Oxford University draws scrutiny much like a summer picnic draws wasps: it is almost inevitable but is nonetheless somewhat disruptive. A particularly popular topic for criticism of Oxford is diversity, and at this point you could probably measure the passing of time in the number of scandals, reports, or initiatives that relate to this important issue. None of them change how I think about the application process, and none of them seem to say anything that we did not already know. Frankly, I’m growing sick of reading about them. Letting reports, awards and enraged news stories lead the discourse on diversity only hinders any actual progress. Yet, the latest addition to the deluge of discussion on Oxford’s access problem seems rather more optimistic than much of what has come before it: Oxford has been given a Bronze Award for Racial Diversity from Advance HE.
When I first read this I was a bit confused. Just reading the title ‘Bronze Award for Racial Diversity’ evoked images of participation awards that the more athletically inept among us would be given at our primary school sports days. Well-meaning as I am sure it was, it is hard to see what this sort of tokenistic pat on the head is really doing for the thousands of young people that miss out because of the social system that fails them.
The constant reports only compound the issue: we all know that there is a problem, and re-emphasising it does not promote progress. Statistics can be pulled in and out of focus to suit the writer. My own college sent a laughably self-congratulatory email with a bullet point list of the supposed advancements in diversification they had unearthed in the latest report, but one only needs to scan a copy of any student paper to realise that this is not the full story. Such reports frequently weaponise student experiences and narrowly define groups of Oxford students on the basis of their demographics and backgrounds. When we place such emphasis on categorisation and quantification of marginalisation, we burden such groups with the full weight of the baggage that they are deemed to be carrying. Essentially what we are seeing seeping out of these statistical cesspits is identity politics transposed onto Oxford admissions.
Furthermore, the kind of narratives that are extracted from statistics are generally more for convenience than accuracy. One I have read a lot over the past week is that if we make the application system meritocratic then the problems will dissolve: the proponents of this narrative are sorely mistaken. What they fail to recognise is that due to hours of preparation, years of superior teaching, and a more rigorous focus on soft skills, candidates from more affluent backgroundsarebetter at the tasks of the application process so decontextualised meritocracy will not help. The problem is not that the system is biased at the point at which students meet it, but that long before Oxford was even on the horizons for most students, the quality of education being provided was inadequate. These reports place a magnifying glass over Oxford, when Oxford in itself is a minute part of a systemic problem. Such reports shift a disproportionate proportion of the burden for solving the diversity issue onto an institution that in many ways simply cannot.
I am not arguing that we should never investigate diversity, and I am not arguing that efforts to solve the problem are futile. Simply, it is clear that number crunching is producing and reinforcing unhelpful paradigms of thought about Oxford admissions and education as a whole. These reports can say pretty much what you want them to if you spend long enough tinkering with the numbers. They have their place, but we should not let them dominate the way that we talk about diversity at our university and in our society. If we care about the diversity issue in our university, then as students we should try and get involved at the earliest possible stage to facilitate real opportunity for talented students.