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.