Oxbridge inequality

Somewhere amongst my possessions is a group photo taken when I began my postgraduate research in Cambridge University in 1978, of all new students in my then college. There were young people in the photo from all around the world There were Russians, Poles, Germans, French, South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Australians. It was a cosmopolitan lot, then? Yes, but with a twist: virtually everyone was white. I don’t now have the photo in front of me, but I believe there was one black face, and one Asian face.

I was reminded of this today when the Guardian newspaper reported that 20 colleges in Oxford and Cambridge did not offer a single place to any black student last year. But it gets worse:  not a single member of the academic staff of Cambridge University is black.

It is, to be honest, uninteresting to me whether this is the result of racism. At the very least, it is the result of indifference to the racial composition of the university and a tendency to be comfortable with a very white image.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities ask for and get more funding per student than is available to other UK universities, based in part on the idea that the taxpayer should support their more expensive infrastructure and buildings and allow them to play a leading role amongst the world’s top universities. Even if that is a correct is a correct approach (and it is a highly arguable one), the additional funding should compel the two universities to play a particularly visible role in attracting and integrating students from minorities and from lower socio-economic groups. The two universities fail spectacularly to do this.

No doubt the global role played by Oxford and Cambridge is significant. But the time has come to force the two universities to become much more inclusive. The failure to do this should be punished financially, not rewarded. But while we should rightly criticise Oxbridge, we should also remember that few universities have managed to get this completely right. It is time to focus strongly on ensuring that all have appropriate access to higher education, once they have the qualifications and talents.

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22 Comments on “Oxbridge inequality”

  1. Excellent points Ferdinand.

    But this conceals a deeper issue: the performance of inner city schools that simply do not do a good enough job for their students, and they cover the catchment areas where most minority students live. Improve their performance to Oxbridge entrance standards for some of their brighter students, and then you have a more potent way to push at Oxbridge to become more inclusive. Of course you should not wait, but work on both issues.

    Moreover, Scott Page’s work on difference suggests that cognitive diversity produces better solutions to complex problems. I don’t doubt Oxbridge excellence on some measures, but really how good are their students at solving our huge real world problems, or even more importantly, not creating new problems. Were collateralized debt obligations invented by the products of elite institutions in the US or the UK?

  2. Pidge Says:

    A friend of mine was a student in Oxford, and was giving a tour to some potential students. Of the 100 or so people there, only one was black. Afterwards, they asked if there were (m)any black students in the college. I doubt that they applied.

    I think a far more revealing statistic (rather than absolute numbers of students) would be the percentage of successful applications, broken down by race. At least then we could definitively look at where the problem lies: is it the practices of the colleges themselves, the perceptions of those practices, or the standard of working class schools?

    (Not to suggest that these factors aren’t interrelated, of course.)

  3. Vincent Says:

    If set as requirement and the only schools that can fulfill those requirements are private and fee paying. It is hardly a shock that endowed schools established by Henry VIII provide most if not all of the cohort.
    Further, given a list of a counties schools and the only info’ you have is the age of establishment, I’ll bet a dexterous Hen could mark off the names of those that supply Oxbridge.
    Of course you could ask how many Irish are within the wall. While not as blatant as with African heritage, nor as ham-strung with horrendous schools. Given the results we get in the A-levels, neither are we represented in anything like the proper numbers.

  4. copernicus Says:


    To be fair to Oxbridge, They are now looking for those who are the first in the family to go university. If the students do not get through their interviews and do not have the grades, nothing they can do.

    As for “was reminded of this today when the Guardian newspaper reported that 20 colleges in Oxford and Cambridge did not offer a single place to any black student last year. But it gets worse: not a single member of the academic staff of Cambridge University is black”

    It is a bit rich coming from Guardian whose owners do not ay taxes in Britain. Where will this stop- no Chinese, no Eskimos, no native Australians… So are we looking at every year a rainbow coalition of students?

    As for:

    • Vincent Says:

      Get on with yourself, the only publisher that pays Tax in the UK brings out the Big Issue.

    • Jilly Says:

      copernicus, it is extraordinary that a significant university in the UK would not have a single black member of staff. Even my university here in Ireland (a country with a much smaller and newer non-white population) has several black faculty members. Quite aside from the home population, universities are global recruiters, and generally have an extremely diverse staff.

      The reasons for this situation in Cambridge are doubtless complex and not simple ‘old fashioned’ racism: in most cases. On the other hand, less than a decade ago, a friend of mine on a research contract at Cambridge was assured by a senior fellow of her college that she was a great improvement on the majority of the ‘harridans’ among the female faculty. Aside from the fact that she worried for months about what she was doing wrong in order to earn this old goat’s approval, it does suggest a certain…oddness…in attitudes among some staff of that university.

      • copernicus Says:

        What is yourr university in Ireland, not Oxbridge who entry requirents are stringent.

        • copernicus Says:

          look at the number of Asian academic staff there. They cannot win any way. RGU has black professors. Irish universities?

        • Jilly Says:

          copernicus, my comment was entirely in relation to staff. Are you intending to imply that Cambridge might not have any black faculty because they have high standards, and therefore black applicants will fail those standards? I sincerely hope that you don’t intend to imply this. Such a view would be beneath contempt.

      • copernicus Says:

        By the way, Guardian has not got black journalists who are recognisable. Its office is not far from where I live. This paper should look at itslef before commenting.

  5. Al Says:

    Couldn’t something easily be said about Ireland and travellers?
    One could probably look at any institution?

    • copernicus Says:

      Just look at Guardian and its journalists.

    • copernicus Says:

      @ AL. My answer is clear. The only way I can answer is if I have seen one in Guardian. So far I have not and I said their office is near my home. The political correctness has gone too far. This should come from some one who is not white, otherwise it is patronising attitude.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    At the post-graduate level there are quite a few non-whites in Oxford or at least there were when I was there in the 1980’s.
    At the under-graduate level I suspect class & the public school system explains a lot of it so the focus on skin colour is a bit misleading: the Irish equivalent don’t get into the leading universities that much either but its less visible.

  7. copernicus Says:

    By now a few here at least would have guessed that
    I am not white through my hints about me being a Sanskritist and who knows about Eastern philosophy.

    I have in my life suffered racism overt and covert from tokenists and the PC brigade whenever I was pitted against the very same people for promotion, although every time, I was better qualified. What I do not like is tokenism and crocodile tears shed that blacks and brownies are not preferred in Oxbridge,which is not true. There are excellent Indian and non-white academic staff and students in Oxbridge. Hence,I do not quickly jump into expressing an opinion which is backed by my experience.

    If we define blacks are Afro-Caribbean,then we have something to explore. Students from this group are traditionally underachievers for various reasons, which I do not want to list here. As a governor of schools in London with large number of black students, I know blacks more than what the PC brigade think. Hence I do not share the view that Oxbridge do not slelect them for reasons other than the fact that they have not met the strict standards.

    @Jill I do know quite a few like you, but unlike you I have the experience of being non-white.

  8. copernicus Says:

    I should have said “not backed”.

  9. copernicus Says:

    There cannot be a better PC person than Ken Livingston, the ex-mayor of London, who used to jump up and down saying how ethnic minorites are wronged, and the the best grammar schools and independent schoolsin London are full of white pupils, giving them a skewed opportunity to get to Oxbridge. This was his rant with me when I briefly met him some time ago. I simply pointed out to him, London could benefit with a black/brown Mayor and asked his opinion about it. Needless to say, our meeting was cut short!! He has put himself up again as a Mayoreal candidate now!! He once suggested Trevor Phillips (the black candidate who was infinitely bettter qualified) should be his deputy and not stand against him!! Well, if the white student son let us say of a white PC person is passed over by a black sudent in Oxbridge, and that the latter is equally qualified,then I can guess the argument coming!!!

  10. kevin denny Says:

    Anna Zimdars is a scholar who has done interesting work on admissions to Oxford

    • copernicus Says:

      I have said earlier and many times, I go by my experience.

      • copernicus Says:

        Why focus on Oxbridge alone? I can give my own experience and my relative’s son’s experience in Irish universities. Mine, when they were confronted with appointing me to a senior academic position, and my relative’s son when he had the best entry qualification for a course. I can give other examples from TCD, NUI, Cork where my close friends relate their experiences.

        Compared to them, my experience with Oxbridge is far far superior.

        RGU for example has “opened up” since my days at RGIT as far as academic appointment of non-whites are concerned. The acid test has been-it is not appointing blacks or brownies by itself, but banishing the hidden darker side of those who herald diversity, but when confronted with promoting a better qualified non-white against a lesser qualified white “son/dayghter of the soil”, seeing that side manifest so clearly. The credit for banishing this darker side goes to late Prof Mike Pittilo, a very nice person who I had the privilege to know when he was working in London.

        In England, we have far far progressed in terms of diversity, and arguably we are the best in Europe in this area. Hence I am not prepared to accept any criticism, when there are other countries and universities whose record is pretty pathetic. I see 3 of my Chinese students as professors and HODs in top RG universities, and at UCL and Imperial in particular I see so much diversity these days.

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