Coalition policy will lead to fewer black students at Oxbridge

The row that has arisen over David Cameron’s comment about one black student at Oxbridge has not only buried the real problem of student diversity within elite higher education (HE) institutions – it also masks the fact that the Coalition’s HE policy will lead to fewer black students at Oxbridge.

In the first instance, Oxford is engaging in the ridiculous practice of splitting hairs – the fact remains that there are far too few students from black backgrounds at Oxbridge, whether they are African Caribbean or from the continent of Africa or anywhere else in the world. This is in light of the fact that a higher proportion of the black and minority ethnic population attend university than the white population.

So there is not an under-representation of BME students in higher education and to be more specific, there is not an under-representation of black students in higher education – but there is a gross under-representation of black students at Oxbridge – that is indisputable, whichever year you are looking at.

The issue was raised as recently as December 2010 after David Lammy made public figures he obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request, that related more broadly to Oxbridge colleges and not just Oxford university.

The more useful information from the FOI request is that in 2009, 21 Oxbridge colleges admitted no black students whatsoever – and white students are more likely to have successful applications to every Cambridge college except St Catherines. So there should be genuine cause for concern.

Access to Oxbridge equates to access to the top professions and it is a vital path to social mobility. A 2009 Sutton Trust report shows that 82 per cent of barristers, 78 per cent of judges, and 53 per cent of solicitors went to Oxbridge. Furthermore, the majority of senior politicians are Oxbridge-educated, so an under-representation of black and minority ethnic people at the UK’s elite universities means that the top tier professions are not representative of the population.

There is a combination of contributory factors to this unsatisfactory status quo. Oxbridge has a preference for privately-educated students which puts most of those from BME backgrounds out of the running.

Studies have also shown that young people from BME backgrounds tend to access higher education via further education colleges – link that to the scenario where BME pupils are more likely to be put forward for vocational courses in secondary schools as opposed to ‘A’ levels and the barriers to Oxbridge are becoming clear.

What is needed here is not unhelpful arguments over precise figures when it is clear that a problem exists – but constructive dialogue on how to rectify the problem, backed by sensible policies and links between policies at every stage from primary level right through to undergraduate level.

Fragmented policies and strategies will always hinder progress.

The coalition policy on higher education is one such example as it will lead to an even smaller pool of BME students with the potential to access Oxbridge.

The scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance is a bad idea when we already know that a large proportion of BME students access higher education through further education and depend on the money.

Studies have shown that the vast majority of those that receive it do not receive financial support from their families.

Raising the tuition fees will also deter many students from BME backgrounds from attending university – already many institutions are setting their fees at the maximum level of £9000. The government’s insistence on calculating interest on student loans using the RPI, as the TUC pointed out – will add even more to the cost of a university education.

What we need from David Cameron is not empty words but sensible policies that will create rather than limit opportunities for young people from BME backgrounds to access Oxbridge.

What we need from Oxbridge, not just Oxford, is an urgent review of their admissions procedures and a transparent plan of action to redress the problem as it is clear that they are failing to meet their obligations under the Race Relations Amendment Act.