2015 10 22 13.04.10Applications by Black Britons to Oxford

John Bowers

Some of the figures revealed in The Guardian on 20 October 2017 about admissions to Oxford are at first surprising and stark, but do they show any “systematic bias” in the admissions process as David Lammy MP has alleged? Should it be radically changed? Is Oxford out of line with other universities?

Diversity in a University is clearly crucial – academic excellence has to be predicated on attracting the best candidates from all backgrounds. If we are missing talent, we are failing to secure the best students. Oxford offers an extraordinary education and it is important that this goes to the most talented and committed students, not to the already privileged or simply the best prepared. Diversity also secures the best conditions for learning – students gain the benefit of a wealth of different outlooks, and learn from each other. 

We cannot however, alone as a University or College, right the wrongs of the whole education system. We too call for improvements in the education system to ensure that all students, whatever their ethnicity or background, fulfil their potential, as the current A level results suggest is failing to happen in too many cases. 

A fact as surprising as David Lammy’s findings is that some 27% of all Oxford students are from BME backgrounds; compared to 13% of UK population. The major problem is clearly with admissions by Black British and Caribbean and this is not an issue confined to Oxbridge (incidentally David Lammy’s figures ignore students of mixed race and international students). We at Oxford spend massive sums on outreach and we genuinely want to be as open as we can be.

We need to consider each of the stages of the admissions process. There are proportionately low numbers of black applicants. There is an issue about the differential rates of failure to accept black British who do apply, but that has to be seen in the context of their applying in bigger numbers for the courses which are more difficult to get into such as Economics and Management or Law (although this may point to the lack of help for pupils as to what subject and College to apply to).

Then there is a significant drop between being given an offer and actually going to Oxford (which is difficult to understand). This may be because these offerees do not gain the predicted grades or they decide to go to a different university. More work needs to be done to understand what is going on here.

The statistics

What is incontrovertible is that the recent Fresher profiles show that general progress is being made at Oxford. Last year the University made significant strides towards meeting its new OFFA targets for admissions of particular groups i.e.

A) To increase the proportion of UK students from schools and colleges which historically had limited progression to Oxford to 15.9%; 2017 outcome for university 16.8% and for Brasenose 22.1%.

B) To increase the proportion of UK students from socio-economically disadvantaged areas (ACORN postcodes 4 & 5) to 9% by 2019; Oxford achieved 10.5% in 2017 and 11.6% for Brasenose

C) To increase the proportion of UK students from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education (POLAR2 quintiles 1 & 2) to 13% by 2019; in 2017 this was 12.9% for Oxford. We at Brasenose missed this target by 1.2% and are redoubling our efforts.

This background makes it clear that the figures cannot be explained by “systematic bias” as David Lammy suggests. If it were, this would be demonstrated in low offer rates which the university has more control over.

Some of the commentary in recent days has been extremely damaging and ill informed. More importantly it is likely to make it harder for Oxford to attract black students. For example, Priya Gopal, writing in the Guardian, said, “It is Oxbridge that must change more substantially to provide a better environment for a diverse student body. The two ancients must be held to account; homogeneity must fall”. Oxford is in fact being held to close account by the OFFA regulator as well as in the court of public opinion. There are however in her article no clear prescriptions about what should be done.

She goes on to say, “In effect the two ancients are running a generous quota scheme for white students, independent schools and the offspring of affluent south eastern English parents”. This is not borne out at all by our recent experience here; in our College this year only nine Freshers out of 106 fit into this stereotype.


What is to be done?

We must not be complacent but what is to be done?

My own view (which recent student referendums indicate is still a minority view in Oxford) is that the University should do away with some of the traditions (such as the wearing of gowns for its examinations) that I believe put people off applying (and this applies to working class white children as well as black Britons). In saying this, I know that many people approve of these traditions but there is some anecdotal evidence from students and teacher friends to suggest that it shows that Oxford is not for “people like us”.

We should also celebrate our black alumni and the moves towards extending the black history syllabus. We should also support Peers of Colour for BME students.

As a College we do reach out to potential applicants. For example, we maintain an active presence on The Student Room and help many prospective applicants who wish to post queries and seek guidance that may not readily be available at their schools. In any given year, we also typically make 250 contacts with schools (visits to a school or hosting a visit here) more than the 190 days in the school year. We also write to target schools thanking them for supporting applicants and encouraging others.

We already harness the fantastic resource of our current students, and they often contact school students at an earlier point in their studies to ensure that they select the right subjects for GCSE and A level. 

Perhaps we should be even more active. It would be possible (although difficult and we would need schools to make it work) to identify pupils from underrepresented groups and write to bright students inviting them to apply. A report by the Nudge Unit indicated that letters composed by current students increased the likelihood that students from target groups would apply by up to 35%.

I strongly endorse this extract from an article by Ellie Gomes: “As a current third-year student at Keble College of ethnic minority and state school background, I would argue that while the statistics presented are shocking, Oxford is not solely to blame … the issue is not about how many students from Eton are at Oxford, it’s about how many students from Eton applied to go to Oxford; it’s not about how many students from ethnic minority backgrounds are at Oxford, it’s about how many of these students applied… In fact, the problem that Lammy highlights can be traced to our education system and the failings of government”.

To conclude, there are in essence three different aspects of this discussion: aspiration, attainment and selection. It is very hard for the University to raise school attainment; we can hope to contribute to raising aspiration; and selection is in our hands. There is no clear evidence that selection is the root problem here (although it may be a factor), which makes David Lammy's accusation of 'apartheid' wholly inappropriate.

There are of course many other – possibly better – ideas we should consider and no-one has a monopoly of wisdom on this very complex subject. We must take the debate forward and I welcome any contributions from readers of this piece.