Oxford University’s first-ever Annual Admissions Statistical Report breaks down applications by “domicile, nation and region of the UK, disadvantage, school type, gender, ethnicity and disability”. That list suggests a mass of information that statisticians will not yet have had time to master. This has not deterred David Lammy from branding the university “a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege”. Theresa May had more time to get to grip with figures when she drew precisely the opposite conclusion about the university sector as a whole. “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university,” she said in her very first statement as Prime Minister. That view was part of a list of “burning injustices”.
The university retreated in bewilderment before the rush of figures it had released. “There is a lot of good news in the report, as well as evidence that there is still a great deal of work for us to do,” it declared. In the circumstances, it would have been hard to say anything else. There is always more to do if an elite institution is seeking to attract disadvantaged students. It could pursue them more after A-level results are published. It could go for more foundation courses. It would say that is trying hard already: so it is that, along with the report, the university also announced an expansion of its summer schools, which aim to give “even more pupils from under-privileged backgrounds a greater chance of success in getting an Oxford place”. The university’s college system seems to be a factor in making its outreach work as a whole uneven.
But are those summer schools, and the rest of the university’s outreach effort, no more than a distraction exercise – designed to mask prejudice against non-white, working class, non-southern, state school educated people? Is Oxford racist, as a casual reading of Lammy’s words might imply? An assessment of previous by the institution charged with connecting people to higher education suggests otherwise. A UCAS study in 2016 found evidence that might confirm bias against black applicants from, among others, Oxford Brookes, but not Oxford University. Or, to put it more precisely, the former was on a list of institutions with “a significant gap in offer-rate between black applicants and the average application rate”.
The UCAS figures found that 2.7 per cent of applications to Oxford were from black students. That’s not significantly out of line with the three per cent of the population that declares itself to be black. But of course that’s only one way of dicing the statistics. Oxford “is pulling in from a pool of black applicants that is less than half the size of those applying to all other universities,” according to Business Insider UK. None the less, the university’s admissions procedures are “probably not” unfair, according to UCAS, and neither Oxford nor Cambridge “appears to be guilty of bias or iniquity in giving offers to black students”. At the heart of the matter is a key figure – the number not of black students who are refused entry to Oxford, but that of those who apply in the first place. And there turn out to be reasons for the application figures being as they are that have nothing to do with racism.
One is a fear of not fitting in. The condemnation of the university by Lammy and others, with all its attendant publicity, may actually reinforce these, and thus have precisely the opposite effect to that he intends. Another, picked up in 2012 by The Fair Access Group of Conservative MPs, is a lack of support from schools in applying to Oxford in the first place – which can morph into what George W Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. The Gove free schools and academies programme, and his exam reforms, aimed to weed this out. Another still is the competition for places on certain courses. The Business Insider assessment also lists racism as a reason.
But it’s worth noting that the examples given are drawn from after admission, not before: they don’t bear out the lazy stereotype of causally racist, bow-tied, port-swilling dons giving black applicants the thumbs down. Furthermore, both the figures that were being bandied about yesterday and UCAS’s own don’t take overseas students into account. These made up nearly a fifth of Oxford’s students in 2016. Admitting 19 per cent of your intake from abroad would be an odd way of displaying racism. And as Raph Mokades of Target Oxbridge, an organisation that helps minority students apply and enter Oxbridge, points out, some ethnic minority groups are doing better than the white majority. “It’s not that there are no black people who are good enough to go to Oxbridge, that’s not what’s happening. But, black people aren’t doing as well in their exams as say, Chinese people or Indian people, who do better than white people too.”
Now stand back for a moment from the figures: from Oxford, Lammy, the claims and counter-claims. And then ask a question. Why so much focus on the winning line of the race – that’s to say, on application, offer and entry to the university itself – and not how pupils line up at the start? If you go to a bad state school, you won’t get the grades to get anywhere near an Oxford application. Nor will your teachers encourage you to aim high. If parents don’t value education – if they don’t shop around for better schools in the area (if there are any); or if their own school experience was so bad as to put them off education for life; or if they don’t read to the children anyway – the odds are stacked against their children from the beginning.
“When I searched for speeches David “Oxbridge is a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege” Lammy had made about education,” Damian Counsell tweeted yesterday, “the first reference I found was Fiona Millar praising him for a “rousing speech” against academisation of a failing school in his constituency. The school in question was [Downhills Primary School], whose transformation despite Lammy’s opposition is reported on here in that famously Right-wing newspaper The Independent. The people who complain most loudly that people from backgrounds like mine aren’t being admitted in sufficiently high numbers to Oxbridge are the same ones doing everything they can to oppose efforts to promote evidence-based excellence in the schools we’re forced to attend.”
Whatever your view of Lammy, some hard truths emerge from the Oxford privilege claims. One is that in this post-crash era, elite institutions will find themselves targeted. Another is that the university could do more to attract applications from disadvantaged pupils. Another still is that the fixation of the hard Left on outcomes rather than opportunities spits in the face of social justice – since it turns its face away from the disadvantages of those it claims to care for. Another is that the very criticism of those elite institutions proclaims their centrality – their importance to British culture and achievement and our projection abroad. Another is that claims of “burning injustice” are not always proved by the statistics. May has pulled at a Pandora’s Box, from which furies pour out, and which she can’t control.