That's the question asked by David Lammy and the Guardian today. According to the paper 21 Oxford and Cambridge colleges made no offers to black, British students last year. At Oxford just one student of self-described "Black Caribbean" background won a place. Only 35 applied. The headline figures are pretty terrible and enough to give anyone pause.
But they are only headline figures. Virtual Economics argues that they don't tell the full story, not least because the sample sizes are often so small. He has a point: if just 35 Black Caribbean students applied to Oxford last year that's not much more than one per college. I'm not sure this is a large enough sample from which to draw too-firm conclusions. It's also true that, as Oxford points out, 44% of ethnic minority students applied to Oxford's most over-subscribed courses. 28.8% of black applicants wanted to read medicine, for instance, and only 12% of all medicine applicants were successful. (By contrast, 41% of classics and 40% of chemistry applicants won places.) So it may be that the average black student has a lower than average chance of admission because of factors that have little to nothing to do with race, ethnicity or skin colour.
Nevertheless, there's no escaping the central fact about Oxbridge admissions: roughly 45% of places are won by the 7% of British children fortunate enough to be educated privately. That's your scandal. It's not that the public schools are so good at preparing pupils for the elite universities (though they are) but that so many (not all) state schools are so poor at doing so. Race may matter, but class and school matter much more.
Anyone who has had any experience of Oxford and Cambridge admissions these past 20 years knows that the universities have made great efforts to increase the "diversity" of students they admit. There's a limit - at least as constrained by the current system - to what they can do. It may well be that individual admissions tutors at individual colleges suffer from some bias - conscious or not - but it seems improbable that the universities as a whole do so. And of course, this can cut both ways: some tutors will take a greater account of background and "life chances" than others. It isn't always the well-connected, well-prepared public schoolboy who benefits (even though, on average, said fellows can't complain about their prospects).
Still, to take one example: in the 2006-2010 period just 22 students from Barking & Dagenham (population 168,000) applied to Oxford. None received offers. (93 applied to Cambridge and 16 received offers.) In the same period just 27 students from Lambeth (population 275,000) have received Oxbridge offers. 20% of applicants from Lambeth receive offers; 40% of those from Richmond-upon-Thames do so.
We know that choice of course and college plays a huge part in Oxbridge admissions and we know that some schools (some backgrounds too) are better-placed to steer pupils towards the most advantageous choices. We also know that some schools are reluctant to push able pupils towards applying to elite universities.
So what is to be done? On the one hand, it's good that universities pick their own students. On the other, it would be preferable if fewer students were handicapped by events and circumstances beyond their control and good too if the leading universities recognised this. At present, Oxford and Cambridge try to juggle proven records of achievement with projections of potential. This is a necessarily messy, imprecise business that can lead to, perhaps even encourages, any number of distortions.
As Conor Ryan reminds* us, the Sutton Trust suggests that a comprehensive pupil with BBB at A-Level performs as well at university as a public school educated kid with AAB or ABB. This, all things being equal and all else being considered average and all the rest of it, makes intuitive sense. But it's also a reminder of the unreliability of exam results.
Roughly - if my memory is accurate - two thirds of Oxbridge applicants are, at least in a technical, exam-measured sense, "good enough" to merit entry. The challenge, then, is to let elite universities remain elite while also opening them up to a wider range of qualified applicants. That means, perhaps, removing some of the human element from the selection process.
You certainly could build a blind "points system" that took family, ethnic and educational background into account when constructing an equation for university entrance. I fancy, however, that such a system would be met with howls of outrage and that it would prove as much trouble as it's worth. A middle-ground, therefore would be for Oxford, Cambridge and other heavily-oversubscribed elite institutions to adopt a mixed approach to entrance.
That is, Oxford and Cambridge would identify the 65% of students "good enough" to warrant a place. They would then fill, say, 25% of their places using their current admissions procedures and fill the remaining 75% of their intake via a lottery of those students considered "good enough" to meet their criteria.
Such a system - created on the back of an envelope as it may be - could permit them to take the very most exceptional applicants while also removing biases - conscious or not - from the majority of applications. Like any other system this would doubtless produce its own share of injustice or simple bad luck, but it would also simplify the process and might give more applicants greater confidence that their background didn't determine their prospects, whether for better or worse. It wouldn't be perfect but nor, despite much well-meaning endeavour, is the current one.
In return, of course, Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities should probably charge fees commensurate with their status.
UPDATE: Oxford respond to Lammy here. And do so rather well.
*Hat-tip: Lawyer Watch.