Opinion: In pursuit of excellence

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

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  • 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’.

    Cos all black people look the same?

    For complex sociological reasons certain ethnic groups are more disadvantaged than others with in the same social class, it is this that concerns Lammy, with particular respect to his own ethnic background, as is hardly surprising.

    To be honest, even given the eagerness to embrace Toryism, I’m surprised that Liberal Democrats are so keen to whitewash racial issues.

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Dec '10 - 1:58pm

    The number of black students accepted is not, in itself, a meaningful number. We also need to know the number who applied.

    This is important: in a significant number of cases, apparent biases in university acceptance rates have turned out to be simply because students from different demographics were making radically different choices. Arguably there’s still an issue with that, but it means you have to look in a completely different place to find out why it’s happening.

    The response in the Guardian indicates that this is happening on a national level, and suggests that the problem is related to poor levels of attainment in A-levels, so we should be looking much earlier on in the education system. This does not look like a problem with universities, it looks like a problem with schools.

  • Grant Williams 26th Dec '10 - 2:09pm

    I remember from the 1980s show “Yes, Prime Minister!” a series of definitions; “Under consideration” meant it was irretrievably lost. “Under active consideration” meant that someone was trying to find it. I think one can draw one’s own conclusions from Oxford having matters “under active discussion”.

    I too concur with Michael White’s opinion. When I was 16, my father thought I should do an apprenticeship at some engineering concern, much as he had before he did his National Service. The schools careers mob were just about as helpful, admitting some weeks after I did one of their psychometric tests that they’d lost it. Definitely “under consideration” as they showed not the faintest hint of being bothered by the fact. I bumbled into Polytechnic, spent a couple of years feeling out of my depth before shuffling off to find a job. In the end I made it, twelve years of part-time studying getting me a BA and LLB and an LLM, largely because I’m almost as stubborn as I’m ugly. Life might have been rather more comfortable had I made it first time around, and from that viewpoint I can empathise with the FSMs who don’t get to realise their potential.

    It’s not JUST about putting money into various programmes. It is rather more about students’ aspirations, and also sometimes about raising those of parents and teachers too. What I found shocking as a governor of three comprehensive schools over the past twenty years or so is how little things appear to have changed. There almost seems to be a resentment of success, regardless of how well deserved it may be. In my experience, this is particularly pronounced in the traditional “blue collar” areas, but almost as prevalent amongst the middle classes too. There is an invisible but nonetheless invidious pressure to conform to the lowest common denominator.

    There is, I find, and element of academic snobbery, not so much from elite university graduates, although some can be somewhat nauseating, but within the teaching profession at all levels. A friend ran an engineering business and wanted a trainee electrician. The job required A level Maths, and he had great difficulty finding anyone to fill the role. Why? Because anyone doing A Level Maths was being constantly informed that University was the only appropriate destination for them.

    My personal view is that everyone should be encouraged to realise their potential. The New Labour goal of 50% of young people going to University needs to be questioned. It may turn out to be the right proportion, or it may not. Focussing on aspirations and potential may conceivably see more people choosing other routes, but only if those routes are seen as being appropriate. I do worry that quotas, penalties and other “stick” type sanctions may send the wrong message. A large metaphorical hammer to smash a few glass ceilings and other invisible barriers is needed too.

    The dreadfully low numbers of FSM students amongst the intakes of elite universities may not be entirely their fault, but then they could do a whole lot more to be encouraging, as indeed could we all. Every year when GCSE and A Level results come out we have debate about “grade inflation” and “dumbing down”. Why don’t we just blow raspberries at the youngsters picking up their results and have done with it? In the 1960s it was possible to qualify as a teacher after a two year course, and to teach without a degree. Now teachers are far better qualified, technology in and out of the schools has opened up many new avenues of learning and both of these factors must have made some difference. Why make people who have just achieved something, often for the first time in their lives, feel inadequate? Why use A level performance as the main tool for determining who does what and where? Why not add a measure of “distance travelled”? Why not acknowledge non-academic achievements that show engagement determination and commitment, and do this BEFORE grades have filtered so many out?

    I look forward to seeing a draft motion, and to an interesting debate.

  • Grant Williams 26th Dec '10 - 2:15pm

    Hey come on “g”, take it easy. “even given the eagerness to embrace Toryism, I’m surprised that Liberal Democrats are so keen to whitewash racial issues” has the hallmarks of being something of a “cheap shot”, and I think that Merlene’s article makes a contribution to a complex subject in a somewhat more thought through manner than your comment implies.

    Belittling and simplyfing someone’s point of view is a classic way of advancing the assumed superiority of one’s own position. It hardly advances us towards a package of measures that may bring about improvements, now does it?

  • Simon McGrath 26th Dec '10 - 2:59pm

    Universities should be colour blind when it comes to admissions which should be done by looking at each candidate as an individual not as part if a group.

  • Using language like “Oxford/Cambridge isn’t doing well at admitting black students” isn’t very helpful. The job of Oxford and Cambridge is to admit the best students among those who apply to their courses. The people who are “not doing well” is the schools and support groups educating black students and counselling them on entering higher education.

    Not only are applications to Oxbridge pretty low for black British students, they are overwhelmingly applications for the most popular courses and the most competetive colleges, making admittance even tougher.

    The key to increasing representation of black British Oxbridge students is encouraging more to apply, and to promote a wider range of courses and colleges so they don’t all fight over one or two places.

  • Simple.

    Bring back grammar schools.

    The nail has been hit squarely on the head – poverty of aspiration. Put bright kids from “non-traditional” backgrounds in an environment that values excellence rather than mediocrity, and watch them fly.

  • Many years ago I used to do Oxford admissions interviews (and have since been tutor for admissions at Royal Holloway and LSE). There was no doubt that when I was doing Oxford interviews I (state school educated), and my fellow interviewer (female, state school educated), would have liked to have let in state school candidates. But in economics and management we had 1 place to offer, and 14 shortlisted candidates. All had 3As, but about half had 4 As, and one had 5As, in a wide range of subjects. We let in the 5As candidate, who was almost most impressive at interview. 3As is borderline these days for a lot of subjects at a lot of top places. How many black students got 4As? The big scandal – for my money – is the way in which British schools, after 13 years of a Labour government pretending to believe in education, education, education – still fails people from poor backgrounds.

    (nb you can’t buy you way in – we rejected a candidate for PPE whose father was an alum and who had donated £10k a year for the previous 20+ years. We ranked his son 9th, and we had 8 places. He applied again the following year, and we rejected him again).

  • I’m sure now that the LibDems have trebled tuition fees, the black kids from south London will be breaking down the doors now at Cambridge and Oxford trying to get in!

    Cue the usual line “You don’t fully understand. Say you have a newly graduated stating on £21k..blah blah £7 a week..yada yada…won’t have to fully pay the loan…etc”


  • Simon McGrath 27th Dec '10 - 1:29pm

    @Larry the main reason why a black person would be put off by the new arrangement is that people like you, the labour party and the nus keep telling them try will have a debt of 27k rather than that it is fairer than the system labour introduced.

  • Jonathan Hunt 27th Dec '10 - 4:15pm

    In many ways, the effect of Oxbridge admissions policies could be termed institutional racism, under the Macpherson defininition. I await replies from Dr Mapstone about real figures, if the ones given by officials of both universities under the Freedom of Information Act are incorrect.

    But as Merlene’s researches show, we are scrching around for ones and twos, which would make little difference to the overall view that current admissions policies discriminate against black people and against many other poorer young people who did not attend pay-schools.

    All the exam results really show is not any real ability of admitted students, but the ability of parents to buy an education that will always be superior to that supplied by the State. That is the point of public schools. They exist to supply something that will achieve better exam results by throwing lots more money at it. New ways of determining real ability have to be devised,

    Some form of handicapping, similar to that used in the dreadful game called golf, needs to be developed to establish a truly level playing field. So the 4A*s obtained at Eton would be equivalent to 3A*s at a comprehensive in Hackney or Southwark.

    In the meantime you use the only sanctions these arrogant academic aristocrats understand, and that is to take away their dosh. The money they receive from the public purse should be based on how much they reflect the make-up of the population.

  • Andrew Suffield 27th Dec '10 - 7:15pm

    “won’t have to fully pay the loan…etc”


    I think this summarizes your position quite nicely: ignore the facts, focus on the headlines.

    Some form of handicapping, similar to that used in the dreadful game called golf, needs to be developed to establish a truly level playing field. So the 4A*s obtained at Eton would be equivalent to 3A*s at a comprehensive in Hackney or Southwark.

    What on earth do you believe the purpose of education is? Surely a more efficient way to accomplish what you propose would be to give each new-born baby a bachelor’s degree automatically.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Dec '10 - 12:25am

    In response to Grant Williams, I, like Tim Leunig, was a university admissions tutor, doing this job for my department for many years. This was at a university which tended to get middling applicants, so I wasn’t dealing with the all grade A A-level students Tim is talking about. Unfortunately, debate in the media seems obsessed by those few universities which can attract at that level. Actually it soon tails off as you move down. As an admissions tutor, my main job was not filtering a surplus of all grade-A applicants, it was desperately trying to fill my places with applicants who had a reasonable chance of completing the degree. I could not afford to be snobbish about background even if I had any inclination to do so.

    One of the biggest problems is that there aren’t enough 6th-formers doing A-level Maths. For all science and engineering degree subjects, and many towards the analytical end of the arts, A-level Maths if not essential is highly desirable. Yet I was forever dealing with applicants who didn’t take A-level Maths, not because they were incapable of it, but because no-one told them it would be far more useful to them than the “vocational” subjects they often ended up doing. The problem with these “vocational” subejcts was that assessment often seemed over-dependent on memorising and reproducing definitions, or fairly mindless work which gave reward for “effort” rather than intellectual insight.

    Universities are accused of being “secretive” or “snobbish” for prefering some subjects over others, but that is not the case. I was forever contacting schools and telling them why some subjects were more useful than others, but they just did not seem to listen. In my case A-level Maths was highly desirable but not essential, yet however we worded it in the prospectus and websites etc, we could not get the right message across. If you put in “Maths required” you lost applicants you would like to have considered and ran the risk of not filling your places. If you didn’t put that in, you got huge numbers of applicants with extremely poor maths (I mean by this grade D GCSE or below), and when you contacted the schools and asked “Why are you sending us so many applicants who quite obviously are unsuited to our course?” they replied “but you did not say Maths was a necessity”.

    All I ever wanted was students who could do well on what we taught, which is mostly fairly practical and oriented towards skills of direct use in employment. If I preferred some qualification over another, it was purely because my analysis of intake qualification against success in the degree suggested one qualification was a better predictor of success than others. The more abstract A-levels were always a better predictor of success than the more “vocational” ones. It was almost always the case that someone with three moderate A-levels including one in Maths did better than someone with three high grades but all in “vocational” A-levels. This was so even though almost none of our curriculum used material taught in A-level Maths. Yet every time one tried to get this through to politicians and educationalists they closed off and simply said we were “snobbish” for preferring some subejcts over others.

    Well, they aren’t the ones having to deal with the student weeping in your office because s/he says “I thought I knew your subject, because I did a vocational qualifications in it, but you cover everything that didn’t, and I can’t cope with it”.

    Regarding grade inflation, sorry Grant, but students with a C in GCSE Maths are at the level I was at in my final year of primary school – a normal state primary school back in the 1960s. Objective tests suggest someone with a grade C in A-level Maths now is about the level of a grade E in the 1970s, a grade A now is equivalent to a grade C then. It doesn’t help when people like you close your minds and accuse us of insulting the kids when we point out what our own tests reveal, as if the truth hurts you.

    As a simple example, I teach computer programming, I don’t do anything mathematical in it, but I do just a little about efficiency analysis, where I can’t avoid having to mention logarithms in talking about performance when some piece of code has an O(log N) or O(N log N) efficiency. I face a huge problem in that half my class have no idea what a logarithm is, so I have to spend time teaching them that rather than what I am supposed to be teaching them.

    One of the biggest problems I face is that the SATs in schools seems to have rendered the students unable to cope with real learning. It has left them obsessed with memorisation and “exam techniques” as opposed to studying a subject because you really enjoy it and want to get into it deeply. They have spent their whole school career doing simplistic tests marked by box-ticking exercises, and they just can’t break away from the way of learning that sort of test encourages. Time and time again I have to deal with students who have obviously put a huge amount of effort into memorising things, or who submit pages of buzz-words linked together by waffle, because that’s what they were encouraged to do at school because that’s how you got through the SATs and the modern dumbed-down GCSEs and A-levels. But it just doesn’t work for my subject.

    I have not found, by the way, that all the new technology in schools has made students any better at my subject. It maybe saves a week or two that we can now assume they have touched a computer and can do basic drop and drag things with it and can use a keyboard. Beyond that, students now are no better at what I teach than students who came to us when I first started who had often never touched a computer. If there’s one thing I’d recommend to schools, it’s “throw away your computers” (I mean the ones used for teaching – they can keep the ones used for their admin). Much of this “technology” in schools is sold by snake-oil salesmen, it is of dubious value or worse. Schools spend lots of money on it because they are clueless about it, but it looks impressive.

  • Andrew Suffield 28th Dec '10 - 1:50am

    Much of this “technology” in schools is sold by snake-oil salesmen, it is of dubious value or worse. Schools spend lots of money on it because they are clueless about it, but it looks impressive.

    I’ll second this one. I’ve seen a lot of schools whose IT purchasing was driven by what the vendor wanted to sell them, follower by a lot of justification after the fact. It has made IT systems in schools a lot more powerful and pleasant to use, but being powerful and pleasant to use does not affect teaching in any discernible way.

    Mind you, that’s the same thing that happens to most government IT projects.

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