It is no secret that Oxbridge has a diversity problem. Despite some progress in recent years, the reports released in the past few weeks expose how painfully slow this has been. While both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge have admitted that more must be done, neither has acknowledged that its approach to diversity is fundamentally flawed.
At both, there is a tendency to separate diversity from the universities’ core purpose: to provide a world-class education. Doing so makes increased access seem like a chore, when it is, in fact, an opportunity. A more diverse student body will breathe life into academic institutions that otherwise risk being left behind.
During my time at Oxford – where I studied history and graduated top of my course – I was surprised by how limited and outdated the syllabus was. Many Oxbridge students finish their degrees knowing about only a small segment of the world, centred around Europe, and thinking basically the same set of things as their classmates. There may be slight disagreements – between those who prioritise culture and those who prioritise material circumstance, for instance – but few students questioned the overall narrative or assumptions of the topics we studied. Those of us who did were often prompted by a sense that what we were being taught was at odds with our own experience.
In my case, coming from Pakistani and Caribbean heritage sensitised me to how little space was given in the curriculum to Islamic or African civilisation. To me, these were glaring omissions, severe enough to make me critical of my professors and the ideological currents that shape our academic discourse. I was able to ask questions that other students might not have thought of, and this ultimately made me a better historian.
Diversity of experience fosters diversity of opinion, and this encourages debate. When I tell fellow students about crucial developments in Mali, or China, or the Abbasid Caliphate, they are fascinated – and often shocked that they know so little about these important topics. What follows is a cross-pollination of ideas that benefits all students, and the university at large.
To make the most of this opportunity, however, universities must be proactive. Diversity is not divorced from wider institutional issues. Current black students are the main bridge between Oxbridge and under-represented communities. These ambassadors report back to their friends and family, and the reality they describe frequently reinforces alienating stereotypes. Prospective students I’ve mentored are often discouraged when I tell them that they may struggle to follow their interests if these fall outside Europe.
To their credit, both Oxford and Cambridge have made progress, mostly driven by student campaigns and a few open-minded lecturers. Last year, Oxford introduced a compulsory non-European history paper (although its definition includes North America), and the Faculty of English at Cambridge is slowly responding to calls for a decolonised reading list. However, the pace of change has been slow, and these new subjects remain peripheral.
Again, rather than seeing this push for curriculum change as an inconvenience, Oxbridge must see it as an opportunity to create a more well-rounded and robust syllabus. The Eurocentric way that many subjects are taught is a hangover from the colonial era and its concomitant sense of European racial and cultural superiority. Subjects that are objectively important, such as Tang China’s global trade network or Islamic philosophy’s contribution to the Renaissance, have been omitted because of this ingrained bias. Curriculum reform is an important step towards increased diversity, but it is also a chance for faculties to examine the assumptions of the courses they teach, and to forge new narratives that better represent our world.
Other universities are doing this already, and if Oxford and Cambridge fail to follow suit, they will struggle to stay relevant. They claim to foster individuality and to produce graduates who can think for themselves. Yet if they continue to take in groups of very similar people and expose them to very similar ideas, they will become echo chambers for outmoded schools of thought, struggling to generate ideas appropriate to a world that is no longer centred around Europe. Some would argue that this has already happened.
We should not expect everything to happen at the university level – there are important roles for the government, schools and those of us who serve as mentors, too. But for Oxford and Cambridge to wash their hands of any responsibility would be both inequitable and self-harming. If even the Royal Family can embrace a little diversity, Oxbridge has no excuse.
Sulaiman Ilyas-Jarrett was awarded the Gibbs Prize for history and the Hurry Prize for most distinguished finalist at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He has received an Isaac Newton Scholarship to continue his studies at the University of Cambridge.