Forget sensationalism, Lammy should focus on social inequality

When it comes to shameful admissions statistics and Lammy's baseless claims, the blame does not just fall on Oxford, writes Arya Tandon

Last week I was approached by a BBC journalist. He wanted to know if I’d be willing to answer some questions about diversity at Oxford. At first I was tempted by the prospect of a brief touch of fame. But I eventually decided against it, made my excuses, and walked away.

It wasn’t because I needed to return to college (though this was what I told them), or that I had freshers’ flu, and would like to save my 15 minutes of fame for when I could both walk and breathe at the same time. It was because I didn’t want to be the token BME student in their report.

That’s not to say that the voices of students from minority backgrounds at the University aren’t an important part of the conversation. Their first-hand experience of life within an elite institution is vital if we are to have a productive conversation on inequality and admissions. However, it must be noted that much of the ‘conversation’ splashed across recent headlines has not sought to thoroughly analyse the reasons for a lack of diversity at Oxford, but instead focus on reinforcing stereotypes about the admissions process as elitist and discriminatory.

In his article for The Guardian, David Lammy, the Labour MP who has recently criticised Oxford’s “social apartheid”, raised the problems of below-par schools and a lack of support for applicants only to briefly dismiss them as “excuses”.

Herein lies the real cause for outrage. As a British Asian from a state (albeit grammar) school in the north, it seems as if I’ve become a pawn on the chessboard of identity politics. Painting a picture of a racist, classist university makes for a great story. But it’s not necessarily a truthful one. Meanwhile, the immense underlying problems in our society, ranging from huge divides in educational opportunities to severe regional inequality, continue to go largely ignored.

When the University points to these issues, we can react in one of two ways. In disclosing that it receives a reduced proportion of minority and disadvantaged applicants in the first place, we can recognise that Oxford raises a profound issue.

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Or we can choose to subscribe to a conspiracy theory of tutors throughout the colleges meeting up in the dead of night to decide how many black applicants to disqualify, or that, after having a discussion, they don’t want to put up with anyone with a Geordie accent.

Joking aside, it’s understandable why when the statistics are taken at face value without informed context, some people jump to the conclusion of active discrimination in the admissions process. The figures are shocking, and rightfully so. Oxford still has a disproportionate percentage of students from private school backgrounds compared to the general population. Admissions statistics consistently show lower acceptance rates for those from ethnic minority backgrounds, and the fact that a third of Oxford colleges failed to admit any black A-level students in 2015 is objectionable.

But the same admissions statistics also highlight alternative reasoning: higher proportions of ethnic minority applicants consistently going for the most oversubscribed courses. More widely, private schools educate 7% of all students, yet account for a third of all those who get AAA or better in their A-levels.

So, although there are implicit ‘biases’ within the admissions system – for example, a ‘bias’ towards private school students because more of them achieve the highest grades – many of the fundamental causes lie in pre-existing social conditions.

The effects of wider social issues on admissions are serious enough without unfounded claims of discrimination. Of course, Oxford can do more to widen access where it can influence these societal problems. Focusing on expanding outreach, particularly to those regions of the country with fewer current applicants, would help to improve the availability of information for those who could most benefit from it.

Lammy’s proposal for the University to write to all those who achieve 3 As in their A-levels might be impractical but reflects good intentions. Teachers across the state sector should not only receive training in supporting struggling pupils, but also in how to support particularly high- achieving students in reaching their full potential.

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In contrast to this vital discussion on improving equality of opportunity, Lammy refers to many colleges as “fiefdoms of privilege” with “interviews overseen by academics recruiting in their own image”. This extreme portrayal is unhelpful, especially since strong claims require strong evidence and he provides none.

At a previous symposium on admissions held at Oxford, he contended that the burden of proof lies on the University to demonstrate that there is no unconscious bias in its interviews.

In reality, the burden of proof lies on Lammy to show that, considering the thorough training on such bias for interviewers, any unconscious bias that does exist actually affects the selection process at elite universities.

Not only does the current media spin ignore the underlying problems, it could even risk putting off some students from applying to Oxford. When I was applying for university, I remember reading about the private/state school student divide, and chatting to friends about how Oxford apparently takes in a lower percentage of BME applicants. For those who have might have less access to the side of the story other than “Oxford is racist/classist”, this could make all the difference in choosing whether or not to apply.

Serious problems require serious solutions. Jumping to caricature and sensationalism, rather than properly trying to consider how we can tackle the fundamental causal inequalities in our society, not only ignores the problem but has the tragic potential to make it worse.

3 COMMENTS

  1. FINALLY an article with reason and sense. Lammy is the real racist, the one who hardcore cherry-picks statistics to support his narrative while conveniently disregarding the complex web of causal factors such as parenting, education quality, school attendance, culture, socioeconomic backgrounds, how different groups view universities and so on… that would prove him wrong.
    The vast majority of the stats he uses (and by some other braindead writers of Oxstu and Cherwell) don’t even factor in proportionality, which is necessary in determining if there even EXISTS a disadvantage between groups, let alone what the causal factors are that bring it about.

    His presuppositionalist approach is obviously backward-thinking and is what leads to the consistent cherrypicking of “Black British students” rather than comprehensively analysing all groups proportionally and considering causal factors. I’m glad you made your point that the burden of proof is entirely on Lammy with his baseless claims. Lammy has the same retarded ‘logic’ that some Christians have when they say that the onus is on entirely atheists to argue that there is no convincing reason to believe in a God, and they also claim the default position is a positive belief in God. His presupposition approach is also seen when he claims Oxford was “evasive” and “defensive” in giving out its stats.
    Ultimately, the UCAS personal statements, names, background, GCSE and A-level results are all anonymous (maybe even the admissions test results). Lammy has to argue that some interviewers, many of whom are scholars in their fields, are incapable of using some kind of objective measure to analyse a student’s ability to reason well on a cue, SUCH THAT it explains a proportional bias better than any combination of external factors (some of which are mentioned near the top but many more exist). Good luck with that one David. Or are you too brainwashed, because it would shatter the illusion of “social apartheid” (totally insensitive to actual apartheid faced by South Africans. Because the current admissions system is basically parallel to forcefully dictating housing and employment opportunities by race, right guys?… guys???)

    This still only scratches the surface of how much of a threat Lammy’s virtue-signaling garbage is, and can be in the future, to the values of a high-quality education system.
    But it’s even worse when the some of Cherwell’s writers hop on the Myopia Express, and cherrypick in their articles stats like Oriel offering one place to a black British A-level student in six years. How about “Merton failed to offer a single place to a black British student in five years” (a stat obtained in 2010)? Notice the wording, implying that Merton has a moral duty to do this, when they in reality don’t.
    In 2009, only one black British student of Caribbean descent had been accepted as an undergraduate. (From Lammy) Again, proportionality is missing. There is a total lack of comprehensive analysis, and a concerning amount of picking certain colleges from years gone by, as if readers aren’t aware of the concept of variance at all. The Texas Sharpshooter sends his regards.

    It’s physically sickening when I’m reminded that this MP went to Harvard and was at one point an education minister, potentially steamrolling his “ethnic diversity” axioms over values of excellence, reasoning and academic ability that ought to be at the core of the top university in the world.

    Rough TL;DR
    Lammy has HUGE epistemological problems: presuppositionalism, failing to realise proportionality is necessary, failing to consider a basic collection of alternative hypotheses and the complex web of causal factors. He also tries to flip the burden of proof, a common tactic that some religious fanatics will use. Cherrypicking is very noticeable; he selects the groups, colleges and stats which support his narrative (which often will not contain proportionality)
    UCAS makes applications anonymous. The resulting unconscious bias can’t explain group differences.
    Lammy’s ‘apartheid’ claim requires mental gymnastics to go from South African Apartheid to Oxford Admissions System. His virtue signalling backfires
    Cherwell loves to push the narrative with further cherrypicking, disregarding the idea of variance

  2. “But the same admissions statistics also highlight alternative reasoning: higher proportions of ethnic minority applicants consistently going for the most oversubscribed courses. More widely, private schools educate 7% of all students, yet account for a third of all those who get AAA or better in their A-levels.

    So, although there are implicit ‘biases’ within the admissions system – for example, a ‘bias’ towards private school students because more of them achieve the highest grades – many of the fundamental causes lie in pre-existing social conditions.”

    I rebutted these explanations long ago:
    See for instance for a summary: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/oxbridge-needs-fully-disclose-admissions-statistics

  3. Let’s face reality. The British state education system is terrible, with vast numbers of kids leaving school barely able to write, spell or count.

    Aa a brown-skinned Oxford graduate (Pembroke), I remember working day and night throughout my holidays to achieve maximum grades in my exams so I could achieve my dream of going to Oxford. There was plenty of time for sports and socialising, but work came first.

    It is ridiculous to claim their is a bias against BME students, when Chinese/Indian origin students are heavily over represented not only in Oxford, but in terms of getting hired at major firms afterwards.

    Quite frankly, Afro-Caribbean kids do not (generally speaking) have the same work rate as Chinese/Indian kids, much higher rates of unruliness, and are far more likely to be involved in criminal activities. Many Afro-Caribbeans have told me that if an Afro-Caribbean kid is seen to be working too hard, his classmates get jealous and beat the hell out of him.

    I don’t remember a single Afro-Caribbean kid at Oxford, yet there were plenty of students of African descent (including a President of the Oxford Union).

    David Lammy is a grievance obsessed dimwit. His most appropriate job was when he worked at KFC in his youth. He later got into SOAS on an affirmative action basis. Rather than trying to pressure Oxford into taking incapable students, he should ask himself why BME Chinese/Indians are doing so well. Then, once he has figured out an answer to that question, he should then try and apply the same wisdoms to any sectors of society that he claims are discriminated against.

    But then, as the Honourable Member for Tottenham, he is more likely to win support from his constituents for trying to force underperforming kids into Oxford, rather than speaking out about knife crime, street gangs, acid attacks, absent fathers, robbery, looting, drug dealing etc which is prevalent in his constituency. Rather convenient eh?

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