Time and time again, Oxford and Cambridge has been under scrutiny for the underrepresentation of black students at Oxford and Cambridge. The scrutiny is often justified – it is important that we bring the issue of equal representation of black students at these institutions into the public domain, in order to find a solution to this issue. However, following the comments of David Lammy and a number of other MPs, what has frustrated myself and a number of other black students at Oxford and Cambridge, is that the conversation lacks value because it always ends there.
It is so disappointing that the active work and experiences of real black students occupying these spaces are routinely forgotten. It is disappointing that failings of the education system in dealing with the structural barriers faced by black students throughout their academic journey is secondary.
It is disappointing that the resulting conversation of significant media coverage by external parties – and even more shockingly some internal parties – is limited to a call for ‘more diversity’ and affirmative action.
The underrepresentation of black students at institutions like Oxford is a symptom of the issue, and not the cause.
As a black student attending Oxford University, and as a constituent of Haringey myself, my experience at Oxford has not always been the most enjoyable. I can attest to the fact that there is still much on behalf of the University that can be done to help this wider, systemic issue. But the efforts to reduce this complex issue to a mere matter of representation, and the pointing of fingers to Oxbridge does not account for the other key players – many of whom are essential to the trajectory of the black student.
Other institutions are rarely held accountable in contributing to the issue – in the most recent Race Disparity Audit, it was revealed that if you are from a Black Caribbean background, you are 3 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than your peers. It was also quoted in the most recent Guardian Oxbridge story that only 400 black students achieved three As or better at A-level every year across the entire country. This type of information is often not captured by public services. Why are we not subjecting these issues to the same scrutiny and coverage?
Admissions data fails to capture the critical underfunding of British state schools, the intersections between race and class, the active discouragement by many teachers long before a black student can even conceive of engaging with Oxford.
We also forget the importance of the personal experiences of the students who have managed to successfully overcome some of these barriers and navigate Oxbridge – in fact, they are turned into poor caricatures of the quintessential ‘black student experience’ condensed into one of suffering, strife, and ‘social apartheid’.
There simply needs to be more engagement with these students, and more allowance for variances in their experiences. We are a minority, but by no means are all our experiences comparable to ‘social apartheid’ – the implication is historically loaded and extremely problematic.
Access and Outreach is essential in making real and long-lasting change. We cannot continue to voice these issues without providing support for, or giving necessary acclamation to, the students and members of the University who have worked incredibly hard to make a difference.
As former President of the University Oxford African and Caribbean society, I was involved in the running of several independent and student-led Access and Outreach programmes supported by some of the University Admissions Department, with the intention to raise aspirations and counteract these systemic problems. Over the past five years, the Oxford ACS has engaged with state-school teachers and black students in order to break down popular misconceptions about Oxbridge and compensate for some of the barriers they face at their level. Programmes have been implemented by current black students, including the Visions Programme for students in years 9-11, and the Annual Access Conference, which is the largest student-led conference in the United Kingdom.
Applications from black students to Oxford has actually increased by 24.1% since the ACS developed its access framework at the university – this has been consistently left out by external parties.
Oxford University has taken a co-creation approach to Access and Outreach, which is incredibly important but conveniently overlooked.
It is unhelpful to continue to perpetuate a narrative without thinking of practical solutions which includes the voices of current students. It is simply unsustainable and in fact regressive by sending a clear message to black students that this is not the place for them. The solution does not lie in just positive discrimination. It does not lie in continuing to critique Oxbridge or calls for representation through a special pipeline.
The solution is in recognising the complex factors at play, and supporting programmes designed to tackle these systemically, ensuring fairer chances at admissions and education.
This is not the first time Oxford has been misrepresented and leveraged by various parties, and certainly will not be the last.
I hope politicians and the wider public are spurred to talk about this issue more accurately – so that their priority is to support the grassroots efforts of current students and tackle the real systemic issues alongside calls for diversity.