The UK’s top universities need to catch up with their counterparts in the US on fair access, according to an MP who unearthed data to show that nearly one in three Oxford colleges admitted no black British A-level students in 2015.
David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, criticised the “knee-jerk” response from universities that blamed schools and inequality in society for the trends revealed in the data, which were splashed across the front pages of the UK’s newspapers in October.
He added that he has yet to receive a reply to a letter, also signed by 108 parliamentarians, that he sent to the University of Oxford on the issue, and that the universities were determined to “shoot the messenger” instead of admit any blame for the problem.
Mr Lammy, who was Labour minister for higher education from 2008 to 2010, published data on his website from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge about the profile of their students, obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.
It showed that 82 per cent of offers by Oxford and Cambridge went to applicants from the top two social classes and also exposed a regional gulf in admissions, with students from the South of England and London much more successful in gaining entry than those from the North of England. On average, in each year between 2010 and 2015, a quarter of Cambridge colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.
Mr Lammy said that getting the data was like “getting blood out of a stone”. Oxford and Cambridge “should be out there on the issue and they are not, they are hiding it, they are defensive and they don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “Then, because I raise it, they want to shoot the messenger.”
He said that the chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, had taken an interest in the data, and suggested that there could be a committee inquiry into university admissions systems.
“It is all excuses: it’s the child’s fault, it’s the school’s fault, it is the education system’s fault. It is never ever, ever the college’s fault, never the tutor’s fault, never any acknowledgement that the burden for this young person [to go to Oxbridge] is a considerable burden,” Mr Lammy said.
Some disadvantaged students may be revising in unhelpful settings, or have caring responsibilities and a weekend job and so, in effect, have to be brighter than someone with similar grades who attended a prestigious school, he said.
“The poorer young person who is on the 24th floor of a ‘Grenfell Tower’ hasn’t got a school that is able to jump over the hoops that a public school or a grammar school is able to,” Mr Lammy said.
The MP also highlighted the Oxbridge interview system, questioning what the institutions were doing to address unconscious bias and stop tutors recruiting in their own image.
He added that when he visited Oxford in January to speak at a symposium on admissions, he was heckled by an academic for bringing up the issue of bias.
“There isn’t a woman in the country who doesn’t know that there can be biases at work in relation to gender in the employment market, so it was hugely surprising to be heckled,” he added.
Mr Lammy argued that Oxford and Cambridge should be learning from the most prestigious US universities, which actively seek out poorer students with academic aptitude and offer them full scholarships to study.
Some Oxford colleges, such as Mansfield, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall were doing “fantastic work”, Mr Lammy said, but it was not “sufficient” for them to be working in isolation. “It has to be systemic,” he continued.
“The country wants systematic change, incremental initiatives are not going to cut it,” he said, adding that the issue needed “genuine leadership” not a “complacent elite”.
Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope said in response to Mr Lammy’s letter: “Low attainment at school is caused by complex socio-economic factors that take root in a child’s earliest years and are compounded at every stage of their school life. Nevertheless, the University of Cambridge will continue to intensify its outreach efforts. We are expanding our bursary schemes and are developing a range of other innovative measures.”
An Oxford spokesman said in relation to the letter that it “was signed by more than 100 MPs from across the country, all of whom we believe deserve a considered and personalised response. We are currently detailing and analysing our outreach activity in each MP’s constituency, and we aim to be in a position to send these tailored responses in the coming days.”