Discussion about admission to Britain’s top universities should be seen as a small part of a far more complex issueby Jason Sarfo-Annin / October 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
Every black undergraduate studying at Oxford or Cambridge has asked themselves the question at some point—“Why are there so few of us?” The Guardian’s recent report on offers and admissions for black sixth-formers, based on a freedom of information request by David Lammy, highlighted statistics that would be thoroughly unsurprising to black Oxbridge students or alumni.
But whilst the focus was on the performance of the universities in widening access, a few people pointed out that a significant part of the problem was school performance prior to admission.
The new government ethnicity facts and figures website provides some insight. In 2016 approximately 30,000 sixth-form students achieved three A grades or better at A Level. 449 or 1.5 per cent of these students were identified as black. Oxford and Cambridge’s admission statistics show that the proportion of black students admitted per year has ranged between 1 and 1.5 per cent over the last five years. This, alongside the increasing number of offers being made to black students since 2010, appears to suggest that the admissions rates of the Oxbridge universities reflect the pool they pick from based on their grades criteria.
However, there are still valid criticisms which need some explanation and action from Oxford and Cambridge. There is no excuse for Merton College failing to provide any offers to black students for many years. The fact that this appears to have occurred both unchallenged and unsanctioned is a failure of internal monitoring and control. Also, the acceptance rates for black students is below many other ethnic groups.
There are two steps to being accepted into university—first, getting an offer. This part Oxbridge can control for and have improved. The second step is that the student needs to get the grades to meet their offer. This part is outside a university’s control, and there is data from UCAS which shows a growing problem here. A growing number of sixth-form students are missing their predicted grades. Students who are disadvantaged or from particular ethnic groups are at greater risk of missing their predicated grades. Black sixth-formers are a third more likely to do so compared to their white counterparts. Whilst it is unclear what is driving this, it may mean that a further increase in offers to black sixth-formers is required in the long term to compensate.
That said, adjustments for circumstance in providing offers already happens. Both Oxford and Cambridge use contextual flags to highlight students, but these are largely based on non-individual data such as residential postcode. Some courses, such as Biomedical Science and Medicine, are more open about how they use such information and their processes for quality control, for example students being interviewed at two separate colleges. There is an argument for contextual flags to be refined to include more information that can be supplied by schools, such as historical eligibility for attracting pupil premium funding.
Given Oxford and Cambridge are held in the same esteem as Harvard and Yale internationally, my personal view is that they should behave like Ivy League institutions when it comes to widening access. Sending letters to students across the UK who are performing well academically is not a big ask. A letter congratulating a Year 12 student on their GCSE scores and encouraging them to attend an open day has greater power than a suggestion or nudge by a teacher to an academically able student of a non-traditional background.
Ultimately the discussion about Oxbridge admission should be seen as a small part of a much bigger and more complex issue—diversity and disparities between groups within society and the impact on educational attainment. Diversity is not just about race. Social class matters. Geography matters.
The admissions behaviours of universities are not going to solve this problem—but that doesn’t mean that they cannot do more. We already know that black people are underrepresented in institutions beyond Oxford and Cambridge and these have a duty to promote diversity too given that far more people attend them. More importantly the problem of disparities in educational attainment requires a multi-faceted approach to making changes to its determinants. Housing. Health. Parental or guardian employment and household income. Whether the current government or any future government has the courage to take on the challenge in a meaningful way remains to be seen.