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Moving the dialogue surrounding Oxbridge BME students beyond Lammy’s ‘social apartheid’ narrative

“Social apartheid”, “fiefdoms of privilege”, “centuries of entrenched privilege” – such are the damning, yet also all too familiar, condemnatory remarks recently aimed at Oxford and Cambridge by MP David Lammy. According to Lammy: “Only one in four Cambridge colleges made offers to black British students in every year between 2010 and 2015 […] And each year over that period, a quarter of colleges failed to make any offers at all to black British applicants”.

Whilst this paints a highly problematic picture of Oxford, Lammy’s almost sole placement of responsibility upon Oxbridge for their “social apartheid” is simplistic. For instance, he disregards then Oxford’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Dr Sally Mapstone’s response to his accusation of discrimination against black applicants in 2010: “Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44 percent of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17 percent of all white applicants”. His analysis seems to lack a consideration of various factors which complicate the matter, and he conveniently downplays the influences of the educational systems that precede university entry. 

What Lammy’s comments do effectively is bring to light is a view of Oxbridge potentially shared by much of society at large – and most worryingly, by generations of future BME students

Equally, however, Oxbridge need to recognise that much of the onus is on themselves to make their environments more inclusive. They must combat the unconscious (and possibly even conscious) biases of tutors and admissions officers that potentially sway success rates amongst BME applicants. A reconsideration of how to render their spaces less white-dominated and more diverse – take Oxford’s History faculty, which only this year decided to introduce a compulsory non-European (or non-white) paper into the curriculum – is necessary. Lammy’s argument is often lacking in nuance, but his points cannot be dismissed. What his comments do effectively is bring to light is a view of Oxbridge potentially shared by much of society at large – and most worryingly, by generations of future BME students who could thrive at Oxbridge yet will be deterred from applying from a belief in the universities’ “social apartheid”. 

The University’s admissions statistics from 2016 state that “Oxford’s ethnic mix is not dramatically out of line with either the national picture or its peer institutions”, citing 12 percent of its 2015 intake as BME students, in comparison to 15 percent in the Russell group. What the statement attempts to convey is that three percent is not that significant a difference – yet when one considers the number of students this must involve, it becomes a matter not to be skimmed over (although it does also raise the question of why Oxbridge alone are constantly the targets of accusations of discriminating admissions processes). Nonetheless, what concerns me the most is the self-justifying tone adopted by Oxford’s assertion – as though not being “out of line” is what matters; as though these BME students are just numbers; as though they are not real individuals who may have struggled with the idea of applying to Oxford. 

Ironically though, Lammy himself contributes to reinforcing this “social apartheid” that he lambastes Oxbridge for creating. In labelling them as “the golden ticket to a job in our top professions” and focusing only on these two universities, he dangerously and excessively elevates the idea of ‘Oxbridge’ into something almost sacred (which it most certainly is not). Downplaying the brilliance of many other universities nationwide, he contributes to constructing an image of the two universities as something almost dizzyingly unattainable (again, which they are not), especially for BME students. 

Too much of the dialogue surrounding diversity and Oxbridge disregards the individual stories of BME students who have actually attended these universities and enjoyed and flourished on the academia and friendships they found there.

In an attempt to counter such notions, Oxford’s ACS (African Caribbean Society), for example, is involved in much access work, some in collaboration with the Oxford University Admissions and Outreach Department. ACS’s access officer states that “applications from black students to Oxford have actually increased by 24.1 percent since the ACS developed its access framework at the university”, citing the Visions Programme, Shadowing Day, and Annual Access Conference as examples of such, with the latter two aimed at “demystifying Oxford and reassuring students that Oxford is a space for them”. ACS’s work is admirable and clearly effective. But is this enough? 

My college, St Catherine’s, is involved with reaching out to students at schools in various regions, especially Northern Ireland. Whilst valuable, combatting socioeconomic or regional disadvantage does not necessarily involve tackling the equally problematic (and too often intertwined) issue of an image of Oxford hostile to the applications of BME students. In a university in which the admissions process and the students’ lives centre so much around the individual colleges, surely it is naïve to assume that the university-wide initiatives alone will allow prospective BME applicants to progress from hesitation to imagining life in an Oxford college. In light of this, Lammy does propose valid initiatives, such as urging Oxbridge to “writ[e]to every single student who gets 3 As in August each year, encouraging them [… to] apply to Oxbridge”. Although equating academic success with Oxbridge attendance is still somewhat problematic, the scheme could be effective in influencing those who would avoid applying out of a lack of confidence. 

I admit I have often struggled with issues surrounding race and culture here – but at the same time, I have genuinely loved my time here. Too much of the dialogue surrounding diversity and Oxbridge disregards the individual stories of BME students who have actually attended these universities and enjoyed and flourished on the academia and friendships they found there. According to the ACS’s Access Officer, “what makes ACS effective is the fact that while we work in collaboration with the university on our programmes, they are still entirely student-run because we recognise the importance of and feel extremely passionate about putting the black Oxford student at the forefront of the narrative”. If this is the attitude contributing to the increase in black applicants, it becomes clear that continuing to shift the dialogue towards one that treats BME students as individuals, rather than mere statistics and constant victims of “social apartheid” narratives, is necessary to reassure future BME applicants that they belong as much as anyone else. 

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