Investigation: Race and Ethnicity

This investigation also includes Chiara Giovanni saying it is time to eradicate the problem of racism, Raphael Mokades of RARE arguing that all minority groups are not the same, Anne Meeker (from the OUSU Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality) making the point that racism is a constant presence in people’s lives and Anuradha Henriques telling us that we must demand that race continue to be taken seriously.

A comprehensive OUSU report on racial equality has revealed massive disparities between white and black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ experiences of race at Oxford.

Just over half of the student population believes that racism is not a problem at Oxford. However, the University’s racial makeup overwhelmingly favours majority voices: 79% of the student body is white. Many ethnic minority students’ academic and social experiences, the report suggests, are marred by discrimination.

According to the OUSU report, which surveyed 528 Oxford — UK and international — students studying at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, 59.3% of BME students report having felt uncomfortable or unwelcome at Oxford because of their race or ethnicity, compared to 5.4% of white students.

Race appears to be a significant part of the Oxford experience even before students receive their acceptances. Before applying, 41% of BME students believed their race would affect their time at the University, in contrast to 8.4% of white students. As they went through applications and interviews, 29.7% of BME students and 11.2% of white students felt that race factored into their own experiences of the admissions process.

Once their university career begins, race and ethnicity impact students in tutorials and social situations alike. Attitudes towards and experiences of race vary, but, according to the OUSU report statistics, it remains a prevalent, and in some settings, under-addressed, part of Oxford student life.

Racial biases and racist attitudes affect a significant proportion of the student body regardless of race. 39.5% of white students and half of BME students report having heard or been the subject of racial jokes or comments that cross an unacceptable line. 74.1% of white students and 80.5% of BME students agree that Oxford’s student body is not adequately diverse.

When it comes to teaching and administration, the OUSU report suggests, BME staff members can provide a positive role model to ethnic minority students — but 71.7% of BME students and 48.8% of white students feel that Oxford’s staff is not diverse enough.

Official statistics demonstrate that students’ impressions Oxford’s academic staff lacking diversity are not unfounded. According to the most recent information available about minorities in higher-level academia, a comprehensive 2011 University and College Union survey, Oxford has one of the greatest hiring gaps for professors of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in the UK. Only 3.9% of Oxford’s professors are from a BME background, compared to 6.4% at Cambridge, 9.1% at Kings College London and 8.1% at Oxford Brookes.

Addressing racial equality and affecting change may be a complex process: many students report feeling lack of clarity about how and where to discuss race-related issues. Additionally, a significant discrepancy appears to exist between white and BME students’ perceptions of the extent to which racism at Oxford is a problem.

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64.3% of BME students believe they have few to no safe spaces to talk about race at Oxford, despite just over half of white students feeling there are adequate safe spaces for such discussions. While just over half of white students know a place where they would feel comfortable reporting a racially charged incident, only 28.9% of BME students can say the same.

The likeliest place to report a racial issue, students agree, would be their college or department administrations. However, an overwhelming majority of both BME and white students say they would not feel comfortable discussing a racial issue with their college administration. 69% of white students felt they could discuss racial issues with their college’s welfare and peer support group, but only 39.1% of BME students saw those as safe spaces for racial discussion.

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said, “Oxford University is committed to selecting students on the basis of academic ability and potential alone. We spend more than £5.5 million each year on outreach work to encourage students from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to apply to Oxford.

“It is not surprising that bright, articulate students from Oxford, Harvard and other leading universities are discussing what more can be done to ensure a fully inclusive university experience for all our BME students. We are committed to listening to our students, and last month we held a Race Equality Summit where senior University members met with students and heard presentations about their experiences. At this summit, and in structured interviews and focus groups with BME students held over the last year, many of the same points made in the CRAE survey were raised. As a result staff and students have agreed to continue working together to deliver the best possible academic and social experience for all Oxford students.”

Most recently, serious discussions of race in Oxford have gone online. For instance, the Tumblr page ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’, a photo project where BME students stood holding whiteboards with statements confronting common perceptions of race at the university, went viral last month. A counter blog, We Are All Oxford, appeared soon after as a protest to the campaign’s perceived lack of racial inclusivity.

As a follow-up to their report, OUSU have enacted a series of initiatives to promote racial awareness and safe spaces for discussions of race.

Charlotte Hendy, OUSU Vice-President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, said, “The findings that OUSU’s CRAE presented were shocking, and it is clear that there is a long way to go before we are rid of racism and racial inequality at Oxford. Following the Race Summit, we are now working collaboratively with the University to address the issues highlighted, including the current lack of curricular diversity in some disciplines. It is evident that race and ethnicity affect all areas of student life, not only for BME students but for all students; it is exciting that OUSU’s CRAE have been able to secure this issue on the University’s agenda and to see it being addressed wholeheartedly.”

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One self-identified BME postgraduate student told Cherwell, “The people who most need to talk about race aren’t going to seek it out for themselves. We need serious reassessment not only of admissions figures and recruitment techniques, but also wider dialogue in the Oxford community to reach the people who don’t want to hear it.”

13.9%: Is it enough?

Admissions statistics have formed the centrepiece of much of the criticism of Oxford’s lack of ethnic diversity. And looking at the 2013 admissions statistics, it seems the problem persists. White students made up 80.7% of those who applied to do an undergraduate degree at Oxford for 2013 entry, but 86.1% of acceptances were made up of white students. The success rate for all non-white applicants was, at 17.1%, several percentage points lower than the 25.4% success rate for white applicants.

However, these figures should not be taken entirely at face value: as the University argues, it is true that a much larger of BME   students apply to the most competitive courses, when compared with their white counterparts. For instance, in 2013, 11.3% of Asian and Asian British Oxford hopefuls applied for Economics & Management, one of the most competitive courses in terms of that ratio of applications to places, while only 2.9% of white applicants applied for the same subject. The fraction of BME applicants applying for other particularly competitive courses, such as Medicine and Law, are also high, at 18.0% and 9.3% respectively for BME applicants as a whole, compared to 2.9% and 5.8% for white applicants.

The survey conducted by CRAE also shows that a significant proportion of BME students were concerned about how their ethnicity might affect the admissions process before they even arrived at Oxford. 41% of BME respondents said that, before applying, they expected racism to affect their experience of Oxford; only 8.4% of the white students who participated in the survey shared the same concern.

Furthermore, a 29.7% of BME respondents said that they had felt that their race or ethnicity would affect their experience of the Oxford admissions process; only 11.2% of white students said that same thing. However, the CRAE report notes that responses to this question were somewhat ambivalent: some BME students suggested that they had thought they would have a better chance of receiving an offer as a result of university goals on increasing diversity, and a number of non-BME students said that they thought they might be discriminated against for the same reason.