Toby Young

David Cameron is plain wrong about Oxford and race. Here’s why

David Cameron is plain wrong about Oxford and race. Here's why
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I applaud the Prime Minister for pointing out the scandalous lack of black students at Britain’s top universities, but he’s wrong about whose fault it is – at least when it comes to Oxford, his alma mater. Yes, it’s true that Oxford only admitted five black British Caribbean applicants in 2013, a disgracefully low number, as David Cameron points out, but there’s no evidence to suggest that the cause is 'ingrained, institutional and insidious' attitudes, i.e. racism, on the part of Oxford’s admission authorities.

How do I know this? Because Oxford already publishes a wealth of data about admissions – the new law Cameron is drafting to force universities to publish their data about the gender and ethnic and social background origins of students who apply for places will merely force other universities to catch up with Oxford in this regard. You can see Oxford’s data on undergraduate admissions in 2013 here.

This is quite a chunky document, but if you scroll to page 28 you can see the table showing the number of black British Caribbean students admitted in 2013. A glance at the left-hand side of the table reveals the reason for this – not racism on Oxford’s part, but the fact that only 35 black British Caribbean students applied in 2013. That’s 35 out of a total of 11,556 undergraduate applicants. Even if every single black British Caribbean applicant was admitted in 2013, they’d still only make up 1.32 per cent of the total.

Another thing these data reveal is that, overall, Oxford’s track record of admitting BME (black and minority ethnic) students is good. At the top of p.28, it says that 24 per cent of all Oxford undergraduates in 2013 were BME. Admittedly, a lot of those are from overseas, but British BME students still make up 13 per cent of the total. Maybe the Prime Minister is right and that figure should be higher – the average at Russell Group universities is around 18 per cent – bit it exactly reflects the percentage of the British population that’s non-white – 13 per cent, according to the 2011 census. 

True, the success rate for black British Caribbean applicants is below average – 14.3 per cent in 2013, compared to 22.9 per cent. But the reason for that isn’t because the attitude of the Oxford admission authorities is 'ingrained, institutional and insidious', but because black British Caribbean students are more likely to apply for the most over-subscribed subjects – Economics and Management, Medicine, PPE, Law and Maths. For instance, only 11.5 per cent of students who apply to do Law as undergraduates are accepted. 

No, the reason Oxford admits so few black British Caribbean students is because so few apply. Why is that? A combination of factors are to blame here and the fact that Oxford is continually accused of racism – falsely – certainly doesn’t help, as Lindsay Johns pointed out in a recent piece for Spectator Life. Lindsay is an Oxford graduate of mixed race and works with disadvantaged young people, encouraging them to follow in his footsteps. He wrote:

'I know from my own experience that these baseless accusations of “racism” are very off-putting to young people of colour. As an undergraduate, I worked with the Oxford Access Scheme to encourage applicants from “non-traditional backgrounds” and for the last decade I’ve volunteered as a youth mentor with Leaders of Tomorrow, a charity in Peckham that works with inner-city kids, encouraging them to apply to universities like Oxford.

'A good deal of my work, then and now, involves convincing sceptical young black students that Oxford isn’t racist and they won’t be discriminated against in the admissions process.' 

Nor is it because the university isn’t doing enough to encourage black students to apply. The university spent £5.6 million on outreach work in 2014 and a further £7 million on financial support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The biggest reason so few apply is because so few British black Caribbean students get three As or A*s at A-level, which in the vast majority of cases is the eligibility requirement for a place at Oxford. In 2012, only 3.5 per cent of A-level students from black backgrounds achieved three A*-A grades, a third of the level of white students. The way to address that is not to lecture Oxford – or Cambridge or the Russell Group universities – about being more “inclusive”, but to improve our state education system. The London Academy of Excellence, a free school in Newham, is showing the way, having secured eight Oxbridge offers for its students this year. All of them are from BME backgrounds.

As I say, the Prime Minister is right to highlight this issue. The fact that a young black man in Britain is more likely to go to prison that a top university does indeed shame our nation. But Oxford is not to blame.

Written byToby Young

Toby Young is the co-author of What Every Parent Needs to Know and the co-founder of several free schools. In addition to being an associate editor of The Spectator, he is an associate editor of Quillette. Follow him on Twitter @toadmeister