Does Oxbridge Discriminate?

Brideshead Revisited - Oxbridge - Social Class - Discrimination

Oxbridge has every incentive to admit more students from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds. If diversity has failed to improve then it is our fault as individuals, families, communities and voters for failing to provide elite universities with a bigger, better talent pool

Another day, another tedious story about Oxbridge being a terrible bastion of privilege and discrimination where the few working class students who manage to evade the perimeter and matriculate find themselves mocked mercilessly by Bullingdon toffs while students of darker complexion are forced to drink from separate water fountains.

The trigger for this year’s rehashing of the predictable dirge was a freedom of information request submitted by Labour MP David Lammy, who selectively requested and interpreted data to paint the bleakest possible picture of barriers to elite higher education in Britain.

The Guardian reports on the “shocking” findings, and then have the temerity to criticise the Oxford University press office for daring to defend themselves rather than meekly accepting criticism and submitting to corrective punishment:

Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of failing to engage in serious debate over their lack of diversity by the former education minister David Lammy, who first highlighted the issue with data obtained by freedom of information requests.

The Labour MP said the universities had been “trying to make journalists change their stories” rather than address how little progress they were making in recruiting talented students by race, social class and location in England and Wales.

His accusation came after sparking national controversy over data – first published in the Guardian – that showed that as many as 16 Oxbridge colleges failed to offer any places to black British applicants in 2015, the most recent figures under the FOI request.

Note that when leftists call for a “serious debate” on something, in actual fact they do not want a debate at all. What they want is for you to flop over submissively on the ground and agree to whatever Utopian socialist pipe dream they have in mind. Back in the real world, Oxford and Cambridge do little else these days other than engage in never-ending symposia about diversity. The reason that these debates don’t satisfy the Left is because they do not end with Britain’s elite universities sacrificing their brands and academic standards by further lowering their entrance requirements to attract less qualified applicants who happen to tick the right diversity checkboxes.

David Lammy huffs in the Guardian that “seven years have changed nothing at Oxbridge”, but this is totally untrue. Elite universities are falling over themselves to admit minority and working class students to improve their admissions statistics. They face immense political and even financial pressure to do so. Seven years have indeed changed Oxbridge, but only in the direction of being even more amenable to considering applications from underrepresented groups. What has not changed, though, are the stubborn social and environmental factors which continue to restrict the pool of minority applicants in which Oxbridge and other elite universities must fish.

Of course, Labour were quick to pile on with predictable, cookie-cutter criticism:

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “This is the latest damning evidence on the government’s failure to widen access to our most selective universities.

“The proportion of comprehensive school pupils getting in to top universities under the Tories is lower than when Labour left office, and this data shows that the problem is especially serious at Oxford and Cambridge.

“Ministers claim their system is working, but these figures show that it isn’t.”

Because any imbalance simply must be the fault of institutions, and ultimately the government who wield absolute power over everything and everyone. The idea that poverty, social stability, family structure, engaged parenting or personal responsibility might play a part in the under-representation of certain groups at Oxbridge is unthinkable. Heavens, no. Successive British governments have created a perfectly egalitarian society, and the only reason that the enrolment at Oxford University does not perfectly match the makeup of the general population is because evil admissions officers in Oxford colleges harbour a seething, visceral hatred of poor, brown kids.

Lammy goes on to complain:

During this period [2010-2015], an average of 378 black students per year got 3 A grades or better at A-levels. With this degree of disproportionately against black students, it is time to ask the question of whether there is systematic bias.

Really? Now is the time? I’m so glad, because this conversation is indeed long overdue. Nobody has once raised the issue until this watershed moment, courageously midwifed into existence by David Lammy. At long last we can finally ask why, a time when every other institute of higher education in the country have conspicuously prostrated themselves before the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, Oxford and Cambridge continue to openly revel in institutional racism.

This is asinine.

Getting angry at Oxbridge for not admitting more ethnic minority and working class applicants is putting all the blame for societal, cultural and family problems at the foot of higher education. I am technically a BAME individual (oh, how I hate that stupid, infantilising acronym) from a poor, single-parent family, yet I was admitted to Cambridge University and neither experienced discrimination while there nor witnessed anybody else facing discrimination. On the contrary, there was a rigorous, fiercely intellectual atmosphere (aside from all the drinking and punting) which cared only about what you think, not what you look or sound like.

If anything, given the incentives and political pressure faced by universities today, I would not be surprised if many elite institutions already do more than they should to correct for social and government policy failures by accepting students from under-represented backgrounds that would not stand a chance if they were white and middle class. I know that if I was a university administrator and my performance appraisal, reputation or funding were at stake then I would be very tempted to selectively lower standards.

To properly address this issue we need to have “honest conversations” not about institutional discrimination but about family structure, culture, parenting, wealth and both primary and secondary education. We need to ruthlessly eliminate influences which tell certain impressionable youngsters that academic achievement is uncool, that being a useless parent is socially acceptable, and which peddle myths about Oxbridge based on hazy recollections of Brideshead Revisited.

We also need to stop the media hand-wringing. Hysteria about the lack of BAME people at Oxbridge only feeds a false narrative that minorities are unwelcome at Britain’s elite universities. It is very hard to increase representation when you simultaneously tell a certain group that they probably won’t get in to Oxbridge and will likely have a very bad time there if they do manage to beat the odds.

What we cannot do is expect our best universities, the engine of Britain’s innovation and research, to expend scarce time and resources bringing some candidates up to the basic level they need to be starting at. Some remedial classes are already offered to students who arrive at universities without the required study skills. It would be unfortunate if this reactive solution were to bed down at Oxbridge.

It is very convenient for politicians such as David Lammy to point to an evil, imaginary bogeyman which is responsible for a lack of diversity rather than admitting the more complex and intertwined failures which contribute to the problem. But as a “BAME” person (ugh) from a relatively disadvantaged background who was accepted into Oxbridge, the narrative being spun by the Left smacks of cynicism and a lack of serious thought.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that discrimination does not exist at the margins, or in the form of so-called microaggressions. I’m sure that it does. But I do not believe that it is systemic, particularly given that Oxbridge faces so many incentives and coercions to increase diversity.

Rather than badgering our elite universities to fix upstream issues and single-handedly correct disparities in the opportunities available to different demographic groups, we need to call individuals, families, communities and (yes) government to account for their failings and shortcomings. We need to foster a universal culture of ambition and respect for academic achievement which transcends lines of gender, ethnicity, wealth, culture or social background. This probably means making a thousand small and often inconvenient changes to the way that we behave as individuals, parents, teachers, students and policymakers, which is much harder work than joining the David Lammy Chorus and blaming everything on discrimination.

But the easy solutions are rarely the correct ones, and when it comes to increasing minority representation at our elite universities we must do what is hard rather than what feels good.

Formal Hall - Fitzwilliam College Cambridge University

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