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  1. Wealth
December 7, 2010

Oxbridge scandal

By Spear's

The papers declare today the national scandal that is the low admission rates of black students to Oxbridge

The papers declare today the national scandal that is the low admission rates of black students to Oxbridge: only one (yes, one) black student was admitted to Oxford last year, and Merton hasn’t let one in for five years. In no way can this be spun as a fair or logical, far less truly reflective, result. By my calculations, 88 black people a year should be getting into Oxford (if you assign its 3,000 undergraduate places to each ethnic group as a proportion of England’s population).

But… The true disgrace of this situation is revealed several paragraphs down in the Guardian article:

“In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford.”

If you look at the 2001 Census figures (43 million White British, 1.44 million Black in all categories), you would expect 970 black students to get 3 As, which means black students are underachieving by over half, compared to their white peers.

Evidently a lot of the disparity in the ethnic make-up of Oxbridge can be explained, within England, by the fact that there are simply many more white people than black, but what explains not only why black people are not getting into Oxford but why they are underperforming in the first place?

Of course, there are other groups woefully under-represented at Oxbridge: white working class; state-school pupils (traditionally Oxbridge-generating grammar schools and top sixth-form colleges do not count); the disabled.

But if I had to hazard a guess at why the number of black students is abysmally low, I would not go for institutional racism, as some have suggested: Oxbridge dons in interviews scrupulously strive to be fair and give everyone an equal opportunity.

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No, I would go for a double-header: first, the quality (or otherwise) of state-school education and the rigour (of lack thereof) of public exams do not prepare most students for Oxbridge entry levels, which are universally high. Having tutored for several years now, I am astounded by how, with each revision of exam standards and guidelines, exams get less demanding and courses become ever more impressionistic. This is, of course, true for white working-class students as much as black students, hence the low levels of both.

The second is more cultural, and again does not just affect black students but white working-class students too: in an Oxbridge interview, you have to be confident but not cocky, mild but not meek, interesting and interested. These are skills and attitudes which private schools overtly and inherently reinforce, and which state schools generally have little interest in and less time for. Thus, even clever black or white-working class kids may not be equipped for an Oxbridge interview.

Oxbridge is not a cause, but a reflection, of these problems.

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