My experience applying to Cambridge defied all my expectations. The admissions tutors and college fellows were not posh, aloof or stuck up their own arses, but welcoming and warm and — from what I could tell — far from discriminatory. It is true that Oxbridge admits too few black students, but the problem is far more deep-rooted than David Lammy has suggested.
Proportionally, less offers are made to black students than white students applying to Cambridge. In fact, in the 2017 admissions cycle, the success rate for black African applicants was just 17.2 per cent, and only 12.8 per cent for black Caribbean candidates, while the figure stood at 26.2 per cent for white Brits. No one is denying that this is fundamentally unjust.
However, evidence suggests that this disparity does not stem from prejudiced interviewers and Oxbridge white privilege, as Lammy argues. Several other ethnic minority groups had a similar or in some cases even higher success rate than white candidates. For example, last year, the success rate for Chinese applicants was 27.7 per cent. For Indian applicants, it was 23.2 per cent and for Asian-white mixed race applicants, 29.2 per cent.
It is thus hard to argue that Cambridge discriminates against ethnic minorities when making offers. It seems highly unlikely that the admission tutors are biased against black applicants, but not any other ethnic minority.
So why are less black students accepted into Oxford and Cambridge?
For one, black students are statistically less likely to achieve the high A Level grades required to get into an Oxbridge college. However, even among those students who achieve the very top grades, black students are still less likely to get in.
Therefore, I believe the problem also stems from a lack of opportunities in poorer areas and the failure of schools, sixth forms and colleges to foster an ‘Oxbridge mindset’ in their students.
A study carried out by Manchester University reveals that while less than 1 in 12 white people live in a deprived area, the figure for black people is about one in five — the lowest for any ethnic minority. Logically, this means that black Oxbridge applicants are more likely than white applicants to come from deprived areas, such as Hull, Lincolnshire and certain parts of London.
Education standards are lower in impoverished regions. This means even if the black students are academic high achievers, it is unlikely that they are equipped with the sort of intellectual skills which Oxford and Cambridge are looking for. They want applicants to read beyond the curriculum, be able to think independently and analyse critically. Lower-quality schools and sixth form colleges are less likely to provide the type of learning environment which prepare their students for Oxbridge.
And this is also why the Stormzy scholarship is a misguided attempt at diversifying Cambridge. This scholarship, which covers the full cost of tuition fees and also provides a maintenance grant, will be available to two black Cambridge students.
For a start, I think it is unfair to award a such a generous scholarship purely on the basis of race. Why are deprived black students any more deserving than deprived Asian, white or mixed-race students?
Stormzy has said:
‘if funding is one of the barriers [to black students getting into Oxbridge] then we can work towards breaking that barrier down’.
But funding is not one of those barriers — Oxford and Cambridge tuition fees are the same as at any other UK university and they also offer among the most generous bursaries in the country.
Moreover, a scholarship available to students who have already secured their places will do little to improve diversity at Cambridge. The focus should be at grassroots level — improving educational standards first and foremost. To their credit, both Oxford and Cambridge are actually already pouring money into outreach schemes aimed at encouraging students from ethnic minorities and low-income backgrounds, such as Target Oxbridge.
Both Lammy and Stormzy are wrong. Oxbridge does not discriminate against ethnic minorities, and nor do the universities’ fees put black people off from applying — or at least if they do, it is based on an Oxbridge myth, not the reality.
There are proportionally less black students than white students at Oxford and Cambridge because they perform worse at interview, have worse personal statements and get worse grades. I know this because — based on my own experience — the Oxbridge admissions process is rigorous, fair and scrupulous. Candidates are selected purely based on their ability and potential.
People need to start realising this, or the misconceptions about racism at Oxbridge are going to start putting ethnic minorities off from applying — that ironic vicious circle which emerges when we start trying to fight for justice on behalf of others.
How can we expect black students to want to go to Oxbridge if their image is tarnished by accusations of racism?