By Jessica Warren
Oxford and Cambridge Universities; two of the most prestigious in the world, and yet they face a persistent critique of elitism, almost since their establishment. Thinking about the classic Oxbridge student, and a white male from a private school in the south-east of England is pretty much the stereotype. Although it may seem a humorous typecast, the reality that 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not grant a place to a black British pupil in 2015 is appalling. Whilst Cambridge performed little better, there were still six colleges that failed to welcome any black British A-level students in the same year, raising important questions around elitism.
The conversation on ethnic diversity in these institutions was re-kindled by Labour MP, David Lammy, who requested the ethnicity data from Oxford and Cambridge in 2016. Where Cambridge offered it immediately, Oxford finally released it this month, after refusing to publish detailed breakdowns of admission decisions by ethnic group, despite many repeated requests by Lammy. With Oxford only part publishing this data, by combining all black people into one group, it brings into question whether the university is purposefully being evasive in dealing with this widespread elitism, rather than providing a breakdown of the data, in order to understand the complexity of the situation.
When looking at the data, the facts are inescapable. Numerous colleges in both universities will frequently admit cohorts with not a single black student. Around 1.5% of all offers are made to black British applicants, which shockingly compares to over 80% of offers made to children of the top two social classes. Additionally, offers are overpoweringly made to students based in London and the ‘home counties’, giving a large South-East bias basis to the Oxbridge cohort, and evidencing the exclusion of whole regional demographics. Furthermore, the number of students with a private school education is a joke, and hardly representative of the nation. Arguably, these two powerful symbols of higher education in the UK barely represent the national demographic of students. We aren’t all rich, white and from the south.
Another consideration to make is how bland university life would be, being surrounded only by students of a similar background. If anything, it weakens the educational environment, as cultural homogeneity, in race, class or region, cannot provide challenging viewpoints to the status quo and offer new perspectives. Where Oxford and Cambridge value academic achievement over everything else, this should push them to gain a diverse intake of students. After all, not every intelligent student had a private education in south England. Lammy also provided data on the many high-achieving students across these under-represented regions around the UK when looking at Oxbridge offers. Yet what Lammy fails to acknowledge in these ethnicity and regional statistics is applications.
More specifically, why there is a shortage of high achieving, black and ethnic minority students applying to study at Oxbridge, a reflection of the systematic issues within the school system in the UK that do not encourage more students to apply to these prestigious institutions. As students from state schools are fed the idea that Oxbridge is not the place for them, private schooled students are told they have some sort of entitlement to these desired places. Clearly a change is needed in the mentality of students and teachers alike. Yet changing just your mentality is not enough, some would argue that it is the role of the government to help teachers recognise and inspire students who show high potential. In doing so, teachers can help support their students with the admissions process, rather than discouraging them from applying.
Oxbridge cannot become less elitist overnight, but what it can do is make changes to the way they operate, in order to encourage a more diverse range of students to apply. Some are pushing for the admissions system to become centralised rather than college based, ensuring the instance where a third of Oxford colleges did not offer a single place to a black student never occurs again. Even writing to high-achieving students across the country, encouraging them to apply, has been suggested. Whatever the action, encouraging the brightest minds across the country to apply should be the aim. In doing so, Oxford and Cambridge can begin to dismantle their elitist label.