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Student activism countering Oxford’s “social apartheid”

Common Ground and ACS are amongst those taking a stand

According to David Lammy, Oxford needs to stop “hiding under the bushels” and “instinctively blaming schools and educational inequality for the problem that they have”. But the extent of student activism aimed at reducing inequality suggests that Oxford students at least are not shying away from the problem.

Students and societies have spoken out in response to criticisms made against the University last week. Speaking to Cherwell, Lammy emphasised the “important role” of students in forcing change.

Last week’s report made national headlines for its exposure of racial inequalities at Oxbridge. Following a series of Freedom of Information requests, data was released revealing that ten out of 32 colleges failed to admit any black British A-level students in 2015. The data also showed that Oriel did not admit a single black British A-levels student from 2009-2015. In light of these findings, Lammy accused the University of “social apartheid”.

When Cherwell asked Lammy about how to change the University, he said: “Students play a really, really important role.”

He went on to state that colleges that have “have consistently been very progressive in how they have gone about trying to get a diverse intake” are often those where “work has been led by student officers really obsessed with the issue of getting access to these young people”.

Several JCR representatives, as well as Oxford’s African and Caribbean Society (ACS), the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, and Common Ground have spoken out following the publication of Lammy’s report.

While last week’s report provides a damning criticism of the University, it did not acknowledge the access programmes and initiatives being championed by student activists to counter these inequalities. Earlier this week in a statement, ACS said: “Attempting to reduce such a complex issue to a series of political soundbites only serves to obscure the depth of the problem and can often do harm to the progress being made in the area of changing perceptions and breaking down barriers to the students at the very heart of this discussion…

“Oxford is a microcosm of the deep structural issues embedded in the British educational system”. They emphasised that the data fails to show “how many young black students are actively discouraged from applying to Oxford by their teachers, despite achieving the grades, because ‘Oxford isn’t for them’”.

In order to boost application rates from the Afro-Caribbean community, ACS “developed an independent access framework” to help young black students. They have three main access initiatives – an Annual Access Conference (AAC), the Visions Programme workshops, and a shadowing scheme.

Speaking to Cherwell, JCR BME representative Isabella Rooney agreed that student-led equality and diversity organisations are not given enough attention. In response to Lammy’s publication, she said: “While these statistics do convey that the reality of the diversity in Oxford needs urgent work, it also puts prospective students off applying.”

Among other initiatives put in place by students is Common Ground – an organisation which aims to analyse and tackle present day inequalities through investigating Oxford’s colonial past. Last term, they held a symposium that featured over thirty events.

Speaking to Cherwell about their progress so far and plans for the future, they said: “Now we have almost 1,500 followers on our Facebook page, and want to continue the discussion interrogating Oxford’s racist, classist, and colonial past. Not only continuing the discussion, but working with the University to make structural changes. ”

Neha Shah, co-chair for Oxford SU’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (Crae) also responded to Lammy’s research into diversity at Oxford. Shah said there is an “entrenched systematic bias” which “persists at all levels of the university, especially with regard to racial and ethnic diversity”.

Shah also condemned the University’s reluctance to fully publish the ethnicity data, which Lammy referred to as ‘defensive’ and ‘evasive’, according to The Guardian. CRAE also criticised the University’s response that they couldn’t release the data on the grounds of the Data Protection Act.

Shah said that this “tells us all we need to know about the number of ethnic minority students at Oxford”.

Hertford BME representative Aisha Nado told Cherwell: “More can be done by Oxford in terms of progress and access.” Echoing the sentiment expressed by many other students, she added that changes at Oxford need “to be backed up by a change to a system where socio-economic factors determine where you end up in life”.

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