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.
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.
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.