Earlier this month David Lammy MP highlighted the problem of the low number of black students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge Universities and called it the ‘Oxbridge Whitewash’. He wrote in the Guardian (6 Dec):
“Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year. That is not a misprint: one student. Merton College, Oxford, has not admitted a single black student for five years. At Robinson College, Cambridge, a white applicant is four times more likely to be successful than a black applicant. Last year, 292 black students achieved three A grades at A-level and 475 black students applied to Oxbridge. Applications are being made but places are not being awarded.”
Not content to take the ex-Labour Higher Education Minister’s word for it (and wondering why he hadn’t addressed this when he was in Government) I conducted my own research. Here are the statistics on student admissions based on ethnicity for Oxford and Cambridge (PDF) University respectively.
Whilst Mr Lammy mentioned that only one British ’black Caribbean’ student was admitted to Oxford last year, he failed to mention that 23 ‘black Africans’ were, as were 3 ‘black other’. Alright, I would concede that 27 black undergraduates out of an intake of 2,653 still does not look good, so I enquired of Pro-Vice Chancellor Sally Mapstone what Oxford intends to do to improve the situation. She wrote back:
“These points are all in active discussion and will be resolved during the course of the next term. At present there is no indication on the government’s part that quotas will be introduced.”
Her response in the Guardian (9 Dec) to Mr Lammy’s original charges can be found here.
Cambridge University, on the other hand, did not do that much better with a total admission of 28 black undergraduate students in 2009 i.e., one better than Oxford. However one must also bear in mind that 17% of students were of unknown ethnic background. On their website one can also find programmes such as GEEMA (Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications) with their events and tours for Year 12 students.
Then on 22 December, the Sutton Trust released their own report on admissions to English universities (PDF) focusing on young people from less privileged background. Approximately 5.5% of students who are entitled to free school meals (FSM) go on to an English University. Of the universities, they found that London universities fared best, with 5.5% of students at Kings College London being FSM students (as opposed 0.8% at Oxford and Cambridge, 0.9 % at Bristol and 1% at Exeter and Durham Universities).
These findings of the Sutton Trust could not be more timely with the impending introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012. Their recommendations to counter the growing social divide include:
- requiring the Coalition Government’s new National Scholarship Programme to assist FSM students to be extended to more outreach work by universities;
- an independent Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to oversee higher education; and
- Universities agreeing targets with the OFFA for measures to widen participation and appropriate sanctions for failure to meet those targets.
Curiously some of these points, in particular sanctions and the withholding of funding, have been the subject of discussion amongst some EMLD members. We are debating whether to bring a motion to Spring Conference on the subject (which has prompted in part this blog to test the waters).
Speaking personally, I believe elite Universities need to recognise the important role and responsibility they have in influencing social mobility. However we cannot view the low admission figures as wholly their fault. The more fundamental question to address is why there are not more students from State schools who attain AAA grades at ‘A’ levels.
I also agree with the journalist, Michael White that it is not so much a problem with race as with class and aspirations. Hence funding for programmes such as ‘Aim Higher’ need to be bolstered rather than axed, and State schools and FE Colleges adequately resourced so that they are able to identify and prepare their brightest students to pursue higher education at UK’s premier Universities.
Merlene Emerson is a graduate of Kings College London and postgraduate at Clare Hall Cambridge; Candidate for London Assembly 2012