The Media and (Un)Constructive Reporting – the David Lammy Saga

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.

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8 Responses to The Media and (Un)Constructive Reporting – the David Lammy Saga

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Very interesting first post, Athene! It’s great to have you on board.

    It really is a shame that the obstacles – or at least the perceived obstacles – don’t seem to be getting any smaller. Even for my family – white, middle class, living in a nice, relatively prosperous town – the mental obstacles seemed high.

    My Dad did his teaching qualifications at Oxford, but said it felt like a foreign country where he never once felt at home (he’s a Geordie, born and raised in a coal mining village, and did his undergrad in Manchester. He got out of Oxford and headed back to Northumberland as fast as he could after graduation).

    When it was my younger sister’s turn to apply to university, Cambridge was high on her list. On paper she was the ideal candidate – straight As, played clarinet in the city youth orchestra, and on the county (field) hockey and netball teams. My school was a perfectly ordinary comprehensive – the kind where the top 20% of the intake do well in their A levels and go happily off to university, the bottom 10% get themselves or someone else pregnant when they’re 15, and the rest fall somewhere in between – that had never once sent a kid to Oxbridge. But the teachers were supportive, our parents more so, and she carefully researched all the colleges to make sure she applied to the ones with the largest state school intakes.

    But still – even from this position of privilege – it was Cambridge, this scary, alien, posh place, and she failed at the interview because she was just so nervous and hesitant, self-conscious about her Northern accent and comprehensive school background.

    So if that was the case for my family, I can’t even imagine how an underprivileged student in an inner city school would view the barriers.

    I look forward to reading more about the insider view of how to increase diversity!

  2. I wonder if one of the reasons that women feel that having a family and a career are at odds with each other is from some of the examples they have seen of women that do this?

    Mind you, I know of many women who have careers and families that seem to manage that balance very well but it doesn’t always feel that way (not only in the media) to many women.

    For example I grew up in a place where married women with children were definitely not necessarily encouraged to work – but some amazing women did. My mother is a good example of this, after my brother and myself were old enough to go to school (it was the done thing in the late 60 early 70s) she went back to work full time, as she really hated not working.

    But what I saw was her being a ‘super-woman’ meaning she worked, did most of the child care, housework and cooking ON TOP OF working more than full time – she has alot of energy and now she is 76 she would say she wouldn’t have it any other way.

    I think alot of people don’t want to necessarily work like this, I am not saying this is how it has to be (as in many cases it definitely is not!) but I think there is maybe a general impression that you have to do about 10 times as much work in order to achieve family and a good career.
    and equally I think there is still an impression that women like you ‘aren’t normal’ – eg you have ‘much more ability’ to do these things than the average woman. I have heard people say this about alot of women that I know who have sucessfully acheived both family and career. Which is actually kind of scary (it reminds me of Simone deBeauvior and the second sex where women are classified as ‘other’ even by other women).

    how do we change that perception? How do we make child care more accessible (for instance) so that if you work it doesn’t take all of your income? How do we show that you can acheive a balanced life? How do we make it known that this is a stereotype which is not necessarily true and that it can be achieved by many not just the few

    lovely post

    • Your comment raises many interesting issues, which can’t be dealt with fully simply in a single response, Sylvia, so I’ll just touch on some of the key points.

      Let me start with the last one. Your comment still implies that child care is the mother’s issue, not a parental one. I think one key thing that must be done, societally, is for this to stop being simply perceived as the women’s problem. The more it is seen as a joint responsibility of the parents the more solutions will be found. Each family will tackle the issue in different ways depending on what kind of jobs they each do or don’t have. It would be good to think that the upcoming change in the (UK) legal position about parental leave (which will give a legal right for the second half of what has been maternity leave to be taken by the father if desired, if I remember the details correctly) will foster a shift in the right direction. Whereas pregnancy and childbirth rather obviously cannot be shared, child care can be: meeting the children from school, taking time off when they’re sick and being around during school holidays are not necessarily woman’s work. I am spoilt because my husband stood back from his career so I could pursue mine, but that is becoming a commoner pattern than it was 20 years ago when he did it. And the more men who do it, the more it will be regarded as acceptable and so the more men who will feel comfortable doing it. But even without going to that extreme, childcare can and should be shared. However, the reality is we are a long way from this position yet. Londa Schiebinger recently published an article about the sharing of housework between academic partners, which showed just how uneven that ‘sharing’ was – and this wasn’t even addressing childcare. So you are right, major obstacles remain. But you are also right, many women manage. Ottoline Leyser’s book Mothers in Science (which can be downloaded from the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity webpage is testament to the many different ways of balancing things up.

      Which takes me to the second of your points, that of balance, and more particularly work-life balance. Not everyone wants to work 24/7, or anything approaching it – true of men as well as women – and science can at times seem all consuming. I know various academic colleagues who quite explicitly say they would rather have a balance tilted towards the ‘life’ side, rather than chase after fame or status. And probably more women fit into that category than men, and why not. But that is different from saying it is impossible. And that is what I find irritating about the media reporting. It’s the glass half empty rather than half full view of things, and it only acts as a deterrent. In fact I believe academia is a very good environment in which to try to find a solution balancing family and (hard) work because (particularly by the time one is a lecturer and perhaps not so confined to the lab bench), work can be adapted to fit to quite a large extent. Much work can be done from home – I distinctly remember writing a lecture course with a new baby on my shoulder at some ridiculously early hour in the morning; one can meet children from school and return to refereeing or writing papers later in the evening – if one chooses. But, compared with many jobs where you have fixed hours of employment when you must physically be present, academic life is really rather free. Many women have pointed this out, but somehow it gets glossed over.

      I don’t regard myself as ‘ not normal’, or at least not most of the time! And, to return to the original point of the post, I am sure those black students who do make it to Oxbridge don’t either. I think the question that the women who are questioning whether they can combine career and family should be asking themselves is how frustrated will they be if they give up one or the other. In earlier generations it was the frustration that so many women bore the scars of lifelong, and it is something that should be avoidable now. But every young woman has to work out what is right for her, given her particular circumstances. All we should collectively be doing is making sure they know that the combination isn’t necessarily beyond their reach.

  3. Let me just begin by saying that I don’t necessarily believe these things myself but I fear this perception is very prevalent – and a bit sad and archaic, but I have a hard time thinking how to re-teach these things, but your point about the more people that do it and it becomes more normal is I think very true, time…

    I don’t think you are not normal either, for the record I just think people have that perception that it isn’t acheivable for ‘them’ – because it doesn’t seem to be that common (even though in reality it is!) most of the female senior scientists I know DO have kids and careers.. why is it not as noticable, yes maybe the media but maybe it is something more.

    I don’t personally think child caring is the woman’s responsibility, and I am sorry if my comment implied that I think I was just trying to point out that many people do, or what is interesting from your comment is that many people feel that one partner MUST make a sacrifice to have children – whether true or not, its hard to not wonder why that perception prevails

    Thanks for taking the time to answer – really interesting discussion!

    • I think it is a combination of the way stories, biographies etc are reported, but also simply because it is actually only very recently that things have startd to change in a substantial way. My generation, certainly me, was still not brought up to think girls had careers at all. We went to university and then…at 18 I had no thoughts after that (except marriage). My ‘career’ consisted of just following my nose until I was around 30 I think, when I noticed I was having one. I doubt I was alone in thinking like that. Your generation is probably very different, but it will only be the children of your generation who perhaps will believe it is ‘normal’ to aspire to combine career and family. So maybe it is largely a question of time, but we should help to promote change in patterns of thinking wherever possible!

  4. rpg says:

    Disclaimer: I’m certainly not normal.

    I went to Oxford via the interview/A level method, as I was in a poor, State comprehensive. Nobody had been to Oxford or Cambridge from that school in 15 years. I applied off my own bat (thanks to encouragement from my mother); no real support or interest from the school (and I fought with my head of year because I refused to apply to a polytechnic as backup to UCAS), and I was thrilled to get an interview.

    Selected a college based on its male/female state/private ratios, and numbers of kitchens per student (don’t ask).

    Nervous as all hell in my interview, with my regional accent. Very understanding interviewer (she later became my tutor—and had basically invented Oxford Biochemistry). Got offered ABB (‘We would prefer the ‘A’ to be in Chemistry’).

    Next year, the school really tried to get an Oxford/Cambridge applicant, and succeeded getting one pupil in to one of the more ‘traditional’ colleges. I think they had a bit of a dead patch after that.

  5. To go back to the original charge by Lammy about Oxbridge not trying hard enough as regards race, I noticed a report on a residential course aimed primarily at ethnic minorities on the Cambridge University’s web pages today. It is part of the Fast Forward Maths programme (funded for its first three years by a $1.2m donation from the Goldman Sachs Foundation), permitting 40 14 year olds to come to do a residential course in Cambridge. The students are mainly from schools with below average GCSE or A Level results,who have no family tradition of going into higher education and are mostly from ethnic minority backgrounds. The workshop runs from 16th to 19th December and is the second of three residential workshops based at the University over this academic year. Fast Forward Maths is run by two award-winning divisions of the University of Cambridge: the NRICH Project, which is part of the Millennium Mathematics Project, and the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications (GEEMA), which is part of the Widening Participation Team in the Cambridge Admissions Office and which I mentioned in my original post. Such workshops can only touch a handful of the school children we need to reach, but it will help to spread the word that Cambridge University is indeed accessible and welcoming, and a place they can think about aspiring to. I only hope some of the national media pick up on this web story and use it to counter the negative reporting of which the original article was representative.