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.
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.