This week, universities and their funding have been much in the news, coupled with telling images of the anger of many students around the country at the proposed hike in fees. Another story also hit the news about universities, or more specifically about Oxbridge, with David Lammy – the black former HE Minister in the last government – lambasting Oxbridge admissions’ policies and processes . The impression he gave was that Oxbridge simply didn’t try, that these universities have no interest in admitting minority students. However, by concentrating simply on black Caribbeans he chose a peculiarly narrow grouping to ‘prove’ his point, and a group that are well known to be educationally one of the worst-performing groups along with white working class children. Even so, as many commentators have stressed, his analysis of the statistics simply don’t stand up. I list just a few of these commentaries, since it is not my intention to deconstruct the figures here (Royal Statistical Society which covers the statistics pretty carefully; Liberal Conspiracy, which points out that Lammy’s implication that only by using a FOI request could he get the facts, is also wrong and misleading – the figure are readily available; and the Oxford PVC for diversity, who made a clear statement, summarising Lammy’s article as ‘eye-catching but misleading’).
No doubt Lammy thinks Oxbridge is fair game, and the statistics for (some, but not all groups of) minorities are indeed not as good as one would like – though equally nothing like as bad as he implies – but I simply don’t understand what he hopes to achieve by writing such an article, other than a lot of media attention for himself. If, in order to increase the number of applications from minorities to Oxbridge (clearly the colleges can’t admit them if they don’t apply) we need to raise aspirations in their communities and to remind them that Oxbridge isn’t just for toffs, the last thing that is needed is a public figure in essence saying, don’t bother, you’re not wanted. It immediately undoes all the hard work of my colleagues who go out to schools around the country trying to eradicate generations of negativity. Cambridge University also instigated GEEMA (the Group to Encourage Minority Applications) more than 20 years ago, whose mission is described on Cambridge’s website as
‘to ensure that talented UK black and minority ethnic (BME) students were not deterred from applying to the University of Cambridge. Since GEEMA was founded the number of UK BME undergraduate students studying at Cambridge has increased considerably. The full-time GEEMA Coordinator and current undergraduates work hard to raise the awareness of academically able (ie Gifted and Talented) BME students in the UK that studying at Cambridge is achievable.’
My fellow University Council member Anthony Andrews (the graduate student member, and himself from Trinidad and Tobago) said in a letter he wrote by way of rebuttal to the Lammy article – though I cannot find that it has been published-
‘I have been personally consulted by the admissions team of my own College to help generate ideas to bring the message to black and minority students that, WE WANT YOU!!!’
If Lammy screams foul, then the problems we have in attracting minority students are just pointlessly amplified. Hardly constructive I’d say.
I have seen a similar media furore in the context of women in science, where a good scare story appears to be regarded as excellent for newspaper sales, whereas a story whose implicit message is ‘successful women scientists aren’t freaks’ is not. In this case the issue is whether you can be a successful woman scientist and have a family. The message that young girls receive is that the combination is impossible; only a couple of years ago a female PhD student of mine said exactly that to my face, despite the evidence that as her supervisor I had indeed managed to progress up through academia and have 2 children. I was completely gobsmacked that intuitively she believed this, despite the evidence to the contrary. And I attribute this to the drip-drip of negative media coverage.
In 1999 when I was elected to the Royal Society, 5 women were elected, the largest number ever in a single year up to that point. So the media was interested. Who did they interview? One of the new fellows who had no children (2 of us did, 3 did not) who was quoted as saying that it was indeed impossible to combine children with a successful scientific career (whether she actually said it at the time I can’t be sure, but I do know it’s not a position she still holds). Likewise, at various points in the past Susan Greenfield has been quoted as saying the same thing – again not a position she now publicly adheres to. But the damage is done in the generation that reads this stuff, and the belief persists, despite all the evidence to the contrary (for the record I should add that it is of course not easy to combine the two, but that is very different from saying it’s impossible). So teenage girls can be turned off quite needlessly and again this is bad for diversity.
So my question to the media is, why do you publish these inaccurate horror stories instead of trying to do something constructive? Why not look into the facts and say, yes Oxbridge isn’t doing brilliantly at admitting minority students, but it depends on the ethnicity and – even more – on their socio-economic class. Michael White , in his commentary on the original Lammy piece says
‘it’s surely down to the advice given by schools, some of which are unambitious for their students’.
Yes, the problems cannot be laid merely at the door of university admissions’ policies; the problems are frequently in the lack of aspiration from school teachers for their students, and a lack of knowledge (in teachers, parents and the children) about the system so as not to know what is required. Funding schools decently (and not, for instance, trimming the per capita budget for 6th formers, as the recent Education White Paper recommends), ensuring all school-children are well advised about the reality of what it’s like ‘out there’, will enable Oxbridge to increase its diversity. If Lammy and company make Oxbridge seem beyond their reach, they won’t even try to overcome the very real hurdles there inevitably are. Please, let us see constructive reporting from the high class newspapers, stories that may facilitate widening participation. Let’s celebrate those who do succeed, and enable them to be the ambassadors in the public forum of the press to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.
Cambridge University, in its response to the fees’ issue, has made a very clear statement about its attitude towards access, listing it as the first of its 7 bullet points:
‘Cambridge values diversity amongst its student body and is committed to continuing its current needs-blind admission to its undergraduate courses in order that no suitably-qualified UK student is disadvantaged by financial circumstances from coming to Cambridge. It will also wish to maintain and develop its access arrangements.’
Even the (almost-by-definition) anti-university-establishment group The Cambridge Student said of this:
‘ For them to go as far as they have is not just out of the ordinary, but extremely surprising.’
Widening participation, increasing diversity, is a massively important issue for us (and at this point I should remind readers that yes, I am the University’s Gender Equality Champion and I also sit on University Council and so am most certainly part of the establishment Lammy is attacking. I should also stress that this blog is written in a purely personal capacity, and none of the views expressed…..etc etc). The only good thing about the Lammy article is that, by writing for the Guardian, it almost certainly won’t be read by the families of those who might be deterred by it. It is merely the chattering classes who will point a figure at Oxbridge and say that they always knew it was only for the well-heeled kids from public schools. Well we aren’t.