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In the national and international imagination, Oxbridge is the ideal type of British higher education. ‘What it does is amplified, domestically and internationally. “That’s unfair, says Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, speaking at the Race Equality Question Time held at Oxford University. ‘It’s unjust that the world’s eyes are focused on Oxford…but that’s the price to pay for being at such a good university.” For issues like race, this is especially acute.

But Oxford’s ‘image problem’, and how this image may embody inaccessibility is not just a ‘black issue’, it’s a social issue. It is unacceptable that out of c. 3000 new undergraduates this year, only 32 will be of black or mixed-race origin. But this does not mean Oxford is racist, nor that the admissions policy should be made favourable to those of African Caribbean origin. Problems of access apply in various measure to worthy and intelligent white, black, Asian, and other working-class or disadvantaged people.

The Oxford Race Equality Question Time, held by the Runnymede and the Oxford African Caribbean Society (May 3rd), brought to the fore repeated concerns (but in a progressive light) – suggesting that things can, and things are, being done.

To potential BME applicants, and to the wider public, Oxford is not proportionally representative of society, nor does it seem that worthy, criteria fulfilling applicants are receiving deserved offers. Racist? Misleading? Society’s fault, not ours? In this, we risk the wrong analysis, leading to the wrong diagnosis, and the wrong prescription. The issue of black access to Oxford (and for that matter, Russell Group universities), is not of admittance policy, but symptomatic of inequalities within wider society. It is a matter of primary and secondary education and, more broadly, the issue of social inequality.

Three key questions emerge: a) are black students achieving top grades? b) are they applying for Oxford? c) if applying, are they getting in? Most recent admittance figures (cf. Guardian (18/12/11) – “14% increase”) focus upon question (c) without considering more broadly the roots of acceptance percentages and the wider picture.

Unequal educational experience across different bands of society reflects socio-economic and structural inequalities across Britain. These inequalities, in large part, determine the opportunity structures, knowledge, advice, quality teaching, access, funding, referential role models and encouragement available for disadvantaged students. BME candidates, despite often very similar – or even better – academic credentials than their more privileged, or white, counterparts, will fail to get in, as they may lack the soft skills and range of experiences necessary to make the ‘right’ impression.

Blatant ‘positive discrimination’ to keep the numbers up, however, is the wrong prescription. In my view, Oxford only has the responsibility to keep the application procedure fair for all of those who apply regardless of ethnic origin, sexuality, gender, [dis]ability or background. This does not take the university off the hook, for this fairness has yet to be achieved. Ultimately, however, Oxford can’t change the opportunity structures and education standards in the cities, boroughs and schools which BME students and applicants come from. These are deep-rooted and historic social issues immanent within trajectories of class and immigrant cultures that society must seek to address.

Taking steps

I do, however, believe, that one factor rarely accounted for is the personal decisions made by tutors deciding those who are and are not admitted. As Trevor Phillips pointed out, studies have indeed shown that ‘[w]hen black students present themselves, they ARE less likely to be admitted.’ Indeed, it was only four years ago that compulsory training for interviewers was introduced. Calls for universities to embrace the notion of ‘potential’ given differential social capital is one proposed solution. But such changes and training does not ‘wipe’ prejudice. This does not wipe what an individual finds more amenable in any applicant, be it the way they speak, look, argue, reason. Training does not stop very personal decisions being made.

The fact is that society is self-perpetuating. These inequalities of access and opportunity exist and take their toll long before a black (or, for that matter, ‘relatively disadvantaged’) potential applicant even comes to think about applying. That said, Oxford and its tutors can learn to appreciate potential and be reflexive about the personal decisions admissions tutors make. As a product of these choices, Oxford then suffers from an even further problem, one often elided – that of life experience in a community where there are only another 31 people ‘like you’. If young BME people don’t see representation, the weighty pejorative image will be hard to shake. Something has to change.

Joshua Oware is a student at Jesus College, Oxford and Vice President of the Oxford University African Caribbean Society. 

 

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6 Comments

  1. James
    May 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm — Reply

    I hear this all the time: Oxbridge admits too many privately educated people, and they’re all white-British. My reply is this, so?

    If it isn’t the bitter, jealous Socialists hating on those who have the luxury of private education (whose parents, or grandparents have worked hard to pay for), then it is the ‘liberal’-left complaining that Oxbridge is too white. Too white? Oh, there’s a lovely piece of double standards. How about this, The University of Cairo is too Arab. “Wait a minute! You can’t say that! That’s racist!” would be the probable response from the ‘liberal’-left.

    The fact of the matter is, people get into Oxbridge on merit. Yes, more private school pupils are admitted, but that’s because private schools are better than state schools. Considerably. Thus those with the best grades are going to be admitted.

    For those who believe that Oxford has an “image problem”, what’s the problem? Finely dressed, polite, highly educated boys and girls? If so, take your class prejudice, which is embedded in double standards, and stick it somewhere else.

    Is it the white’s fault that the black population of the United Kingdom has the highest levels of underachievement and crime? Well, it depends what disillusioned leftist you speak to. But to any person who yields common sense, the answer is a profound no.

    Is there a problem with Oxbridge’s admissions? NO. Is there a problem with pathetic, disillusioned, leftist buffoons who a) don’t know what they’re talking about 98% of the time, and b) have despicable double standards? YES.

    • mmoon
      May 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm — Reply

      Dear sir, your opinion actually undermines your argument that public schoolboys are polite able and reasonable, no one here is arguing whether the people at oxbridge deserve their places, if you try enough you’ll get in even from state schools. at least the fees aren’t an obstacle at any rate.
      again you are wrong to suggest that because of the black population has a higher rate of crime and underachievement, afro-carribean maybe? its a social mobility issue and it’s a culture issue, not a race issue, you can change and adapt to a culture, you cannot however change your race/colour.

      however i do agree with your point on that whilst this country has a high level of social mobility people seem to ignore what they have and expect more.

  2. Hashim Iqbal
    May 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm — Reply

    I think, there is a fine balance which needs to be struck on this issue of ‘Positive Discrimination’, particularly at University Level. Whilst it has been very easy in the past to take a causal and absolutist approach to university place, there has since been more emphasis on a more relative approach, where ‘potential’ and ‘enthusiasm’ is measured.
    It’s a step in the right direction, but there is a very real risk of reverting to a more unequal method of offering places where BME’s are accepted for the sake of being BME’s. It doesn’t help when people, like the PM offer false statistics on the matter, or when the Media takes a very prescriptive approach to the issue and often criticises Universities for their ‘lack of progress’ of Social Equality.
    I do however sympathise with concept where, Greater Social Equality should be stressed, and achieved much earlier in the academic life of students, long before they apply University. It would ease the pressure off universities and be of far greater benefit in the long run.

  3. […] Oxbridge student makes a very pertinent point on societal racism: “The fact is that society is self-perpetuating. These inequalities of access and opportunity […]

  4. Greg
    May 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm — Reply

    Some questions:

    Is there evidence to suggest that worthy, criteria fulfilling BME applicants are not receiving offers?
    What does the author mean by the “right” impression?
    Is it the role of the university to fix society’s wider issues?

    Like every other university in the country, there will be students of all types of personalities. In Oxford, there are students with wide variety of soft skills, from hermits to party animals. As a current BME student, I find these discussions fascinating.

    From an undergraduate perspective, there is also an interview system where a candidate has more than one interview, usually at different colleges with multiple interviewers present at each interview.
    This should mean that there are multiple opinions of at least four interviewers per application.

    It is widely known that BME applications are heavily skewed towards certain subjects (medicine, law, engineering and so on). Even for these subjects, the following information may be interesting:
    How many BME applicants apply?
    What percentage of BME applicants are invited to interviews?
    What percentage of BME applicants receive offers?
    What percentages of BME applicants meet the offers?
    Is it different for other groups?

    Often, it is the overall numbers that are thrown about. 31/3000 for “black” students. These should be treated with a pinch of salt.What about other “minority ethnic” groups? Are they doing better?

    When I got here, I met other bright, focused BME as well as white students and I am having a fantastic learning experience. The tutorial system is brilliant and there is an opportunity to do anything you are interested in, from sports to academic, politics to BME campaigns. It is an incredible opportunity.
    Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
    The first step is students on target to achieving AAA or A*AA to fill the UCAS form and select University of Oxford or University of Cambridge. Until then, other universities will continue to poach talented BME students.

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