Leading universities have defended their record on admitting ethnic minority students – arguing that inequality takes root long before pupils apply to higher education – after they were criticised by David Cameron.
Writing in The Sunday Times, the prime minister claimed that the low numbers of black and ethnic minority students winning places at the UK’s most prestigious universities “should shame our country” and called on institutions to “go the extra mile” to root out the “ingrained, institutional and insidious” attitudes that held people back.
He singled out his alma mater, the University of Oxford, for criticism, saying that it was “striking” that it had admitted only 27 black men and women in 2014 out of a total intake that exceeded 2,500.
New rules, announced by Mr Cameron, will require all universities to publish data on applications, admissions and retention in key disciplines, broken down by gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.
But an Oxford spokeswoman said that the university did “not see the need for further legislation”, highlighting that it had for many years been publishing much of the information that the prime minister was demanding.
She said that Oxford had “made progress” on diversifying its intake “against a challenging backdrop of changes to the educational landscape and student funding”, stating that 367 of its UK undergraduates enrolled in 2015 were from ethnic minority backgrounds, a 15 per cent increase on 2010. Sixty-four were black, compared with 39 in 2010.
“The effects of social inequality are already pronounced before children begin formal schooling, and universities, schools and government must work together to address their root causes effectively,” the spokeswoman said.
“Any serious solution to the problem of unequal educational progression must take into account the unequal distribution of high attainment across schools, socioeconomic groups, even geography.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said universities “cannot solve this problem alone”.
“There are still far too many children from disadvantaged backgrounds underachieving at school and receiving poor advice and guidance,” Dr Piatt said. “It will take time, commitment, and sustained action from a range of agencies to raise pupils’ aspirations, increase attainment and improve the advice and guidance offered.”
However, Les Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, said Mr Cameron was “right to highlight the wide gaps – both in access and outcomes – between students of different ethnic backgrounds”.
“It is important that universities retain responsibility for their own admissions policies but I am very pleased to see the commitment to increased data and transparency around the make-up of student bodies,” Professor Ebdon said.
“This will build on information which is already made available by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.”