David Lammy’s recent explosion across U.K. headlines with accusations of “social apartheid” aimed at the nation’s oldest institutions of higher education is an incendiary misnomer that does more harm than good, in the grand scheme of promoting racial diversity in Oxbridge. The MP for Tottenham unleashed his fury against newly-released data on the ethnic diversity of Oxford and Cambridge, along with some disingenuous analyses that add fuel to a flame already burning bright for those entrenched the the institutions’ outreach and diversity efforts. Lammy’s numbers are correct, and they are dismal. But his analysis is impoverished, painting an incomplete picture of the admissions landscape. Add to that the charged tone of his tweetable whistle-blowing, and you have a situation that’s likely to do more damage than good to Oxbridge diversity.
As Lammy points out, on average some 378 black British students achieve the highest possible grades in their A-levels, usually a precondition for acceptance for most courses at these institutions. His calls for granularity in data related to racial diversity might well be countered with queries of subject-breakdown in these numbers. The barrier to entry might be 3As, but at Oxbridge as in other top-tier institutions in the U.K., subject choice matters. A student looking to study Economics and Management at university might take 2 of their A*s in Economics and in Management — both offered as A Levels in many state schools across the country. These courses, however, will do little to secure a place at a top university — the applications for which will focus on “traditional” A Levels in subjects like Maths, English, and the sciences. Similarly, a Psychology A Level — increasingly popular among pupils — is not a gold ticket to a university course of the same name. For many institutions, it’s considered a soft choice. When some straight-A students make their A Level choices, they all but write themselves out of consideration.
When Lammy sets up his dichotomy — between the pupils of Eton and the BME students underrepresented in Oxbridge — it’s a false one. Pupils at the country’s most elite independent schools are rounding out their studies ready-made for the pipeline that they’ve been funnelled into for centuries. Yet there is enough truth to the tracing of socio-economic lines over racial ones to make the comparison worth tracking. As I’ve written before, 7% of the U.K. population is privately educated in institutions such as Eton, with that minority taking up an alarming proportion of places in these top-tier institutions (in 2016, that amounted to 42% of the U.K. students attending the institution). Equally telling is the fact that the number of places taken up by students from the top two socio-economic groups hovers at around 80%. To continue with the subject of subjects, there’s substantial evidence that state school applicants make far less of their applications—at least to Oxford.
Despite the institution’s best efforts to the contrary, securing a place at Oxford goes far beyond measures of “academic excellence”; undoubtedly, there is a high academic bar to entry. However, the acceptance rate for applications varies dramatically across subjects. The comparison of private-schooled applicants with their minority counterparts is therefor not like-for-like. As Oxford points out in its own data crunching, state students’ application success rate is significantly affected by their subject choice: they apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects. Between 2014 and 2016, an average of 34% of state school applications were for the top five most oversubscribed subjects, compared to just 28% of independent school applications (subjects: Economics and Management, Medicine, PPE, Law, and Mathematics). Conversely, their applications for the lower-subscribed subjects (Classics, Music, Modern Languages, Chemistry, and History) were disproportionately low—24% of independent school applicants targeted these places, compared to just 17% of state applicants (all stats here; incidentally, if this is all University administrators are doing with their Tableau licenses, it’s a substantial purchase for some sub-par data visualisation). If you’re rising through a state system that (at least in my experience) earmarks your active and inquisitive mind for the prestigious practice of Medicine or Law, you’re already at a disadvantage.
The problem, then, is made stark by the numbers. But its constituent parts are more nuanced than Lammy cares to entertain. Moreover, as with many things that data helps to highlight, the solutions are not quick fixes. And what happens when the words “social apartheid” splash across the internet is a torrent of articles, and a resurgence of the old, articulating the traumas these elite institutions have heaved upon their minority attendees. Liked reading about Oxford’s social apartheid? Check out more from the Guardian’s “Opinion > Oxford and elitism” category: here’s how one black woman feels isolated and representative of her race; here’s how another found it alienating and elitist. Branching out to other sites? Check out this Times Higher Education piece on one black student who was mistaken for a construction worker. As the news bot algorithms chug away to promote like-material to their readers, would-be applicants are faced with a barrage of information that amounts to “why even bother?” If Oxbridge is not diverse, and I won’t belong, and I won’t be happy. It won’t be worth it—not for me. Unwittingly, Lammy is stoking the anxiety that contributes to many non-elites’ well-documented imposter syndrome, though adding to it the more targeted tinge of racial prejudice. Basically, the argument echoes, it doesn’t get any better.
If Lammy cared thoughtfully about the students he is setting out to lift up, he might focus his energies on directing their attention to the wealth of opportunities made available by Oxbridge colleges, or by his (disingenuously) championed Ivy League examples. He might encourage headlines and Twitterstorms around Oxplore, Oxford’s new platform to encourage critical thinking among aspirant applicants; he might direct underserved schools to seek out The Brilliant Club, or Oxford’s own Early Career Academic Outreach Network, or even the specific college offering outreach to their area. He could laud the students who have made it, and are attempting to extend the ladder beneath them.
He might even, if he were being honest with himself, connect the South East’s Oxbridge prosperity to their relative national privilege; he might, that is to say, start looking at the government’s own education system, which fails so many bright students every single year.
Lammy is undoubtedly right — “The underprivileged kid from a state school in Sunderland who gets straight As is almost certainly more talented than their contemporary with the same grades at a top public school – they far outshine their peers and would benefit most from an Oxbridge education.” But screaming about it in racially-charged soundbites moves us backward, not forward, in helping them to get there.