Oxbridge not responsible for ‘racial exclusion’

This week saw Susan Phillipsz triumph as the winner of the Turner Prize 2010. As the artistic cognoscenti descended on the Tate, David Lammy was unveiling his own “bleak portrait”. He paints a picture of “racial and social exclusion” in two of Britain’s foremost universities. The Labour MP has launched his criticism of Oxbridge primarily by pointing to the dearth of offers of places made to black students and students from poorer backgrounds.

It has been suggested that the proposed education cuts will further disadvantage such students. However, this seems unlikely since the government’s proposals actually put poorer graduates in a better position than they currently are. Under existing policy, graduates begin repaying their debts only after they start earning £15,000. Under the new scheme this figure would be raised to £21,000. All graduates would pay back less each month than current graduates, and the lowest 20% of earners would pay back 20% less in total than they do under the current system. Of course, that does assume they have been offered a university place at all.

Lammy’s freedom of information request has revealed that last year 21 Oxbridge colleges accepted no black students. Merton College, Oxford was found to be the worst offender. The medieval college has admitted no black students over the past five years, and has only admitted three over the past decade. One the face of it, these figures seem shocking, but, actually, why should they be?

Why are so few black students attaining places at Oxbridge? In the light of the figures, it seems ridiculous to say that the colleges are actively discriminating against them. The universities do not seek to exclude students on the basis of their social and racial backgrounds. They exclude them initially because they have not reached a certain standard of academic achievement.

Successful Oxbridge entrants must have achieved three As or more at A Level. Nationally, the students who are awarded the top grades areoverwhelmingly white. In 2009, the year which Lammy highlights, just 452 black students were awarded three As, compared to 29,000 of their white counterparts. Needless to say, this is an enormous discrepancy.

Oxbridge cannot be blamed for that. It has been pointed out ad nauseam that the real problem lies with the schools and not the universities. If students are underachieving, it would be outrageously unjust for the higher education system to be manipulated to counteract the failings of the schools. School pupils must be adequately supported and receive appropriate guidance when making their university applications. Students must be encouraged by their schools to apply to Oxbridge, since there is nothing the Oxbridge admissions process can do for them if they do not.

University of Oxford has pointed out that 44% of all black applicants apply for the three most oversubscribed subjects, compared to 17% of all white applicants. This inevitably increases the competition and reduces the probability that an individual will secure a place. Information about the applicant numbers for each course is published by the universities, and is readily available. Students ought to be given such information before they apply, since it could conceivably improve their chances of success.

The results of this freedom of information request do not provide a full impression of the situation. If a black candidate who achieved three A grades at A level did not get into Oxbridge, this would not automatically represent racial exclusion. Countless white students experience the same situation annually. There would be cause for concern where such a candidate had excelled at interview and at all the other relevant tests, and yet had been passed over in favour of a less able white student. These figures cannot tell us that.

Oxford and Cambridge are world-class providers of higher education. Their purpose is to promote academic excellence and nurture the intellectual elite. As such, I am bemused to find them consistently condemned for being “elitist”. What else should they be? If they do not select the academic elite then their entire raison d’être is diminished.

It may have become an unpopular view, but these establishments ought to operate as pure meritocracies. Race is irrelevant. Even if the best students in the country were all white, it would be right for them to be awarded the coveted places. Diversity is a great social benefit, which enriches the experience of all students. That does not mean we should strive to achieve it at all costs, forgetting the purpose that educational establishments were built to serve.

Oxford and Cambridge are formidable institutions. It would be unfathomable for them not to appear in the top 10 of the world’s rankings. Education is an area where Britain excels, and we should be proud of this great tradition. Egalitarianism for its own sake can produce results which are just as repugnant as ‘social exclusion’. Both represent barriers to the actualisation of potential.

The number of university places available is finite, so some will inevitably lose out to allow others opportunities. Those who are afforded such opportunities should be those who have earned them through their own achievements and not by virtue of belonging to a particular social group.

There are inequalities in the education system, but they must be addressed before pupils reach the stage of applying to university. There isn’t much that the universities can do in this regard, nor is it fair to favour students from disadvantaged backgrounds over those who have achieved better results. The universities should select the top students, irrespective of race. If earlier failures mean that those students are predominantly white, then it is both inappropriate and ineffective to criticise Oxbridge (however fashionable that may be).

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