MP criticises Oxford over 'unconscious bias' in admissions

David Lammy 'concerned' university did not believe it was their duty to prove there was no bias

January 14, 2017
University of Oxford
University of Oxford

A former government minister has attacked the University of Oxford over its handling of race and admissions after he suggested there might be unconscious bias against minority students when they go for interview.

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham in north London and former higher education minister in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, made the comments during a widening participation symposium held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford on January 13. He was subsequently accused of “misrepresenting” Oxford’s admissions process.

Responding to a comment from the audience about where the problems lie in terms of access to the UK’s top institutions, Mr Lammy said interviews at Oxford were “subjective” and questioned whether colleges’ recruiters were guilty of unconscious bias – making decisions without realising based on background, personal experience, societal stereotypes and cultural context – when selecting students.

“What is the training, for example, [about] unconscious bias in this institution?” he asked the audience, which included numerous heads and representatives of Oxford colleges. “You've got academics writing on it, yet I suspect that the training is not actually happening across the system.

“We all tend to recruit in our own image...All I can say is that as a black politician serving the most diverse constituency on the country, I find it worrying that there's a roar of ‘oh we can't possibly be racist’ when I suggest [there might be unconscious bias]."

"I'm sorry, the burden is on this institution to demonstrate there's no unconscious bias. And I'm concerned that you don't believe that.”

Peter Claus, access fellow at Pembroke College and a speaker on a panel earlier in the symposium, responded: “I believe that; it’s just that you were misrepresenting the admissions process, that's all."

Dr Claus had previously interrupted Mr Lammy, calling his questioning of the extent to which Oxford's admissions staff were trained in unconscious bias as “absolute nonsense”. After members of the audience told Mr Lammy that staff did receive unconscious bias training, Dr Claus said that “a lot of people in this room spend [many] hours on the interviewing [and] admissions process".

It is not the first time Mr Lammy has attacked the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in terms of their diversity in access. In 2010 he secured figures from a Freedom of Information request showing that more than 20 colleges across the universities made no offers to black undergraduate candidates the previous year. 

"I’m not sure that [the diversity issue] has been cracked corporately both at Oxford and Cambridge and a whole raft of Russell Group universities," Mr Lammy told the event.

"Across Oxbridge - 70-odd colleges - the variance is huge and the profound feeling is merit is not found in the same way," he said. "It’s almost as though [there is a feeling from you that] 'we’re being generous' for letting you in.

"Individual [Oxford] colleges...are certainly doing a lot. But across 38 colleges, hand on heart, I don’t think so. There’s a lot more to do."

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