Even Oxford is outsourced: Oxbridge admissions alliance ditched for Indian consulting firm

The alliance with Tata Group raises questions about automation, bias, and the role of commerce in education.


6/19/20235 min read

Concerns remain around the use of AI by foreign companies in the Oxford admissions process.

Oxford University has chosen to replace its historic alliance with Cambridge for admissions with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a Mumbai-based IT firm which will deliver admissions testing from October 2023 onwards. Although the Thinking Skills Assessment used for social sciences admissions and medicine’s BMAT will continue to be run by Cambridge Admissions Assessment Testing, eight existing exams and one new one will be run by Tata.

Tata Consultancy Services is an international leader in information technology services, having been founded in 1968 by former chairman of the eponymous global group J. R. D. Tata. The same man behind Tata Motors, one of the largest car companies in the world, and Air India, J. R. D. Tata deployed the family’s already formidable financial and social capital and built up TCS into $140 billion firm it is today. The Tata Group itself is the largest conglomerate in India, with a stock market value of $311 billion.

The End of An Era: Partnership with Tata Replaces Oxford-Cambridge Alliance

While in the past, Oxford had delivered all of its admissions tests through the Cambridge Admissions Assessment Testing (CAAT), this partnership has ended, as CAAT has decided to withdraw its admissions testing over the next two years. Whereas typically, CAAT has focused on short, snappy exams to assess candidates, Tata will adopt a blended approach featuring work sample submissions and timed assessments depending on the topic of study.

Both past and present assessment styles not only gauge the knowledge of prospective students, but also their potential for academic growth and development. Oxford University seeks students who can think critically, adapt to new challenges, and engage in independent research and study. The admissions exams help identify individuals who possess these qualities, enabling the university to create a diverse and intellectually vibrant community of students. By employing standardized assessments, the university can evaluate candidates consistently, irrespective of their educational backgrounds or other factors. This approach helps to mitigate any potential biases and ensures that admissions decisions are based on merit and intellectual capability. Thus, a capable and trustworthy partner is a necessity in delivering these exams, making sure that all prospective and hopeful Oxford applicants have a fair shot at displaying their skills and knowledge.

AI Used to Vet Oxford Candidates

By partnering with TCS, Oxford University seeks to tap into the company's expertise in data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation to revolutionize the admissions process and improve its efficiency. TCS' technological solutions can handle large volumes of applications, significantly reducing the administrative burden on the admissions staff and ensuring a streamlined and expedited process. By automating these processes, admissions staff can focus more on the qualitative aspects of the application review process, such as evaluating essays, recommendations, and conducting interviews. This shift allows for a more personalized and in-depth assessment of candidates, theoretically resulting in a fair and comprehensive evaluation.

One of the significant advantages of TCS' involvement lies in the application of advanced algorithms to analyse applicant profiles. By leveraging data analytics, TCS can identify patterns and trends in applicant data, allowing for a more comprehensive and holistic evaluation of candidates. This data-driven approach goes beyond traditional evaluation methods, enabling the identification of exceptional candidates who may have been overlooked or undervalued in the past.

Using AI and machine learning algorithms, TCS can help identify qualities, skills, or potential in candidates that may not be immediately apparent through traditional assessment methods. This technology can uncover hidden talents and potential, ensuring that deserving candidates receive the recognition they deserve.

Digital Automation an Imperfect Solution to an Overworked Admissions Process

However, while the collaboration between Oxford University and TCS presents itself as a progressive step forward, this may not have the intended effect that the administration is lauding as a novel and superior approach to education and test delivery.

The move comes at a time when governments and companies are increasingly tetchy about internationalized supply chains, given the increase in geopolitical tensions and rise of populism over the past decade. Firms are increasingly looking to “onshore” the creation and delivery of their products and services, rather than the trend toward offshoring that characterized much of global economic development after the fall of the Soviet Union. Outsourcing Oxford admissions to a foreign company is a move that goes against the grain, and promises to ignite concerns about objectivity and quality of assessment whether or not they are valid.

Some of the existing Oxford assessment methods have been unchanged for centuries. Data-forward techniques are an unwelcome change for some.

Furthermore, the use of advanced algorithms and data analytics may introduce new biases into the admissions process. Algorithms are not inherently neutral; they are developed by humans and can perpetuate existing biases and inequalities. If the algorithms used by TCS are not carefully designed and regularly audited, they could inadvertently favor certain demographics or reinforce systemic inequalities. Oxford has already faced criticism for their purported elitist bias. The reliance on technology should not overshadow the need for fair and equitable admissions practices.

Speaking about the partnership, Oxford’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Samina Khan emphasized that switching to “wholly digital delivery and marking” was an important step in modernization. Yet the automation of administrative tasks, whilst more efficient, could lead to a depersonalized and impersonal experience for applicants, especially with the all-important Oxford interviews already being moved online for the next five years. By reducing the workload of admissions staff, there is a risk of losing the human touch and personalized attention that students deserve. It is crucial to strike a balance between streamlining processes and maintaining a human-centric approach to ensure that applicants are not treated as mere numbers.

These concerns extend to study at Oxford too. If the University were to adopt TCS’ educational tools for undergraduate teaching too, such as personalized learning platforms and virtual classrooms, the student experience could end up far more impersonal and detached. While technology can enhance learning, it should not overshadow the importance of face-to-face interactions, critical thinking, and collaborative learning, which are integral to a well-rounded education.

While the partnership between Oxford University and TCS promises innovation and advancement, there are valid concerns regarding the overreliance on data analytics and automation, the potential to introduce further biases, and the influence that a deeply commercial foreign consulting company may have on a very delicate component of the broader UK educational framework. The debate between tradition and modernity – and the place of Oxford in the 21st century – is far from over.

Tata Consultancy Services offices. The firm employs over 600,000 people and earns over $27bn in revenue annually.