Cambridge is not the villain, Mr Cameron

The prime minister's suggestion that top universities are at fault for their low admission of BME students is not borne out by the evidence, says Athene Donald

February 2, 2016
David Cameron
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David Cameron is concerned about the opportunities that are offered to black and minority ethnic (BME) students in the UK. He is right to be concerned. For everything from police stop-and-search statistics to criminal sentencing there is evidence to suggest that this section of our population gets a raw deal.

But throwing out blanket accusations, as he did in his Sunday Times article, without looking at the evidence is unhelpful to say the least. Suggesting that he is planning new requirements to force universities – with a particular stress on “elite” universities such as Oxbridge – to reveal how many black applicants and students from poor backgrounds are accepted is rather wide of the mark given that both Oxford and my own university, Cambridge, have published this data for some years. We are not trying to hide anything.

His statement may correctly state that if you’re black, you're more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university, but, although he would like you to read that sentence as implying Cambridge is at fault, that is simply typical government spin, which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Cambridge is also ahead of the game when it comes to monitoring the gender pay gap, another area where fingers are being pointed: for some years it was the only Russell Group university to publish its Equal Pay Review, although others may be playing catch-up now.

Cameron admits that “if you’re black it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white”. That certainly has little to do with Oxbridge admissions policies and much more to do with the judiciary. It is good that Labour MP David Lammy will be looking into this apparent discrimination in the courtroom. One has to wonder how much of the inconsistency in sentences is conscious and how much unconscious on the part of the judges. Either way, there is clearly work to be done.

Are “elite” universities really sitting on their hands doing nothing? In fact, they’re working hard to improve the situation and to encourage the widest possible selection of candidates to apply. In Cambridge, there is a long-running initiative and a specific programme designed to reach out to BME children in Year 9 to get them thinking about university and, by bringing them here, demystifying the place. Starting way before a Ucas form is waved in front of their faces is crucial.

Another bleak statistic out this week, revealed in a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, shows that the poorest children in Cambridge’s local schools performed less well than those in London's most deprived areas. Active discrimination? Unlikely. In fact, for many years, Cambridgeshire schools have been underfunded compared with neighbouring counties. This was the legacy of a 1980s Conservative county council that cut local education spending. Back then, the primary school my children were attending had to shed the assistants who helped the sizeable group of Bangladeshi children who did not speak English at home to master the language they were being taught in. In 2013, Cambridge’s then MP Julian Huppert said that Cambridgeshire schools were still receiving £600 less per pupil than the English average. During the past year, this shortfall has finally been made up – largely as a result of Huppert’s actions – but it will take time for this to increase the numbers from the poorest families entering Cambridge. Don’t blame Cambridge for the failure. Look to who controls the purse strings that directly impact on children’s opportunities.

So, despite what the press may say and how they may interpret Cameron’s remarks, the University of Cambridge (and Cambridge schools) are not the bad guys in these stories. By publishing statistics on admission success rates by ethnicity of applicants and on its gender pay gap, we are ahead of where Cameron wants us to be, without any legal enforcement. Monitoring is the first step towards devising strategies to improve. The figures may not yet be pretty, but people can only know that because they’re public. Other universities need to be more transparent.

Indeed, when it comes to widening participation, Cambridge is also clear that another headline government policy would be liable to cause yet more problems. This is made clear in its response to the higher education Green Paper, which reads: “We do not support the linkage between [the teaching excellence framework] and fees: it is bound to affect student decision-making adversely, and in particular it may deter students from low income families from applying to the best universities.”

Cambridge is far too easily caricatured as an out-of-date collection of toffs, but this government claims to be interested in evidence-based policy. Perhaps it – and the associated press reporting – might like to focus on evidence-based statements and analysis to provide a little more accuracy in its claims.

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. She is the university’s former gender equality champion.

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