Ethnic Minority applications to Cambridge: the real score.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley

As any student that has dodged packs of Daily Mail photographers in May Week will know, Cambridge seems to be engaged in a near-constant state of flirtation with controversy. In recent weeks - and not for the first time - the spotlight has been drawn to the University’s intake of black and minority ethnic (BEM) students, with Vikki Boliver criticising the “under-representation of British ethnic minority students at elite UK universities” in The Guardian. These accusations are neither unfounded nor novel. Admissions data for Cambridge’s 2013 application cycle reveal that 18% of non-white applicants were awarded offers, compared with 29% of white applicants.

For many, these statistics will confirm a lurking suspicion - that elite universities are a haven for the privileged white. The damning data, however, does not preclude scrutiny of her article. The sentiment propelling her argument may be proved by admissions statistics, but her exposition belies a certain generalisation and sensationalism that ultimately perpetuates the problem.

First, whilst her article opens with a blistering attack on Oxbridge elitism, Boliver swiftly proceeds to  criticise the admissions statistics of the Russell Group universities as a whole. The loaded names of Oxford and Cambridge, it would seem, are used as bait, as a means of luring a readership that is gasping to witness the lambasting of these dated institutions. This appetite must be satiated, and regardless of the fact that the article speaks of racial elitism across Russell Group Universities, it is Oxbridge who must be dealt the opening blow. Boliver is keen to reel off statistics pertaining to the country’s top two universities, and appears to eschew a much less binary reality.  Statistics from Durham University reveal that 89.7% of applicants from the 2012 application cycle were from a white background. A survey by the Exeter branch of the Tab revealed that almost three quarters of the University’s students were white. The pitiful representation of certain ethnic minority groups at Oxbridge is a problem - but it is not exclusively an Oxbridge problem. To quote Classics don Professor Mary Beard in a Guardian discussion of 2011, “it’s a bit easy to blame Oxbridge.”

Boliver’s myopia has wider reaching consequences: for as long as Oxbridge alone continues to be held up as a paradigm of racial elitism, prospective applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds will be discouraged from making applications in the future.

Furthermore, we would also do well to remember the problematic binarism of ethnic markers: “white” and “ethnic minority” cannot, and ought not to be considered as groups in and of themselves, with both tags acting as umbrella terms which encompass further sub-categories. Thus, whilst “white” includes White British, White Irish and Irish travellers, for example, “ethnic minority” can refer to any number of non-white identities, including Black Caribbean, Black African, Arab, Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani, among others. As well as clearing up erroneous generalisations, this observation has farther reaching consequences in this discussion of ethnic elitism at universities.

Whilst admissions statistics for the 2013 Cambridge cycle reveal that “white” students are statistically more likely than any other ethnic group to be awarded an offer, the breakdown of “ethnic minority” students into separate categories makes for more heartening reading. Whilst 29% of white applicants were made offers, the corresponding figures for Indian and Black Caribbean students were 27.9% and 24.3% respectively. Cambridge’s decision to sub-classify “ethnic minority” is therefore, a significant one. It demonstrates first and foremost that this is not an issue of pitting white students against non-white students. Secondly it allows us to identify groups that are exceedingly under-represented, such as those from Black African and Bangladeshi backgrounds. Being mindful of the nuances of ethnic markers allows for a more balanced, and less sensational approach to the issue. It is not necessarily that ethnic minority applicants as a whole are under-represented, but that certain subgroups of this category are statistically less likely to receive offers.

Boliver then goes on to question what she describes as UCAS’ “sudden and unprecedented decision to refuse all requests for data concerning applications from ethnic minority backgrounds”. Students who have groped through the UCAS system are no doubt aware and curious of the opacity of the process, but even the most cursory of Google searches allows for an examination of admissions data held by individual universities. Statistics relating to the backgrounds of applicants are freely available for scrutiny and examination by members of the public. Nothing is being “hidden” from the public. Students from certain minority ethnic backgrounds are not the subject of silent discrimination. Their under-representation is clear to see.

Finally, we must not treat this issue in a vacuum. We must take into account other variables that contribute towards the offer-making procedure. A Guardian investigation revealed that in 2009, more than 29,000 white students achieved AAA or higher at A Level; for black students, that figure stood at 452. In addition, a spokeswoman for Oxford at the time pointed out that “black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for…the three toughest subjects to get places in”. A spokesman for Cambridge added that “colleges make offers to the best and brightest students regardless of their background”. The disparity exists, that much is certain. But the question of why it exists is much more difficult to address. 

Several hypotheses may be proposed. Given that 75% of Britain’s minority communities live in 88 of Britain’s poorest wards, the government’s scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance for college students and the tripling of fees to £9000 will have had a detrimental effect on minority ethnic students. If the poorest wards breed the poorest schools, students - white or otherwise - will be less likely to achieve the required grades to make a realistic application to Russell Group universities. The former Minister for Education, Michael Gove admitted as much when he recently commented that independent schools know how to “play the system, while state school students lose out”. One cannot disentangle matters of class and private education from the ethnic debate. 

Boliver makes a salient and astute point: elite universities simply admit a disproportionate number of certain ethnic minority students. What is not beneficial, however, is demonization, generalisation and a short-sighted approach to the issue.

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