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Black students deserve better from Oxbridge

London Evening Standard, 8 December 2011

Last year, only one Afro-Caribbean British student was accepted at any of Oxford‘s 38 colleges to study as an undergraduate. Only 27 British students from any origin defining themselves as black were admitted as undergraduates.

This, along with other similarly disquieting information, has been uncovered by David Lammy MP through a series of freedom of information requests.

Through him, we now know that more than 20 Oxbridge colleges made no undergraduate offers to black British candidates of Afro-Caribbean descent last year and that Merton College has not admitted a black student for the past five years — and just three in the past decade.

The colleges have their own rationale for the figures. Black students apply disproportionately for the three most oversubscribed undergraduate courses — economics and management, medicine and maths — which, says a spokesperson, “goes a very long way” to explaining the stats. This is staggeringly complacent.

Their explanation suggests this is just a procedural problem — if more black students applied to study divinity or classics there’d be nothing to worry about. Worse, that as a consequence of this the lack of successful black candidates is the fault of black students themselves and not the colleges.

Let me offer another explanation: this is what racism looks like. I’m very aware that no individual or institution likes to be called racist. It’s a potent term open to misinterpretation. That’s why I’ve developed a straightforward racism detection test. Judge the action not the justification.

For instance, yesterday Pizza Hut issued an apology after a group of black Bournemouth Football Club players eating in their local branch of the chain were told they would have to pay in advance of their meal “because of the way you look”.

A Pizza Hut spokesperson insisted that the incident “was not racially motivated” but it certainly looked like the players were discriminated against because of the colour of their skin.

The same is true at Oxbridge, where the figures speak plainly of a pattern of discrimination against black students. The colleges talk of selecting the “best and brightest students, regardless of background”. But that’s not what they practice.

In the past two years, Oxford has held nine “access” events at Eton while last year turning away almost all of the 292 black applicants who achieved three A grades at A-level.

But why does this matter? After all, it’s not as if promising black students are owed a place at Oxbridge by right.

It matters because it shouldn’t be too much to ask that Oxford and Cambridge, which between them receive around £400 million a year of public money, do their job and actively go in search of the most able candidates from across the whole of society rather than shrugging their shoulders and perpetuating the status quo.

In not doing so the suspicion has to be that they believe this will make them weaker, not stronger, institutions when in fact the opposite is the case for the colleges and for Britain itself, which, by extension, will only benefit.

Two years ago, when Barack Obama was elected President, there was heady talk about how we were living in a post-racial age. The figures dug up by David Lammy suggest otherwise. They show that potential among young Britons is still going unrealised for reasons of prejudice alone. We are all the poorer for that, regardless of background.

From the London Evening Standard, 09 December 2010

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