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Racist Spires

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One-third of Oxford colleges admitted no black British students in 2015. Oriel admitted one black British student over a five-year period. What explains these numbers? The Labour MP David Lammy believes that Oxford and Cambridge are engaging in social apartheid; others have blamed the admissions system, suggesting that the early application deadline and the interview process discourage many students from applying. Still others note that black and minority ethnic candidates tend to apply to newer universities in Britain’s big cities – a view that holds black British students responsible for their absence at Oxford and Cambridge.
What is missing here is the experience of the small number of BME students at Oxbridge. A few years ago I commissioned a team of researchers to interview 15 undergraduates at Oxford who were born in the UK to immigrant parents, and 52 of their white peers born to British parents. The results have led me to conclude that the massive under-representation of BME students at Oxford is related to a university culture that does not welcome them, and that BME students share their experiences with prospective undergraduates, which in turn discourages them from applying.
Many BME students the researchers spoke with felt ill-prepared for study at Oxford, despite a tutorial system that should have brought students from lower-performing comprehensives up to speed, as well as other resources, including funds to provide additional training to weaker students. Our interviewees often blamed themselves. Asked to explain the under-representation of black students on campus, one young woman said:

If black people are going to come here and feel left out, then maybe they shouldn’t come here … I personally don’t think I should have got in! Because I’ve had such a hard time. I probably would have been a lot happier in another university. I feel really left out.

Imagine what she’d have to say to a group of sixth-formers at her comprehensive about whether or not to apply to Oxford.
Formal complaints about racism at Oxford were rarely made. When they were, they usually fell on deaf ears. One interviewee explained that social life at Oxford made it impossible to accuse peers of racism:

If there is a group of friends and one of them is black and you pick on that person, and you specifically attack in racial terms as a joke, that’s still racism … You should immediately stop if any individual feels uncomfortable with it.

But it wasn’t straightforward. ‘Will people actually say that they feel uncomfortable,’ he asked, ‘if everyone else is having a laugh?’
Some of the white students we interviewed were adamant that there was no racism at Oxford. One told me complaints about racism were ‘crying wolf’:

And by that I mean doing what they do best, which is, you know, playing the race card, saying: ‘Is it because I’m black?’ That really annoys me, because it is so unfounded in England … You see racism so much in other countries, which we don’t have here.

She gave us that interview in a year in which a group of students attended a party at Oxford in blackface, and another party was themed ‘Bring a Fit Jew’; some of the guests arrived carrying moneybags.
How do you increase the number of black British students at Oxford and Cambridge? Not with blackface parties. An inclusive, welcoming culture – institutionally supported – is the key. But this can only happen with a quorum of ethnic minorities, including black British. Admissions staff need high sensitivity to racial bias, and possibly training, to attenuate the difficulties that minorities seem to experience as they go to interview. Bridge programmes, before the start of the academic year, would be welcome for students with a shakier training than many of their peers. Above all, institutional support for the wellbeing and academic success of minorities needs to be built out into university life. At the moment this commitment exists largely on paper. Only when Oxford and Cambridge succeed in including young Britons from all walks of life will they be what they say they are: world-class universities.


  1. XopherO says:

    The only real solution to the elitist/snobbish/racist/etc Oxbridge would be to close them down and start from scratch as did the new universities of the 60s (better but not perfect!). And convert all private schools to comprehensives. These institutions are symbiotic. Some used to have reserved places at certain Colleges, and perhaps still do but more covertly. My minor (direct grant)school had one and I was chosen to go, but I got fed up of trying to get Latin O Level – the headmaster was furious, and took revenge.
    It would be interesting to know how many students turn down places at Oxbridge – a friend of my son did – he was deterred by the atmosphere he found there and the ‘supercilious’ interview (perhaps it wasn’t but felt like it to an 18 year-old from
    a provincial comprehensive.) He took up a place at Nottm Uni instead.

  2. michael bosley says:

    Broadly speaking, Oxbridge will reflect the values and priorities of the society in which it exists. It is designed to be the training ground for the governing class, and continues to act as the supplier of the majority of Cabinet ministers. In line with the liberalisation of some social attitudes, it has become much more sensitive to criticism of its admissions policies around race and class, but we need only to look around us to see how inequality in the UK has not just persisted, but has sharpened in recent years.

    In that sense, debate around developing “inclusive cultures” at Oxbridge will always be secondary to how inclusive the wider culture is.

    As I posted here not long ago, my argument has long been that we ought to invest the state’s resources into those citizens who are at the receiving end of the worst inequities. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are just about the right size to be turned into centres for the education, mentoring and nurturing of the young people who leave the care system each year….

  3. Adam_Morris says:

    My child attends a highly selective state grammar school. While most parents take the additional form-filling and study for entrance exam and interview in their stride, and the school offers weekly coaching session, a good many still pay for outside help. The school regularly gets a quarter of Year 13s into Oxbridge (mostly STEM subjects).

    It’s not difficult to imagine how anyone unfamiliar with the Oxbridge entrance system would feel confused by and alienated from it. Even parents who understand how to apply may not have the time or resources to help their children over the various hurdles. The system is purposely unfair and anti-meritocratic. And I says this as someone who has benefited from it.

    Other than quotas (which no colleges will accept) the only solution its total transparency in the application process – at a minimum, explain what the various entrance tests are looking for, rather than have bemused students regurgitate A-level style answers.

    To address XopherO’s point: all the students at my daughter’s school know (and are often told by the mostly ex-Oxbridge staff) that a strong non-Oxbridge university (Bristol, UCL, Warwick, Durham, etc.) will provide a better education and a much more enjoyable experience than a lesser, out-of-centre Oxbridge college.

    • michael bosley says:

      You are quite right about the importance of knowing your way through the elaborate admissions procedures. Oxbrdge not only has an earlier application date for prospective students than every other UK university, but a unique multi-college set-up, plus a requirement to register for and take special aptitude exams and later, to attend for interviews.

      My own daughter attended a comprehensive school and had no coaching sessions from her teachers for any of this process. Unlike the other applicants at her school, however, she gained a place. The reason was not that she was brighter than them, or harder working, or knew her subject better. It was simply that *I* had attended Oxford 35 years ago. So I was able to explain the process, and the sort of things that she should focus on, including practising some typical interview questions (“you’ll probably be given a skull and asked to speculate on the animal that it belongs to”, I said – because that’s what I had been faced with. Sure enough, in her second interview, she was handed a skull and asked to speculate on the the animal it belonged to!) In addition to helping her over these very concrete hurdles, she was able to approach Oxford with the sense that “people like us” DO go there.

  4. Roy Madron says:

    I’m reminded of ‘The Toyota Way’ for selecting employees in a highly competitive field. Opening a new facility in the USA there were 13,500 responses to an announcement of their need for 285 entry-level employees. Toyota selected several hundred people by a random selection of those who had expressed an interest and gave them a day’s job-market showing what kind of work they’d do. Those who were still interested filled in a general job application and from those who met minimum requirements a further process of random section produced the first few dozen of new employees. The random selection process was repeated to build up the workforce to the required level. The story goes on as Toyota spent over a year inducting the new employees into the Toyota Way of doing things. Perhaps our universities -and schools for that matter – could learn a lot from the Toyota Way.

  5. Indy Skolar says:

    How amusing! And just yesterday Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of Prince Harry to biracial American actress Meghan Markle. I suppose she would not have been admitted even if she had the academic grades for Oxford. About her academic performance I would not know.

    Well, we Yanks had a biracial president and you Brits had Jewish-born Disraeli; although more than a century apart, it was no less scandalous in most quarters. Would Barack Obama have made it into Oxford in 2017? More likely Disraeli would have done. The USA is deeply racist AS IS THE UK, and claiming anything to the contrary seems to me to be intellectually dishonest, morally corrupt and ethically challenged.

    Even with London having a Muslim Lord Mayor is a rather small step toward diversity and democracy in the UK. (Although anyone is better than that impaired court jester Boris Johnson). Given the rightward shift in US, UK and European politics, to claim the absence of racism is simply laughable. On a par with: “No, no, we are absolutely NOT anti-Semitic.” As we says on this side of the Big Pond … Give Me A Break!

    An Independent Scholar in New York City

  6. Agate says:

    I was at Oxford 25 years ago and I suspect my knowledge is way out of date. I was also at a less traditional college than some I think.

    As a working class grammar school girl, albeit white, I felt that class mattered somewhat more than colour at the time. Maybe I felt that because that was the issue more in my mind of course, although an African prince at my college seemed to fit right in.

    Confidence seemed to matter more than anything else, which is pernicious because that is what anyone, especially a young person straight from school, who feels way out of their usual comfort zone, is going to lack. White public school boys on the other hand, already with a huge sense of entitlement from their upbringing and privilege, are going to have that in spades however unjustified.

    Placing groups from different sections of society together without an acknowledgement that some are there with vast advantages before they start seems, if not perhaps actively racist, sexist or classist, certainly passively discriminatory. I enjoyed Oxford, in the end, but it took me nearly three years to realise that I was not inferior to the more confident upper class types. In retrospect I wasted vast amounts of time believing I was. It was pure perception drawn from youth and inexperience on my part, and though it is a long time ago now I can well imagine that young people these days who for whatever reason are not in the ‘traditional’ categories who go to Oxbridge may feel just as out of place.

  7. fbkun says:

    I doubt very much that the small number of black students at Oxbridge has much to do with institutional racism — or at least that the attitude towards black students (and the jokes they can hear, and the themes of students’ parties) at these universities are very different from what they woud find at Manchester or Brighton.
    The main problem is self-censorship and it is as much (indeed, much more) a social issue as a racial issue. The feeling that you don’t fit in (because you’re from a different world) is nothing new.

  8. Sashimi says:

    I went to Oxford in 1959 in the days when the University was transforming from being a team building camp for men to run the empire (given away by Macmillan during my time) to a place of serious undergraduate study. The colleges were all single sex with just 5 women’s colleges. Women were not admitted to the Union. There were very few ‘ethnic’ students and most of them were princes. A majority of us went through private education.

    Women have at least challenged and beaten the glass ceiling. The Lords used to argue that they would love to admit Ladies, but there weren’t enough loos for them. But little appears to have changed in terms of racial or social diversity. Private schools have morphed from character building sometimes through abuse, to being crammers.

    The State gives Oxbridge a great deal of money. Quotas have worked elsewhere. Why not make grants depend on racial mix or a minimum percentage of students previously on free school meals? It could also look at taxing the massive assets of the Universities. These institutions ‘never die’ (mortmain) unlike individuals subject to a 40% death duty every generation.

  9. Wernard Billiams says:

    I have to say, anecdotally, that the good friend of mine I had at Cambridge who was black was crippled by an inferiority complex – despite the fact that he was extraordinarily capable. Sadly, the upshot was that he mimicked the world that he saw around him, that he and his family had never had, and used his degree in medicine to pursue a lucrative career in the City. He knew that becoming rich, buying ostentatious status commodities, and have an attractive girlfriend were all vain endeavors, but he couldn’t help wanting to prove the racist abuse he had suffered wrong *on the terms of the people doing the abuse*. Needless to say, he never seemed especially happy.

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