Are universities such as Oxford biased towards class or race?

The long-perceived elitism of universities such as Oxford mean we need to reframe the widening access discussions to talk about economic backgrounds, not just race, argues Roshan Doug

June 11, 2018
Class divide
Source: Alamy

A senior lecturer in my department – a white, working-class woman – was telling me about her daughter who was applying to Ucas a few years ago. When she suggested Oxbridge, her daughter replied, “It’s not for the likes of us, Mum.” Her mother was sad and disheartened that even as a university academic, her child didn’t feel that her family had accrued sufficient “cultural capital” to enter elite universities such as Oxford.

I recalled this the other week.

Unlike David Lammy, I don’t know whether Oxford is injudiciously selective in its recruitment and admissions procedures, nor, unlike Toby Young, am I convinced that it’s doing enough to widen participation from all sections of the community.

Similarly, I have no idea if making way for a notional number of students from minority groups (white, working-class included) is tokenistic, nor do I know what recruitment figures bandied about by critics are acceptable in culturally and socially diverse 21st-century Britain.

But I do know that something isn’t quite right when our internationally renowned institutions don’t reflect the world in which we live – both in terms of ideas and people.

In regard to Oxford, for instance, eight out of 29 colleges admitted fewer than three black or Asian students in the past three years. Even if you turn this figure on its head – meaning that at least 21 of its 29 colleges admitted more than three black or Asian students – it doesn’t quite alleviate our concerns about institutionalised discrimination. According to Oxford’s own website, 3,200 places were offered to students in 2016. If, on average, 10 places are offered to black and Asian students in the 21 colleges with currently more than three students from these groups, that accounts for 210 places. I don’t know if this is an acceptable figure or not.

However, Lammy’s argument about Oxford’s prejudice against black and Asian students hints at the emotive and rather dated subject of race politics. Invariably, therefore, the construction of such a discourse is going to draw us into an ideological battlefield and repetition of arguments. For most commentators, the lines are clearly demarcated in the spirit of our education policy that many people including my colleague, David Gillborn (professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham) have conceded is tacitly racist. To argue – as Oxford does – that insufficient numbers of black or Asian students apply, or achieve the grades, is ostensibly racial stereotyping and not very helpful.

Instead, I think that the question is about class and economics.

Sociologists argue that although class prejudice filters into all sections of our community, it is more prevalent in institutions that are considered bastions of privilege – law, the judiciary, the stock market, banking, the Civil Service, and journalism and media. These are pillars that uphold standards and the structures of our society. They administer law and finance and disseminate information, while their intake is monitored by the custodians of power.

Moreover, we assume that everyone succumbs to the allure of snobbery and history that Oxbridge exudes. But do all students from minority groups want to enter such institutions that have, for instance, historically perpetuated the racial oppression of millions of people, or that have ignored the plight of the white, working class or justified the mass looting of raw materials from other countries? For hundreds of years, places such as Oxford have exercised exclusion, leaving minority groups disenfranchised from power, influence and privilege.

Entrance to any university breeds a certain thinking about class and elitism – and none more so than the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

In fact, it could be argued that control over who enters education is crucial because it is in education that policy is tried and tested before it is publicly aired. But education, with roots that are entrenched in colonial history, is also the means of control of our people. 

During the British Raj, for example, it was Lord Macaulay in the mid-19th century who famously argued for a particular kind of education to manage India. He stated that through education, the British must create a class of interpreters between them and the millions they governed – a class of people Indian in blood and colour, but English in their tastes, opinions, morals, intellect and knowledge. And who were these teachers who would go out and deliver this project of cultural transformation? Public-school educated Oxbridge graduates who understood the importance of the role of the Empire in feeding the motherland. And such Macaulay-esque tendencies were also evident in the period of the triangular slave trade, during which, of course, Britain benefited enormously.

To some extent, this imperialism through education is still the ethos of schools such as Eton and Harrow and it’s still the ethos of universities such as Oxford. They are old-fashioned in terms of their membership and archaic physical structures, as if they are somehow a barometer of excellence or quality.

So, I don’t think that the topic is framed correctly. It’s not about whether Oxford is racist in its recruitment and admissions strategies – for that’s neither here nor there. The real question is why students from minority groups – especially black communities – don’t feel that Oxford is for them. To me, both Lammy and Young are wrong. Essentially, Oxford hasn’t got rid of its imperial past and its association with elitism. It’s not so much a question of race, but class and economics. Is there any wonder that some people – such as my colleague’s daughter – don’t feel that such universities are for them?

Roshan Doug is a researcher in education at the University of Birmingham.

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