Sathnam Sanghera: “We’ve got to go through this painful process”

The Times columnist, a vocal critic of Oxbridge's admissions data, says that access is about attitude, not money

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi parents. He was brought up in Wolverhampton, and was raised as a Sikh. On his first day at school, he couldn’t speak English. Thirty years on, after graduating from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a first in English, he is one of The Times’ leading columnists, where he has worked for past ten years. Sanghera’s is a story of social mobility at its best – he was born into a poor family, and worked at a burger chain, a sewing factory, and a hospital laundry before he made his break with the Financial Times. He is, he says, “among the exceptions that prove the rule”.

It is hardly a surprise then that in the light of Oxbridge’s admissions reports in the past two weeks, Sanghera is angry. “It’s bullshit”, he tells me. “It’s ludicrous. My anger is based on the fact that there aren’t more people like me, of my kind of social background at Oxbridge.”

He is right that ‘people like him’ are up against it. According to Oxford’s admissions report, UK-domiciled Asian students made up just 4.3% of the total students admitted to study English in the years 2015-17; before even thinking about the fact he grew up on free school meals, it is clear that the system he faced in 1995 is still weighted against those from backgrounds like Sanghera’s more than twenty years later.

In its response to the report, Oxford stressed that it intended to throw money at access programmes, while vice chancellor Louise Richardson claimed: “it is a picture of progress on a great many fronts.” As much as the numbers themselves, the response has drawn immense backlash, and Sanghera tells me that the entrenched resistance to change should be a major cause for concern.

“The most worrying thing about all of it is their instinctive defensiveness. It would make a huge difference if, when confronted with the plain facts of the situation, [Oxford and Cambridge] didn’t try to point score, defend themselves, and freak out when actually they could just say: ‘we’ve got a problem’. I don’t think we’ve even got to the stage where Oxbridge say: ‘yes, we have a problem’. Most of this data has been dragged out of them reluctantly. There’s lots of really sincere people at Oxbridge trying to change things, but the fact is that this tone reveals that there’s a lot of resistance as well – and that’s a bit depressing.”

Sanghera has been a vocal critic of Oxbridge’s diversity problem

But the solution cannot just be money, he says. “They’re spending a decent amount now! You can always spend more, but what’s the point of outreach and PR, when actually, there are more fundamental problems, like the lack of centralisation of an applications system. I think that is the main thing: if they centralised access, had one body orchestrating things, and took it out of the hands of the fellows and the colleges, then that would revolutionise things. It’s not really about money – it’s about attitude, and it’s about taking one or two really big moves.”

It is clear that Sanghera has genuine concerns about many colleges’ approaches to access. Many, he claims, do not see it as a problem that the University has a moral right to address, but something that they need to be seen to be addressing. It is all about appearance. “I’ve been talking to people,” he says. “Oxbridge colleges are very good at calling up alumni and asking for donations. I was talking to a friend of mine, who went back to his old Oxford college recently. The speech at the fundraising thing was: ‘give us money, because then, we don’t have to listen to the government’ with the subtext of that being ‘and then, we don’t have to listen to all this crap about access’.”

The focus on PR is something that has come to the fore in recent years especially. On the day of the admissions report’s release, David Lammy MP criticised the University’s use of its official Twitter account, which retweeted all of those defending the University. The account responded by retweeting an alumna who called Lammy ‘bitter’. While some laughed off the ‘bittergate’ scandal, it demonstrates Oxford’s obsession with its own image, an obsession that Sanghera thinks is the only think that will stop a larger change in Oxbridge’s structure.

“If I’m honest”, he says, “I think we’re more likely to see Oxbridge go private than taking power out of colleges’ hands. The colleges, and the relationships they have with the establishment, are so deep-seated – it would go against the way the British establishment has worked for centuries. I just can’t see [centralised admissions] happening.” But it is this PR obsession that Sanghera thinks will prevent the pair going private. “It would just be terrible PR,” he tells me. “I think the people who run them know what the right thing to do is. They’ll be kicking and screaming, but ultimately, when it comes down to it, they know, and I don’t think that will happen.

“Equally, they are so tied to the college system, I cannot see them break that. People in the establishment have so many personal connections to these colleges, so…they’re not going to give up their power without a fight. And what we’re having now is the fight, basically.”

Sanghera is keen to avoid too much focus on his own experience at Cambridge as we chat – he speaks out about the “autobiographical” nature of the discourse about admissions – but he clearly struggles to get his head around three bizarre years of his life. Students at this university often claim that their degrees have flown by, or that a term has gone too quickly, but it is not only this sense of haste that bookmarked Sanghera’s time at Christ’s, but his social confusion.

Sanghera read English at Christ’s College, Cambridge

“It’s taken me twenty years to work out what happened to me when I went [to Cambridge]”, he tells me. “I couldn’t really make sense of why I felt so weird – I’d integrated so well into my independent grammar school [which he attended on a fully-assisted place], and I was fine afterwards, too. Now I realise that the weirdness was that I arrived and everyone already seemed to know each other. And I was like: ‘oh, that’s because they all went to the same bunch of schools’. They literally knew each other – it took me 20 years to realise that.

“It was just socially weird, and that was basically because lots of people around me went to very posh schools, and were from a very upper-middle-class background. And it felt even weirder than Fleet Street, which is probably, in some ways, even posher. It was a properly strange environment if you weren’t from there.”

And Sanghera’s experience wasn’t just strange on account of public schoolboys hanging out together. I ask him about his time in Cambridge’s student media, and he tells me the story of his bizarre rejection when he applied for the editorship of Varsity, this newspaper’s Cambridge equivalent. “I don’t want to make out I was the victim of discrimination or anything. But it was typical of my experience of Cambridge in that it was just weird! I didn’t understand what had happened.

“I applied with my friend [Dan Roan], who’s now sports editor of the BBC, and we were told by the people interviewing us that they didn’t believe a word we had said. It was just odd. It ended up being a great thing, because we just spent all our time doing work experience elsewhere, and we ended up in journalism, straight away. I just didn’t understand! At my school, I was head boy, and I was quite socially active. At Cambridge, I just couldn’t get my head around anything socially at all. I think the culture is that of a few very dominant private schools that control things – and if you don’t know the code or the way of speaking, forget it. Real life isn’t like that – it just doesn’t work like that.”

A few weeks after the release of the access data, plenty of students at this university appear to be fed up with the discussion about it. There are four major responses, as far as I can tell, that try to claim this is a problem we shouldn’t be talking about: that discussion only reinforces the idea that Oxford is not for people of certain backgrounds; that the University’s access problem is symptomatic of wider issues with Britain’s education system; that there is an irony that those whose lives have benefitted from ‘the system’ – like Sanghera and Lammy, who attended Harvard – are the ones leading the fight; and that focusing on two top universities misses the point that things are just as bad at other leading UK universities. They are all intriguing responses in their own right, but it is clear that the key campaigners see them as distractions, as excuses made by those wishing to ignore the problem.

“It’s going to be a really slow cultural change,” Sanghera says. “It’s small, really basic things like put up some pictures of like, some working-class, or black and Asian alumni! You walk around Oxbridge, and all the pictures are white. Why are they so reluctant? It’s because history is the point of Oxbridge – the point is that it’s unchanging, and it goes back hundreds of years. But you can keep that, and recognise that in the last two decades, there’s been a different kind of person going. If you reflect that, you might help dispel the image.

“But the image is a real problem. It’s true: the more people like me bang on about it, the more you put people off. But I think we need to go through this. There’s no choice, is there? We can’t say: I’m not going to say anything negative about Oxbridge because then I’ll put people off. There’s some people who argue that – they’re like, ‘why do you keep going on about this: you’re putting people off!’ But, like, what’s the alternative? Just ignore it, and put up with it? I think we’ve got to go through this painful process, but it’s going to take decades, if not longer. If it ever happens!”

Similarly, Sanghera is critical of the fact that any discourse about admissions has to go back to the individual. It should not, he says, detract from an argument that the person who is making it went to a particular university. “I’ve heard a lot of: ‘oh, David Lammy didn’t get into Oxbridge, so he’s just bitter’. He went to Harvard, man! I feel really grateful for it – I want more people to have this experience. Everyone should have equal chance, and to focus on the individual biographies of campaigners is insane. It’s not the point; it’s not my point. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, we just have to rise beyond this insane biographical thing and look at the data. And the plain fact is, if you’re working-class, or if you’re from the north, or if you’re of colour, you’re going to struggle to get in.”

The discourse of an elite clinging onto their status is one that Sanghera uses throughout my time speaking to him. He believes there is an entrenched resistance to change, and that ‘people like him’ will always be disadvantaged by an unequal and unfair admissions system. It is hard for me to disagree: the University’s response has been pitiful, but more than that, the excuses made by fellow students are disheartening.

“This focus on lowering grades is ludicrous,” Sanghera says. “People use that as saying: ‘oh, you want us to lower standards!’ The moment you say ‘let’s have ABB rather than AAA’, people will freak out and say you’re lowering standards. It’s just a way for the elite to hold onto power,” he says.

Sanghera is one of many voices fighting this battle. But it is a battle of tedium and attrition: every time his side starts to make progress, their words are spun into something negative, and somehow turning against him. He is determined to ensure that there is a turning point, but I can sense a resignation in his voice. This is a problem that cannot be solved overnight, but more than that – it is a problem that he feels may never be addressed. Unless Oxbridge comes to accept that it has a myriad of deep-rooted issues with its admissions processes, then people like Sathnam Sanghera will continue to feel that for ‘people like them’, it will never really feel anything like home.

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