Neil Tanner (1930-2008) was a Physics Fellow at Hertford from 1960 to 1997. He acted as Tutor for Admissions from 1965, in which role he developed and pioneered the famous Hertford admissions plan known as the ‘Tanner scheme’.
Former students of Tanner have paid tribute to his enthusiasm, encouragement and dedication. Speaking at his memorial in the college chapel in 2009, his friends, colleagues and family members had much to say about Neil the man, the scientist and the access champion.
His achievement in rising from inner Melbourne lower middle class background to Oxford don in an era when few Australian kids went to university, much less to Oxford, is truly extraordinary.
Lindsay Tanner, Neil’s nephew
Neil Tanner was my Physics tutor in the first and second years at Hertford and one of the kindest people I have ever met. He was funny, engaging, extremely intelligent and also a little bit bonkers. He had a quirky style which I immediately warmed to. He was caring and concerned about his students’ welfare. I remember being desperately upset in my first year about not being able to understand the mathematics as well as the rest of my physics cohort, or so it seemed to me, and he gave up his time to give me extra tutorials until I finally understood. When I thought I couldn’t achieve, he told me to believe in myself, and that support and encouragement countered the self-doubt. He was inspirational and I’m proud to have had such a wonderful man as a tutor.
Lucie Burgess (Physics, 1993)
In his academic life, Neil supervised an expanding group of students exploiting new ion beams and new detectors such as multigap spectrometers to explore the theory of the Giant Dipole Resonance and resonance fluctuations. During the 1960s interest in pion physics brought him to the Synchro-Cyclotron accelerator at CERN.
Neil was also a staunch supporter of the boat club, and is commemorated with an eights boat named after him.
Neil Tanner had received a scholarship which enabled him to study Physics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1953. Coming from a relatively poor Australian family, Neil understood the difficulties faced by less wealthy students in accessing higher education.
Neil had experienced himself how important a good university education was to opening the door to almost limitless opportunities, whatever your background. He wanted others to benefit in the way he had.
Robin Devenish, Emeritus Fellow
When Neil became Tutor for Admissions at Hertford in 1965, the admissions process overwhelmingly favoured applicants from public schools. At that time applicants had to sit an Oxford entrance exam, which required the candidate to take an extra term at sixth form to sit. This exam also required a higher level of knowledge than that taught at A-level, and was thus weighted towards those who could pay for extra tutoring.
In light of this, Neil developed the ‘Tanner scheme’ (‘Hertford scheme’) for admissions. Along with college fellows Peter Ganz and Jim Murray, Neil investigated and visited state grammar schools which had never before sent any candidates to Oxford, asking their headmasters to put forward their best pupils. These pupils were then interviewed early, outside the standard application process, and could be offered a place at Hertford without having to sit the exam, as long as they achieved two Es at A-level.
This was designed to level the playing field, giving state-schooled students a realistic chance of an Oxford education at a time when their presence at the university was virtually non-existent. Supported by the Principal and the Governing Body, Neil continued this scheme until the university brought an end to early entrance in 1984.
Raising Hertford’s academic profile
Many Oxford colleges had a well-known profile and were able to offer financial awards and scholarships to attract bright students, which Hertford couldn’t compete with.
The college had suffered from poor academic performance in the early 1960s, but the Tanner scheme allowed Hertford to rocket from the bottom of the college rankings to the top in only a few years, with the highest number of firsts and seconds combined of any college throughout much of the late 1960s.
Building a progressive reputation
In 1965, a large numbers of schools became comprehensive, in an attempt to equalise the schooling system and move away from the 11+ exam.
Hertford’s links with schools which had not previously sent pupils to Oxbridge enabled it to attract a large comprehensive school intake, which in turn attracted the attention of the press and gave Hertford a ‘progressive’ reputation.
The scheme also, less pleasantly, attracted the opprobrium of the wider university, as Hertford’s roaring success also attracted better public school candidates. This came to a head when the university threatened to disassociate Hertford for its unique admissions process. However, supported by Governing Body and the Principal, Sir Geoffrey Warnock, Neil called their bluff, and in the years that followed, the ‘Hertford scheme’ became widely emulated and admired within the university as a whole.
The scheme was forced to end in 1984 due to university rules which demanded uniformity across admissions. This was a great blow to Hertford as a whole, but especially to Neil who had evolved such a successful system over 21 years. The Vice-Principal of the time criticised the move as removing the one truly successful access scheme that Oxford had developed over the preceding years.
However, the success of the scheme led to other Oxford colleges re-assessing their traditional admission methods.
Hertford remains committed to increasing its comprehensive intake, and continues to work towards these ends. We can now boast one of the largest state school contingents in Oxford, as well as being one of the first to appoint an Outreach Fellow.