50 percent of young people participate in higher education between the ages of 18 and 30 (BIS, 2013). Furthermore, England has also changed significantly since Morgan’s analysis. Two years after Morgan’s article was published, in 1992, the structure of universities changed radically, with vocational higher education providers (formerly known as polytechnics) gaining university status. This made England a unified higher education system on paper but, de facto, England emerged as a hierarchically stratified system like the US, France and Japan (Abbott & Leslie, 2004; Taylor, 2003). It is thus possible that Morgan might have already concluded that participation in English higher education was better predicted by the wish to attend than by qualifications if she had included those less selective institutions. Without an empirical re-analysis of more current data, the assertion of continued sponsorship in England, as e.g. implicit in Grodsky’s analysis (2007, p. 1694) may not be up to date.

18 The second – and arguably more important – missing analysis is one that would apply Turner to an English university with a multiple gate-keeping function for access to the elite. To recapitulate, Turner’s starting point for modes of mobility was explicitly to investigate how the elites rather than the general population are educated, recruited or selected (Turner, 1960; 1966; see also Wright Mills, 1958; Bourdieu, 1979). Regrettably, to this date a mobility mode type of analysis has not been applied to the study of English elite higher education but only to studies of entire higher education systems.

19 During Turner’s time, the quantity of education would have been sufficient for English school-leavers and graduates to distinguish themselves from their peers with less education and to gain access to elite positions (Raftery & Hout, 1993). This does not hold in the 21st century, in which qualitative differences in institutions – and to some extent fields of study – are salient markers in stratification processes [5]. Having enough education might be necessary for gaining elite positions, but frequently this is insufficient if the amount of education is not supplemented by the right kind of prestigious education and credentials (see also Turner, 1960, p. 858) that would enhance chances of entry into the most desirable positions.

20 In the US, the relationship of institutional and social stratification in post-secondary education is exemplified in the powerful title ‘The diverted Dream’ (Brint & Karabel, 1989) which observed how students from minority and lower socio-economic backgrounds cluster in less prestigious and shorter two-year community colleges rather than the four-year research universities. In England, similar stratification patterns have been found: while white students are under-represented in higher education compared with their age group, they cluster in the most prestigious universities. Those from private schools and selected state schools and higher socio-economic brackets are also over-represented among the most prestigious institutions (inter alia Reay et al., 2010; Croxford & Raffe, 2014). An institutional analysis over the last 30 years has shown that this racial and social segregation pattern between institutions has remained stable (Croxford & Raffe, 2013).

21 The elite universities that bestow the greatest qualitative advantage over other higher education institutions in the stratified English system are the ancient universities of Oxford (est. ~ 1096) and Cambridge (est. ~ 1209), also collectively known as Oxbridge. The Oxbridge universities are outliers on an array of measures including league tables constructed in varying ways (Times, 2008; Wignall, 2008) as well as prestige and endowment (Boliver, 2005). They are also outliers in terms of their student intake. Among their student intake in 2011, 42 percent of students were previously educated in private schools compared with 9 percent among school-leavers, 13 percent of admitted students were ethnic minorities compared with 23 percent of school leavers and just one in ten admitted students came from manual or semi-skilled family backgrounds (Bolton, 2013). The analysis provides further discussion of the value and limitations of such bivariate statistics.

22 Oxford in particular is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and second to none – including Cambridge – as the gatekeeper to the British professional and political elite (Soares, 1999, p. 5; see also Halsey, 1997, p. 577). Oxford has supplied more future public sector leaders than any other UK university (Oxford University Careers Service, 2006) and its graduates continue to secure leading positions in the judiciary and media [6]. Since 1945, all but two British Prime Ministers were Oxford graduates (Beckett, 2006). Oxford continues to bestow social cache second to no other overseas university for visiting US students and is alma mater to one former American president (Rhodes Trust, 1981).

23 In the admissions stage, the exceptional role of Oxford and Cambridge is highlighted by high conversion rates in the high 90s from admitted students to enrolled students. These conversion rates are significantly higher than even the very highest yields at US institutions, which reach just under 80 percent (US News, 2010). This observation is bearing in mind that applicants can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge in a given year, a policy regarded as anti-competitive by some commentators but which again highlights how these two publicly funded universities are looking for essentially students with the same characteristics: Both Oxbridge universities operate strict cut-off points in terms of the prior attainment levels required for enrolment, with applicants needing to have achieved the best grades in their courses within the nationally standardised school leaving examinations. For the period under study in the present article, this academic minimum requirement was three grades of A. Between them, the two Oxbridge universities turn away approximately 16,000 applicants with the required academic minimum entry record every year (Shepherd & Grove-White, 2010).

24 The subsequent analysis then applies Turner’s mobility modes to contemporary English higher education in general as well as offers an unusual extreme case study of entry to elite higher education by analysing admissions to the University of Oxford. In doing so, the present article aims to go some way towards filling the previously identified gaps in the literature on updating Turner’s mobility mode analysis for England and for English elite higher education.

Analytical strategy

25 The empirical analysis now presented uses a three-step approach. In the first step, university students and high attaining university students are compared with the general population in terms of their ascribed characteristics. In the second step, applicants and accepted students to Oxford are compared with all high-attaining university students. The third analytical step moves from a descriptive analysis to a multivariate binary logistic regression modelling predicting admission to Oxford taking into account contest and sponsorship factors. This modelling is based on the respondents of the Oxford Admissions Study survey described in further detail below.


26 Data was collected from population statistics to describe the entire population, and higher education application data was collected from UCAS – the clearing house that serves as a one-stop central office through which individual applicants apply to higher education.

27 The analysis of the Oxford case study is based on a representative sample of 1,556 applicants with British school records who applied to the University of Oxford in 2002 for admission in 2003. Applicants completed a survey that collected additional information not available from the standard application form and that allows to test the relative impact of sponsorship and contest factors. Questions on aspirations and social and cultural capital were also included and published elsewhere (Zimdars et al., 2009).

28 The actual survey and further information on the methodology of the Oxford Admissions Study are available (Zimdars, 2007, p. 50-124).


29 The introduction to the present article indicated that empirical research using Turner has suffered from problems of operationalisation. The three previously mentioned empirical studies by Kinloch, Morgan and Grodsky, which explicitly set out to test Turner’s hypothesis empirically, are illustrative of this malaise: they sometimes operationalise Turner in opposing ways and they do not draw on each other. Reference to Kinloch (1969) is missing from Morgan (1990), and references to either Kinloch or Morgan are missing from Grodsky. This may have contributed to opposing ways of operationalising Turner having gone unnoticed and may have hampered the emergence of a unified body of literature on mobility modes.

30 To Kinloch (1969, p. 361) and, independently, to Grodsky (2007), contest mobility is empirically supported when high qualifications and achievement explain who gets ahead in the education system. For Grodsky, the impact of participation and achievement in extracurricular activities is also illustrative of the contest norm. In sharp contrast, Morgan concludes that a contest system is found when universities practice open admission and enrolment is based on the wish to participate in higher education rather than prior attainment records (Morgan, 1990, p. 52).

31 Differences in operationalisation are also apparent when looking at the study of sponsorship mobility. Again, Kinloch and Grodsky use the same conceptual approach whereas Morgan uses a different one. For the first two scholars, sponsored mobility exists when social origin, such as ethnicity, influences chances independently of attainment. However, Morgan interprets the strong emphasis on qualifications that she found in the English system as fitting Turner’s description of a sponsorship system (Morgan, 1990, p. 53). This means that for Kinloch and Grodsky, a strong association between high grades and higher education enrolment signifies contest mobility, whereas for Morgan this same empirical observation signifies sponsorship mobility. The lack of a unified operationalisation of sponsored and contest mobility in this relatively small research field then may have contributed to the dominance of other paradigms in research linking education and social mobility.

32 The present article understands Turner along the lines of Kinloch’s and Grodsky’s interpretation of what sponsorship and contest mobility mean: the impact of qualifications and attainment on education transitions is understood to mean that whoever plays the contest right can win. This is contest mobility. In contrast, giving a preference or a disadvantage by social background is akin to adjusting the finishing lines of a race for different individuals, or making some individuals run with bricks in their backpacks. This is sponsorship.

33 Empirically, sponsorship would be diagnosed when social background affects chances of transitioning into higher education and particularly desirable higher education net of attainment. Contest mobility occurs when qualifications influence transitions without an impact of ascribed or sponsorship factors. A limitation of this conceptual differentiation is that opportunities to attain highly are clearly not evenly distributed among social groups and the discussion interprets the research findings with this limitation in mind.

Sponsorship variables

34 The prevalence of sponsorship is tested by using the ascribed factors of social class, gender, and ethnicity. Secondary schooling (private or state) is also included here, just as Kinloch included college prestige among the sponsorship factors (Kinloch, 1969). Conceptually, the inclusion of schooling as a sponsorship factors is, however, controversial. Schooling clearly involves a greater degree of choice than strictly ascribed factors like gender or ethnicity. At the same time schooling tends to be closely related to other ascribed characteristics, including not only economic situation in the social structure, but also less easily quantifiable factors related to origin, such as the value parents attribute to education (e.g. Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).

35 In addition, having a parent who is an Oxbridge graduate is included among the sponsorship variables. Research on selection to private US universities has repeatedly shown evidence that having a parent who is an alumnus/a of this particular university increases chances of admission (inter alia Fetter, 1995; Espenshade et al., 2004). As a non-American writer, this preference seems like an example of direct and cumulative sponsorship that adds to existing advantages, although less research focus has been on this topic compared with race-based compensatory sponsorship policies. However, to measure whether this kind of sponsorship is also apparent in England, the survey material for Oxford applicants included information of a ‘parental Oxford link.’ The dummy variable is set to 1 for applicants who had one or more parents who are themselves Oxford graduates. This information on a parental Oxford link is unique to the particular survey material of the Oxford Admissions study; and it was not available to those making admissions decisions and is never collected in the standard application process to Oxford. The modelling of parental Oxbridge link is thus included as a social background variable that could only indirectly – through the transmission of cultural and social capital – but not directly influence admission to Oxford and forms an implicit comparison with the US cumulative sponsorship by parental education at some private higher education institutions.

36 The specific sponsorship operationalisations are as follows: Social class takes two measurements. The classification in Table 1 uses the Office for National Statistics information on the highest social class in the household. The classification in Table 2 is based on a self-completion social class classification (Heath et al., 1998). For the present article, the coding takes into account both parental classes and differentiates between the number of parents in the highest social classes. The rationale behind this approach is to provide the most nuanced possible measurement of class among this highly select sample of applicants (Rothon, 2007). Particularly important is the distinction between the professional and managerial class, as they differ with regards to their cultural capital and the value placed on education (Bourdieu, 1979). A similar logic was applied to the operationalisation of parental education, which differentiates between the number of parents with the highest educational qualification, although as this factor turned out to be insignificant, the findings are not displayed in the regression model.

37 Ethnicity is operationalised as ‘White’, ‘South Asian’ (Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin) and ‘Other Ethnicity’. Ideally, Black ethnicity would have been kept as a distinct category, but the small number of observations rendered this impossible without risking the identification of individual respondents. Indeed, the under-representation of Black undergraduate students at Oxford has since been problematised (Vasagar, 2011).

38 A standard dichotomous classification of gender as male or female and of schooling as state or private is used.  [7]

Contest Variables

39 In the descriptive analyses in Table 1, high achieving school leavers are identified as those with a UCAS tariff of 360 points or higher. This measure singles out the highest attaining higher education applicants in the centralized school-leaving examination of England and Wales, the A-levels taken at age 18. To recapitulate, the minimum entry requirement for admission to Oxbridge for the time of the research was three As, with each, A contributing 120 points to the UCAS score7.

40 The regression models include controls for attainment at the end of compulsory schooling, in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) as well as predicted attainment in applicants’ A-levels. GCSE examinations are also marked nationally and thus provide an independent measurement for comparing students across schools and regions. The GCSE score used in the present article is the centred mean attainment on a scale from 0 (grade D, lowest grade) to 8 (grade A*, pronounced A star, the highest grade). A squared term was included to model the exponential effect of very high GCSE scores on the chances of gaining an offer for study at Oxford.

41 The models also include extra-curricular involvement as a test case for a contest measure. Grodsky (2007) included this among his measures of contest in higher education entry and there is evidence in empirical research and admission statements of US universities that extra-curricular involvement is a crucial factor in selection decisions (Fetter, 1995; Schoenstein, 2002; Levey, 2009). As extra-curricular involvement is not formally valued as something selectors look for in the selection process for admissions to Oxford, this measure is included as an implicit test of Turner’s insight that “organizing folk-norms are reflected in specific value judgments. Those judgments which the relevant people regard as having a convincing ring to them, irrespective of the logic expressed, or which seem to require no extended argumentation may be pre-sumed to reflect the prevailing folk norms” (Turner, 1960, p. 857). In other words, it is expected that extra-curricular involvement does not have an impact on admissions decisions at Oxford because it is not formally valued. Extra-curricular involvement was coded as 1 if an applicant’s personal statement or school reference indicated exceptional involvement and has a value of zero for other applicants.

Structural controls

42 Finally, the models concerning the case study Oxford include several structural controls. Subject of study at university is included to avoid ecological fallacies most poignantly found in previous research on admission to Berkeley (Bickel et al., 1975). Further controls for which Oxford college applicants had applied to were initially included in models to test for possible effects of college level differences in competitiveness. However, the analysis found no statistically or substantively significant effects of college membership and thus these controls were dropped.

43 For the question of access to Oxford, a binary dependent variable is used in the logistic regression model. Gaining an offer for study at Oxford is coded as 1 and being unsuccessful is coded as 0 [8].


44 The results begin with a discussion of Table 1 showing five comparison groups by ascribed characteristics: the British population; higher education applicants and degree accepts; highest achieving higher education applicants potentially eligible for admission to Oxford [9]; Oxford applicants and offers; and research participants and offers. The characteristics of these groups in relation to sponsorship and contest factors are now discussed in turn.

Sponsorship and contest in higher education and elite higher education

45 First, turning to the analysis of sponsorship factors, Table 1 shows that the parents’ occupation as well as ethnicity, gender and schooling are associated with higher participation rates in higher education and elite higher education in particular. The higher social classes are over-represented among degree applicants compared to the general population. Their representation among the high achieving applicants and the applicants for Oxford is further increased. Conversely, while few applicants from the lower social classes apply to higher education or are among the high achieving applicants, this under-representation is particularly striking among applicants for elite education. No-one from a routine manual background was represented among applicants for Oxford. For all higher education participants, and the highest achievers, acceptance rates closely resemble application patterns. However, the figures for Oxford show that professional and managerial class applicants gain almost two percentage points in representation.

46 Ethnic minorities are over-represented among all higher education applicants, but their representation – in particular for Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students – is reduced for the highest achieving applicants. As with social class, acceptance patterns across the higher education sector generally mirror application patterns, except for applicants to Oxford. Here, ethnic minority representation is decreased and, conversely, the representation of white students is increased from 83.6 to 86.4 percent.

47 Men are under-represented among higher education applicants and the high achievers, but men put themselves forward for admission to Oxford in the same numbers as women.

48 Finally, with regards to schooling, there is a striking over-representation of private school students at the different levels: private schools provide 8.7 percent of higher education applicants (Table 1, column 2), 21.1 percent of the highest achieving applicants (ibid. column 4), but 39.7 percent of Oxford applicants (ibid. column 6). Private schools thus almost double their representation for the most desirable tier of education even after taking into account their higher representation among high achieving higher education applicants. They also further increase their representation at Oxford to 42.8 percent when evaluating offers rather than applications (ibid. column 7).

49 To summarise Table 1, there is first a striking pattern of social background or sponsorship factors affecting individuals’ propensity to apply to higher education, to be high attaining and to apply for elite higher education. Conditional on application (Cameron & Heckman, 1998) Table 1 indicates a contest system for all higher education applicants and the high achieving higher education applicants, as the figures for degree accepts generally mirror the figures of degree applicants. However, for the most elite form of higher education, admission to the University of Oxford, there is a higher transition rate for those from families with two parents in professional or managerial employment, whites and the private school educated. In contrast to Grodsky’s compensatory sponsorship, this admissions pattern advantages already advantaged groups; as in the previous discussion of the legacy effect in the US, it is cumulative sponsorship.

Tableau 1: Social class, ethnicity, school attendance and gender in the population at large, among UK domiciled HE applicants, among high achieving HE applicants, and among Oxford and research applicants and offers

Tableau 1: Social class, ethnicity, school attendance and gender in the population at large, among UK domiciled HE applicants, among high achieving HE applicants, and among Oxford and research applicants and offers

Tableau 1: Social class, ethnicity, school attendance and gender in the population at large, among UK domiciled HE applicants, among high achieving HE applicants, and among Oxford and research applicants and offers

Population Statistics: British Population socio-economic status: Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics, (Socio-economic classification1 of workingage population, summer 2003). British Population ethnic and gender composition: Census, April 1991 and 2001, Office for National Statistics; Census, April 2001, General Register Office for Scotland; Census, April 2001, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. British Population educational institutions for 16-18 year olds: Department for Education and Skills: Table 1: GCE/VCE A/AS and Key Skills at Level 3 results of students aged 16-18, by type of establishment and gender by the end of 2002/03 ( viewed on 20.10.2005). Higher Education Statistics: UCAS tariff and Socio-Economic Class / Ethnicity / gender / educational institution for UK applicants in 2002: Oxford Statistics: UCAS data supplied through the Oxford Colleges Admissions Office.

50 To recapitulate, high attainment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for enrolment at Oxford and other English elite universities. The crude contest measure of a high score in the school leaving examination used in Table 1 and the pattern of applications thus does not allow the conclusive establishment of whether sponsorship occurs in selection to Oxford. A model that includes more detailed attainment information and, in particular, GCSE information is needed to establish this case. Further analysis of Oxford then is offered in Tables 2 to 4.

Sponsorship and contest in the case study Oxford

51 The second part of the results present findings relating to the prevalence of sponsorship and contest for admission to the elite University Oxford. The prevalence modelled here is conditional on the self-selection to apply (Cameron & Heckman, 1998; Long, 2004; Manski & Wise, 1983). First, Table 2 contains descriptive statistics showing the link between sponsorship and contest factors and the chances of gaining an offer. In Table 3, nested binary logistic regression models predicting gaining an offer with different combinations of sponsorship and contest factors are formally tested regarding their goodness of fit. The best fitting models are then displayed in the three regression models in Table 4, the relative weight of sponsorship and contest factors in gaining an offer. Sponsorship and contest factors are again discussed in turn.


52 First, the more fine-tuned class schema used for the descriptive statistics in Table 2 shows a striking class gradient in acceptance rates at Oxford. With 42.7 percent, the children of two professional class parents have the highest success rate of all. This is compared to a success rate of only 28.6 percent of working class applicants. Those with missing social class information display the lowest success rate of 20.5 percent. This information is interesting as missing social class information has, at least in the English context, been associated with characteristics of the lowest social classes, such as low educational attainment (Rothon, 2005).  [10]

53 Social class emerges as an important factor in improving model fit in the nested comparisons in Table 3 and continues to exert a significant effect on the chances of gaining an offer in Table 4. The most striking pattern here is the advantage of those with two professional class parents, with significant disadvantages for all other classes in comparison, including those with only one professional parent or managerial class parents. This highlights the importance of occupational homogamy. The two professional class advantage is not explained by differences in prior attainment levels.

54 There is no observable significant relationship between parental education, or parental Oxbridge connection and the chances of gaining an offer to Oxford in Table 3 and the coefficients are hence not included in Table 4. This finding is surprising because research on larger populations has repeatedly demonstrated strong effects of parental education on higher education transitions10. It is possible that the lack of a parental education effect is partly due to the incredibly high general level of parental education among this sample of Oxford applicants. Only 272 applicants out of 1556 (17.5 percent) had parents with only high school certificates. In the general population, over 30 percent have no formal educational qualification at all (Office for National Statistics 2001), reiterating the self-select nature of the applicants to Oxford. In other words, the findings cannot be read to suggest that parental education does not matter for elite higher education entry, but rather that it does not play a role in admission to Oxford conditional on the prior role parental education has exerted on achievement in the contest of educational attainment and in the propensity for applicants to put themselves forward for competition for elite education.

55 The parental Oxbridge connection plays no role with different models for inclusion having been tested. While this is in line with the expected findings, the present article is the first empirical verification of a lack of effect for legacy status for admission to Oxford in the 21st century. The finding also provides a check on unobserved differences among applicants matched on social class, parental education, and attainment, thus increasing confidence in those findings.

Tableau 2

Percent of applicants gaining an offer for study at Oxford by sponsorship and contest factors (applicants with GCSEs and A-levels only)

Tableau 2: Percent of applicants gaining an offer for study at Oxford by sponsorship and contest factors (applicants with GCSEs and A-levels only) Tableau 3 : Comparison of nested models predicting admission

Percent of applicants gaining an offer for study at Oxford by sponsorship and contest factors (applicants with GCSEs and A-levels only)

^difference almost statistically significant, * difference statistically significant. Statistical significance based on adjusted residuals.

56 Perhaps surprisingly, in the light of the general equalisation of educational attainment by gender in advanced industrial societies, Table 2 and the logistic models in Table 4 show a gender effect on the chances of gaining an offer for study at Oxford. While 40.2 percent of male applicants gained a place for study at Oxford, significantly fewer female applicants (33.6 percent) were successful. This finding is replicated in the logistic regression models where neither subject choice nor prior attainment explain the gender differences in chances of success.

57 In the English context, female students perform more highly in their GCSEs and A-levels than their male counterparts (Salisbury & Riddell, 2000, p. 25) but less highly in final university examinations at Oxford (Mellanby, Martin & O’Doherty, 2000). It is thus possible that selectors apply some adjustment sponsorship for men, with slightly less stellar prior attainment records with males representing just over half of all admitted students.

58 Table 4 replicates the differences in admission to Oxford by ethnicity found in Table 2. White research participants had a 38.1 percent admission rate compared to a 22.3 percent admission rate for South Asian applicants. The South Asian effect is large, significant and unaffected by contest factors (Table 4). Unlike to elite higher education admission in the US [11], being of non-white ethnicity is a disadvantage in the competition for a place at Oxford. In contrast to the compensatory sponsorship for minorities observed by Grodsky for the US, the Oxford admissions pattern further cumulatively advantages the white majority of applicants.

Tableau 3

Comparison of nested models predicting admission

Tableau 3 : Comparison of nested models predicting admission

Comparison of nested models predicting admission

All chi squares (column 3) are significant (p <.000)

59 Among the research participants there is initially no statistically significant difference in the success rate of private school students compared to their state school peers in Table 2. In fact, when controlling for their superior score on contest factors such as GCSE performance in Table 4, a statistically significant negative effect of having attended a private school appears in the analysis, suggesting that private school educated applicants fare less well in the admissions process than their state school educated peers. However, unlike the compensatory sponsorship by race described by Grodsky for the US, adjustment sponsorship fits the Oxford data better: the disadvantage for private school applicants is an expression of the empirical observation that private school students perform worse in university examinations when compared with state school applicants admitted with the same grades [12]. The disadvantage in admission thus adjusts for this expected lower future attainment rather than compensating for some group disadvantage experienced by state school educated applicants in their prior education.

Contest factors

60 The most powerful predictor of gaining an offer for undergraduate study at Oxford is a contest factor – attainment in secondary education. Having been a winner in the contest for qualifications early on translates into further victories in the tough contest for elite education. Table 2 shows that mean attainment in GCSEs, taken aged 16, is more than four points higher for admitted than for unsuccessful applicants. Furthermore, almost half – 48.9 percent – of applicants with four or more A-levels predicted at the highest grade (Grade A) were admitted, compared to 32.4 percent of applicants with the standard application profile of 3As. Fewer than 20 percent of applicants with lower predicted A-level grades gained an offer. These effects are confirmed by the logistic models in Table 3.

Tableau 4

Logistic regression model of gaining an offer (coded as 1) for candidates with British qualifications

Tableau 4: Logistic regression model of gaining an offer (coded as 1) for candidates with British qualifications

Logistic regression model of gaining an offer (coded as 1) for candidates with British qualifications

* p < .10, ** p < .05, *** p < .001 not displayed: effects of subject choice
Five subject controls (Humanities, Social Science, Mathematics and related disciplines, Medicine and related discipline and other) included but not shown. Controls for Oxford College tested but did not improve model fit.

61 There is also no significant relationship in admissions chances for those who had mentioned extra-curricular involvement in their personal statement on the university application form and those who had not mentioned it. This finding is apparent in the descriptive statistics and as an insignificant factor in the multi-variate models. While this is again in line with the hypothesised relationship, it is an empirical insight into how the well-established signalling function of such extracurricular activities in the US (Rivera, 2011) is a context-specific construct of merit.


62 The present article found that elite higher education in England at the dawn of the 21st century is a prize for which the aspirants’ own efforts are crucial: prior success in the contest for the best qualifications in secondary schools was the most powerful predictor of participating in higher education and in elite higher education at the University of Oxford. In using grades and academic attainment as contest factors, the present article follows the work of Grodsky and Kinloch. Turner’s description of England as a place where “elite status…cannot be taken by any amount of effort or energy” (Turner, 1960, p. 856) was not confirmed for the case of admission to Oxford.

63 The importance of contest factors in this empirical study supports that Oxford is certainly partially succeeding in its admissions aim “to attract applications from the most academically able individuals, irrespective of socio-economic, ethnic or national origin” and “to ensure applicants are selected for admission on the basis that they are well qualified and have the most potential to excel in their chosen course of study” (University of Oxford, 2006). This statement reflects a strongly held contest norm. Admission should be based on contest factors – qualification and potential – and not on sponsorship factors such as social class or ethnicity. Perhaps the need to state this contest norm so explicitly derives from the legacy of a sponsorship system as described by Turner (1960, 1966) and popularised in fiction such as Brideshead Revisited (Waught, 1946). The emphasis on contest then is an affirmation of the university that it has changed from the previous sponsorship system and now subscribes to the contest norm.

64 The finding of a contest norm and some empirical support for the contest can be critiqued in the light that factors other than aspirants’ efforts for higher education play a role in who achieves highly in school and self-selects to apply to elite education [13]. Luck egalitarians also critique the contest norm and the meritocracy by pointing out the arbitrary nature of privileging ability and effort as legitimate ways to distribute resources in unequal societies while maintaining that the influence of other ascriptive criteria like race and gender is unfair (e.g. Marshall & Swift, 1993).

65 Turner’s contribution to the field of mobility research is to argue for the value of looking not just at actual patterns of transmitting inequalities but at the folk-norms that structure this transmission. Turner also, however, already argued in the 1960s that a contest system with a strong link between social origin and contest measures, such as attainment, would mean that a society would have a normative contest system but it would be a de-facto ‘surface-meritocracy’ (1966). The analysis in the present article supports this insight, as the pool of those who applied to Oxford is not representative of those who, according to the contest logic, should be eligible to apply for elite higher education because of their high prior attainment in school. The conditional nature of application patterns to Oxford and the potential for school and familial sponsorship [14] in putting forward applicants, as well as the link between origin and attainment, limit and contextualise the findings.

66 But even among those who had applied to Oxford, the contest for gaining admission is not perfect. Sponsorship characteristics such as social class, ethnicity, gender, and schooling impact on the chances of gaining admission to Oxford for applicants who had achieved the same scores on the previous contest for qualifications. As an observed relationship between sponsorship factors and admissions contradicts Oxford’s own admissions statement, Oxford’s then director of admissions was quick to respond to the emerging findings from this project that he was completely confident that applicants were, in fact, admitted based only on contest factors (Nicholson cited in Grimston, 2009). This suggests that the belief in the contest folk-norm is crucial for the institution’s self-image and its public legitimacy in conferring advantage in a socially acceptable manner.

67 The conceptual interpretation of the impact of the different sponsorship factors requires some careful theoretical deconstruction.

68 The schooling effect is conceptually different from the effects of ethnicity and social class. The schooling effect indicates the existence of ‘adjustment sponsorship’, whereas the class, ethnicity and gender effects indicate that further advantages are obtained for already advantaged strata of society, which is ‘cumulative sponsorship’.

69 Cumulative sponsorship gives advantages to already advantaged groups in society, in the case of Oxford, those of white ethnicity and those with two professional class parents – but not to those with a legacy connection – in a way that is not compatible with the norm of a contest or meritocracy. However, without conscious policies to avoid cumulative sponsorship, this can be a default position. This is particularly the case in a face-to-face interview situation where homophily and an affinity with others who are ‘like oneself’ can even unintentionally lead to social reproduction (McPherson et al., 2001; Riviera, 2011; Pager et al., 2009). Equalities legislation, awareness raising and training of selectors are some of the tools used by governments and organisations to consciously counter intentional and unintentional practices that inequitably convey such cumulative advantages. Cumulative sponsorship is always ideologically incompatible with the meritocracy, whereas compensatory or adjustment sponsorship can be compatible with a contest or meritocratic discourse.

70 The findings with regards to schooling enhance and complement rather than challenge Oxford’s contest norm by introducing a dimension of ‘adjustment sponsorship.’ Just as the contest norm in the US is supplemented with a legitimacy-enhancing component of compensatory sponsorship regarding race, the adjustment dimension in the English context is schooling. The difference between adjustment sponsorship and compensatory sponsorship is that compensatory sponsorship attempts to correct for past disadvantages and aims to create a more representative or equitable outcome for thus affected members of a particular group for the future. Creating opportunities and crafting a diverse class of students are considered legitimate social and pedagogical ends in themselves. In contrast, the logic of adjustment sponsorship is that there is an evidence base showing how university applicants from state schools have higher potential to achieve highly at university than applicants who have attended private schools. The secondary school system systematically over-certifies the academic potential of private school students compared with state school educated students. The same standardized grades in the national school leaving examinations in England thus hide different potential to achieve highly in the future. This finding has become increasingly empirically robust over the past few years, with several institutional and national-level research studies confirming this for Oxford, St Andrews, Bristol, and an un-named Welsh institution [15]. This finding has also been known anecdotally among admissions practitioners for some time.  [16]

71 Adjustment sponsorship thus does not compensate for prior or group disadvantage but adjusts the chances of admission based on the evidence of how individuals from different schools are likely to perform in the future. In fact, the most selective universities or courses (such as medicine) across the UK increasingly map the performance of each individual applicant against the performance of their peers in that particular school. Selectors then look for outliers: those who performed better than others within their school context. These ‘outlier’ students are most likely to attain highly at university. State school attendance then can be used as shorthand for such adjustment sponsorship to admit those with the highest potential into university.

72 While social justice concerns may well informally play part of the motivation for having established evidence-base on school type and performance at university in the first place, the discourse on adjustment sponsorship is firmly rooted in boosting academic excellence and in maintaining excellence at a time of declining numbers in current birth years entering English universities. Adjustment sponsorship is a way for selective courses and universities to be cutting edge in the ‘war for talent’ and ‘competition for the best.’ By mapping individual performance against the performance of particular schools, adjustment sponsorship also remains firmly rooted in an individual achievement paradigme different from some of the group-level compensatory sponsorship arguments voiced in the US of e.g. having a diverse cohort to support learning. This individual, as well as the evidence-based aspects, might make adjustment sponsorship less controversial as an addition to the contest norm and a legitimacy-enhancing tool. Whether such legitimacy enhancement in de facto unequal societies is a virtuous move or a smoke screen is a philosophical question outside the scope of the current article.


73 The present article used entry to higher education in England to revisit Turner’s idea of contest and sponsorship mobility. Given Turner’s focus on the reproduction of elites, the case study of Oxford as a university with a multiple gate-keeping function to the elite was used. Indeed, in the stratified higher education systems of England and the US, Turner’s analysis of the distinctive folk norms of sponsorship and contest might be more usefully applied when comparing institutions within the higher education systems rather than as an analysis of system-level differences between the US and England16.

74 The findings presented here suggested that access to selective elite higher education in England no longer conforms to the ideal-typical sponsored mobility norm. Contest factors such as attainment are more important for educational transitions than sponsorship factors such as social background. Indeed, a review of the operationalisation of Turner suggested that the previous re-analysis of the English case by Morgan (1990) would have already diagnosed the prevalence of contest mobility if comparable operationalisations of mobility modes to other scholars such as Kinloch and Grodsky had been used.

75 The present article furthermore suggested that elements of sponsorship operate alongside the contest system in England. This insight is developed from Grodsky’s analysis of how the contest folk norm in the US has been adapted to allow room for compensatory sponsorship to redress racial inequalities salient in the national consciousness. I argue that a sponsorship element is also taking place in the English context, but that the adjustment is for the evidence that a particular individual has the potential to attain more highly than captured through their school leaving examinations. This ‘adjustment sponsorship’ is applied to students who apply to higher education from state schools as opposed to private schools. The adjustment sponsorship argument is, however, versatile and research is currently being undertaken to see whether this adjustment logic might also apply to children from areas with low progression into higher education (Moore et al., 2013).

76 While the adjustment sponsorship argument is novel, the work presented here is limited in saying something about the impact of higher education and even the selected case study Oxford in terms of influencing social mobility. The data used here are cross-sectional and allow inferences about the admissions norms, but they do not say anything about the overall mobility outcomes for the students in this study or England at large. The role of universities in social mobility is currently a key English public policy concern (Milburn, 2012b), but the evidence-base is still developing. The research field seems split into often unpublished institutional research on graduate outcomes for different groups or national-level work that can lack as detailed individual and institutional level data, as presented here. National surveys, like the British Social Class Survey, and improvement to data capture in university admissions and outcomes through the Higher Education Statistics Agency will allow a more robust exploration of these issues in the future.

77 Overall, however, the idea of mobility folk norms and how they differ across national contexts and between institutions in the same context remains a fruitful starting point for researchers. The work by Turner, Grodsky’s observation of compensatory sponsorship by race and the contribution presented in this article regarding adjustment sponsorship by school type illustrate that a focus on the modes of mobility can provide an additional angle from which to conceptualise the link between the education system and social stratification.


  • [1]
    Breen & Goldthorpe (2001), Burgess et al. (2006), Jackson et al. (2007), Erikson et al. (2005).
  • [2]
    See e.g. Collins (1979), Raftery & Hout (1993), Cameron & Heckman (1998), Shavit et al. (2007).
  • [3]
    See also Bowen & Bok (1998), Espenshade & Walton Radford (2009), Fetter (1995).
  • [4]
    A minority of 6.9 percent of children (Table 1 column 1) still attend selective state schools (grammar schools) that are roughly comparable to magnet schools in the US. Since 2000, England has seen a surge in academy schools, and since 2010 of Free schools. These two new school types are closest to Charter Schools in the US. The enrolment in private secondary education is higher in England (around 9 percent) than in the US (around 1 percent). A small minority of children in the US (2 percent) and England (estimated under 1 percent) are home-schooled.
  • [5]
    See Lucas (2001), Breen & Jonsson (2000), Chevalier & Conlon (2003), Taylor (2003), see also Bourdieu & Collier (1988), Brint & Karabel (1989), Collins (1979), Stinchcombe (1986).
  • [6]
    See Boyd (1973), Ellis (1995), Sutton Trust (2006), Milburn (2012a), Chevalier & Conlon (2003), Zimdars ( 2010)
  • [7]
    The construction of the UCAS score is slightly more complex than it is feasible to describe here. Achievements in extra-curricular activities such as music can, for example, boost the UCAS score. Applicants with more than three A-levels might have a score higher than 360 although not all A-levels were achieved at grade A. Oxbridge thus do not use UCAS scores
    in their actual admissions process, however, the score is the best available comparator for all higher education entrants and broadly corresponds to the highest achievement. From 2009 onwards, Cambridge University has started to increase the required grades from AAA to A*AA (A star). During the time of the research, A* grades were not awarded for A-levels.
  • [8]
    In contrast to decisions in for example the US, university admission in England are initially not admit / not admit but instead a conditional offer for a place. The vast majority of offers are made prior to an applicant’s final school leaving exams and are subject to satisfactory performance in those examinations.
  • [9]
    The high achieving Oxford applicants were calculated using a UCAS score of 360 points and equivalent to the AAA grade requirement for study at Oxford.
    The measure is used with a caveat though because UCAS tariff points can be awarded for additional qualifications like playing a musical instrument to the highest level (75 points). Many Oxford applicants thus have actual scores as high as 540 points on the UCAS tariff, making the current measure of high achievers potentially conservative.
  • [10]
    Bauer & Riphahn (2007), Chevalier et al. (2005), Mare (1995), Mare & Chang (2006).
  • [11]
    Bowen & Bok,(1998), Espenshade & Chung (2005), Espenshade et al. (2004), Fetter (1995).
  • [12]
    Ogg et al. (2009), Hoare & Jonhnston (2011), Hefce (2003), Taylor et al. (2013), Moore et al. (2013), Lasselle (2014).
  • [13]
    E.g. Blackburn & Jarman (1993), Archer et al. (2003), Chevalier et al. (2005), Lucas (2001), Burgess et al. (2006), Breen & Goldthorpe (2001), OECD (2000).
  • [14]
    Unlike admission to US universities, however, schools in England will only put forward applicants with exceptionally high attainment and would
    generally not put forward candidates for admissions who do not meet the minimum academic requirement of AAA, thus limiting sponsorship that is not conditioned on grades.
  • [15]
    See Ogg et al. (2009), Hoare & Jonhnston (2011), Hefce (2003), Taylor et al. (2013), Moore et al. (2013), Lasselle (2014).
  • [16]
    For example, community colleges in the US and non-selective universities and the Open University in England share a more similar mission and admissions norms than these institutions would with the most selective
    institutions in their own countries. At the same time, many of the issues discussed in admission to the most selective universities are similar on both sides of the Atlantic, illustrated by the joint summits these selective universities host (Sutton Trust Social Mobility Summit, 2013). A system-level comparative analysis might still have some value for countries with a unitary system and uniform enrolment standards, though.

The present article revisits Turner’s (1960) suggestion that English education reflects an ideal-typical sponsored mobility folk norm by looking at entry to one elite higher education institution, the University of Oxford. The article concludes that undergraduate admissions to Oxford closely resembles a contest-mobility system. However, just as there is an element of sponsorship in the US higher education system with regards to race (Grodsky 2007), there is also some sponsorship in Oxford admissions. The present article terms this ‘adjustment sponsorship’ and argues that adjustments are made by type of secondary school attended. Whereas compensatory sponsorship addresses a previous wrong – racial disadvantages in the US context – adjustment sponsorship is a way of adjusting for different academic potential to achieve highly at university. In the English case, adjustment sponsorship occurs by type of school where evidence shows that the same secondary school grades achieved by those educated in private as compared with state schools mask different potential to achieve first-class degrees at selective universities. In both, the US and England, the element of sponsorship – compensatory and adjustment sponsorship respectively – enhance the legitimacy of the contest norm and resulting inequalities.


  • University admission
  • social stratification
  • mobility modes
  • private schooling
  • Ralph Turner

Compétition et parrainage par ajustement dans la sélection des élites : retour sur les modes de mobilité de Turner au travers de l’analyse des admissions au premier cycle à l’université d’Oxford

Le présent article revisite la proposition de Turner (1960) selon laquelle l’enseignement en Angleterre reflète une norme régulatrice idéal-typique de mobilité de parrainage en analysant l’admission dans l’enseignement supérieur dans des universités d’élite, en particulier à l’université d’Oxford. L’article conclut que l’admission au premier cycle à Oxford ressemble fortement au système de mobilité de compétition. Cependant, tout comme on trouve des éléments de parrainage en matière d’ethnicité dans l’enseignement supérieur aux Étas-Unis (Grodsky, 2007), il existe aussi des éléments de parrainage dans l’admission à Oxford. Cette notion, nommée « parrainage par ajustement » dans l’article, argumente que les ajustements se font par type d’école secondaire. Tandis que le parrainage compensatoire s’adresse à une injustice antérieure – dans le contexte des États-Unis, celle du racisme – le parrainage par ajustement est une manière d’adapter les admissions au bénéfice d’étudiants de profil varié et ayant le potentiel de réussir brillamment à l’université. Dans le cas de l’Angleterre, le parrainage par ajustement se fait par type d’école où preuve est faite que le même diplôme du secondaire obtenu par des élèves issus des écoles privées, par contraste avec celui obtenu des élèves venant du public, masque un potentiel différent d’obtenir des diplômes de premier ordre dans les universités sélectives. Dans les deux cas, le parrainage – compensatoire aux États-Unis et par ajustement en Angleterre – renforce la légitimité normative de la compétition et les inégalités qui en résultent.


  • admission universitaire
  • stratification sociale
  • mode de mobilité
  • enseignement privée
  • Ralph Turner


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Anna Mountford-Zimdars
Lecturer in Higher Education King’s College London. Waterloo Bridge Wing - Franklin-Wilkins Building - Waterloo Road – London - SE1 9NN – United Kingdom
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