The last few weeks has seen the by now annual upswell in righteous frustration at the seemingly ingrained racial prejudice that haunts the dreaming spires of our elite universities. Oxford and Cambridge are under the cosh again for having a somewhat less favourable racial profile than other universities, indeed some colleges at Cambridge admitted either 1, or fewer, black students between 2012 and 2016. This frankly stunning admission, well I say admission but I mean compliance with an FOI request made by the Financial Times, comes hot on the heels of the news that 1 in 4 Oxford colleges accepted precisely no black students between 2015 and 2017.
Now. I’m not an advocate of affirmative action or the loaded nature that those words hold, I believe and hope that within the liberalism of academia we should have moved far beyond race to embrace aptitude and suitability and it is for this reason that I find it staggering that these numbers exist. It feels like a throwback to pre Rosa Parks era America, students will recall to shocked audiences in the future that they were one of only 3 black people in their class and it will seem utterly crazy to the listeners. Like watching old episodes of Tomorrow’s World or perhaps more so, like watching old episodes of Love Thy Neighbour and being stunned that that once represented mainstream thinking.
The universities themselves have fought back, albeit rather limply by holding their hands up as they do every time the argument is broached, saying ‘mea culpa’ ‘lessons must be learned, blah blah, blah ‘ then wheeling out a daunting array of percentages and statistics and comparisons that on first glance may distract you enough to think they are trying to course correct until you get far away enough from the argument and realise they’ve played you like a fiddle and the essential facts haven’t changed. Of course I’m not suggesting this is purely a black vs white issue, this is seemingly a black versus everyone else issue as well but the press seem to be focusing on the most racially divisive language possible to generate headlines. Away from the baiting though the facts remain horribly stark, no matter how you identify be it Chinese or Asian/ Asian- Indian your chances of success are much higher than if you are black. Anyway you cut it, be it an administrative oversight, a flaw in the application system or any other argument it is far beyond a statistical anomaly and cannot be justified by the meritorious argument as it doesn’t hold water.
The biggest gun in their arsenal is the continued insistence that black students simply do not apply in the same numbers as white students and given the make up of the population that makes sense, however the argument crumbles when one considers two factors – the first is that the percentage of those admitted remains woefully low, only 12% of applications will be successful versus 24% for white students similar for other ethnicities and the second is that after years of being dismissed, black students not unreasonably consider the game rigged and apply elsewhere.
The fact that students are put off from even trying is perhaps the nastiest piece of the puzzle, academic rigour and having the chutzpah to see through some of the most demanding academic courses in the world is not for the faint of heart but the notion that it’s ‘not for the likes of us’ should never enter a student’s head. The best and the brightest need to be fostered and encouraged to pursue excellence not meekly accept that their skin colour doesn’t quite marry with the various hues of blue necessary to fit in.
Whether it is true or not, whether this is an unfair characterization of the situation, whether the deans sincerely believe that they are choosing based solely on merit, it stretches credulity to suggest there isn’t an issue. These are universities that are supposed to be the very best of what the UK represents, hallowed places of enlightenment and thinking, free of the shackles and the societal mores outside their Porter guarded doors. Cambridge itself was formed after Oxford suspended itself voluntarily in protest at the rough treatment (they were hanged) of two of its academics following the death of a local woman. Their very beginnings were rooted in the belief that they stood aside from wider society and should be free to think and learn and teach unimpeded, for knowledge has no master. It seems that somehow they flipped that sentiment and landed rather awkwardly on the wrong side of history however and use that gown and town thinking to justify ploughing their own furrow regardless. I used to be proud of the fact that my Grandfather had gone there but I wonder given his farm stock origins whether he’d stand a chance today. (https://edducan.com/2017/06/30/you-cant-always-get-what-you-want-but-if-you-try-sometimes-you-get-what-you-need-how-my-grandfather-got-to-oxford/)
To justify their vaunted position they need to be above reproach, it’s not just enough to offer axiomatic niceties they need to stand foursquare behind the right of every brilliant student regardless of their humble beginnings or their entitlement, their class, their race, and announce to the world that Oxbridge is open to everyone, the playing field is level and if you have the chops they have the room. Sadly at the moment too many people are cravenly fawning at their feet begging for the opportunity to be considered, contorting themselves, bending over backwards just to sniff the seat of power. It’s like a hideous academic version of the X Factor with mewling students throwing themselves prostrate at the feet of the proverbial Simon Cowell. And like Simon Cowell they use that power to seemingly arbitrarily turn their thumb down without any obligation to explain why.
I cannot speak to what is the admissions people’s hearts and I cannot assert with any knowledge that there is genuine bias at play but to maintain their reputations for seeking out excellence and fostering the best and brightest they need to rise far beyond the whiff of this rather seedy set of figures and do so in a way that smacks neither of patronage or condescension. They can feign shock there’s an issue until they are University Blue in the face but until there’s more black ones in the lecture halls it all feels a bit sordid, people have noticed and they need to stop pretending otherwise.