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Fish through the net – my experience as a black student in Oxford

Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that only 10 out of 32 Oxford University Colleges awarded a place to a black British pupil with A-Levels in 2015. Over six-years, Oriel College offered only one place to a black student. One of Oxford’s only black students, O. A. Clarke, says though it has the best of intentions, Oxford still does not possess the cultural nuance to foster true diversity across its student body. If its colleges are not institutions of “social apartheid” Oxford must be fully committed to social progress for such a culture to flourish.

On 20 October the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, published data profiling the diversity amongst Oxbridge’s undergraduate body. The findings requested under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the racial and socio-economic background of all students who received a place to study in the past seven years.

The results are unsurprisingly despairing – 10 out of 32 Oxford Colleges did not award a place to a black British pupil with A-levels in 2015 and Oriel College only offered one place to a black British student in 6 years. Lammy described the situation as “social apartheid.” A number of journalists, including black Oxbridge graduates, have called the phrase ham-handed and an emotionally knee-jerk response to another disparaging, albeit slightly improved, set of Oxbridge ethnicity data (in 2009, 21 Oxbridge colleges offered no places to black students, compared to 16 in 2015 – statistics again requested and published by Lammy). Clearly there are larger more systemic issues than two higher education institutions which account for the relatively poor attainment of black and lower socio-economic students at all levels of the British education system. Lammy’s comments do however raise an interesting question. When does an admissions policy which consistently fails to proportionately identify talent among black and lower socio-economic groups, and has knowingly come under sustained attack for this very reason, become a conscious tool of race and class segregation?

As a black British-born state-educated Oxford graduate born and raised in North London, I wrote to congratulate David Lammy on his commitment to press for the release of Oxbridge’s ethnicity data. I should have done this in 2009 when, as I was standing outside Oriel College, I received two calls back-to-back from national newspapers (in light of the recently published data on Oriel, the symbolic significance, or irony of this timing is not lost on me). Both reporters requested an interview in response to the data he obtained, revealing that only one Black Briton of Caribbean descent had accepted a place at Oxford that year. When the statistics were published that morning I wondered if that person was myself. My ethnic classification on the UK census is white and black Caribbean. My mother is Greek-Cypriot and my father is Jamaican – I had black British-born friends in my year at Oxford but none to my knowledge were of Caribbean descent.

The tone of both reporters was warm and congratulatory. In light of the damning statistics, my story was a successful one and they wanted to hear it. I asked if they were interviewing me as the one ethnically black Caribbean Briton accepted that year and they both averted the question and said that as a black student admitted in 2009, I should have my voice heard. I suspected that neither reporter actually knew or cared if I was the person in question and I felt I was being approached with the eagerness and urgency of a punchy follow up story from a black undergraduate. This may not have necessarily mattered to me and I did want my opinion heard, but I felt uncomfortable voicing my social experience of Oxford at this time as it was largely a negative one for reasons that at the time of the calls I was trying to process. In retrospect, I attribute much of my maladjustment to feeling ethno-culturally and socially isolated and I want to share with you just some of the events that contributed to me feeling this way.

On my first day at Oxford, a college talent show was organised as part of Freshers week. After a string of second and third year undergraduate performances the college president asked if any first years would like to perform. The request was met with silence until one fellow fresher said audibly to a large group around me that I should step up as I was black and must be able to sing. The remark was met with laughter. On many separate occasions throughout the year I was asked at random if I knew where weed could be bought, I was told by a girl on our first date that she had never been on a date with a working class person before, I was laughed at for using a desert spoon to eat the soup starter at my college’s formal dinner, it was jokingly suggested by a group of my friends that they should stage a lynching for me following the completion of my last exam in celebration and I was told at one party serving canapés that I should ask if they served fried chicken.

I must stress that none of these examples of racism or snobbery really had much of a visceral emotional impact on me. I did not stir over them, I did not lose any sleep over them and a few of the comments were made by people that I am good friends with today. They were however all part of an ethnically and socially marginalising experience that left me increasingly unsure of how to express myself.

There was however one event that took place that year that did immediately unsettle me. Following a birthday party of a fellow student, I was driven home by a friend and we first stopped off at a petrol station. Driving in to the petrol station we encountered a fight between two middle-aged men that both appeared to be of South-Asian descent. My friend immediately called out to them to “stop fighting” as “we are all British.” When I initially saw these two men my instinct was to break up the fight, my friend’s instinct was, on seeing two ethnic men behaving in an uncivilized manner, to appeal to their British values. This is the same person who together we have witnessed numerous drunken student fights outside nightclubs in Oxford – never has my friend evangelised about the virtue of British values in these incidents. In one sentence my friend had summed up the all encompassing, homogenous British culture of the upper-middle to upper classes that lies somewhere between ignorance and latent classism and racism. It was this culture that had made my first year experience very difficult for me.

This is the emotional context in which I received the two calls from reporters standing outside Oriel College. I was angry and I had things to say but I was being approached as a success of Oxford’s application system when I felt closer to a victim. The topic had to be dealt with sensitively and I doubted whether my story would be correctly quoted or even desired. I declined to comment and the reporters subsequently contacted my friend who took up their offer. My friend is black but not of Caribbean descent.

This is the side of things that is often missed out when the Oxbridge diversity question annually rears its ugly head – not whether or not a socially biased admissions policy exists (it does) but the effect that this policy can have on the fish who make it though the net. But now, what of the net, why does it exists and how can it be changed?

During my time at Oxford I heard speeches from the University Chancellor (during both matriculation and graduation ceremonies), College masters, College presidents and had conversations with numerous tutors, all of which touched on Oxford’s societal role. From these, I can identify only one unequivocal obligation that Oxford sees itself as having to fulfil – that is to foster the best minds that will make great contributions to our society. The question is (whether you believe this obligation is the right one or not) does a commitment to admit a more diverse ethnic and social pool of students undermine this obligation?

I believe that many of my fellow students, and crucially, many tutors/interviewers, believe it does. This is simply for one reason – that “minds” from ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds generally do not transition as easily into Oxford’s social and educational culture and are therefore harder to foster. There is sadly a lot of truth in this. High educational attainment for GCSEs and A-levels do not as of their own give you the intellectual confidence needed to thrive at an institution like Oxford and certainly does not necessarily give you the confidence to perform at interview. For example, the conviction needed to express your opinions well at interview level largely comes from trusting that your knowledge of your particular subject and your intellectual capability is as strong as previously successful applicants. When you lack this network you lack this assuredness and it is more difficult to engender the trust in your ability that the interviewer needs in order to be sure that they can develop you in the way they wish.

If Oxford is committed to picking the best minds to flourish, a premise I take no issue with, they have to be aware of the incredibly strong social determinants that help create the “talent” they are picking to flourish. Moreover, given Oxford’s tutorial system, where undergraduates are primarily taught on a 1-on-1 or 1-on-2 basis, there is scope to me much braver in their ambitions to progress talent.

Oxford should not jeopardise its commitment to excellence and it is an insult to think that by calling for a more representative proportion of students from ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds, you are affectingly asking them to do so.

I am not calling for the aim of interviewers to change or even to be very consciously quota driven at the time of interviewing. I am asking for their identification of talent and their methods of development to be far more socially nuanced, for them to work alongside organisations that can help them be more alive to these factors and also to trust that this change will bear fruit – that a wider socio-ethnic pool of successful applicants will ultimately create a richer and more intellectually diverse range of social contributors.

Not only will this help Oxford better realise their aim but it is the only way that the privileged culture can be genuinely checked. Oxford does try to foster an inclusive atmosphere (there were numerous LGBT events at Oxford, black history month was celebrated in some colleges and there is robust pastoral support system in place) but these do little to challenge this privileged culture. The problem is that currently the vast majority of students who enter Oxford as first years (a) are aware that they are entering a social atmosphere just like their schools and (b) don’t have the sensitivity or awareness at this stage in their lives, through a lack of interaction with minority students at school, to check their privilege. The only way that students of this age and life experience can be made aware is to enter into an institution where the student body is so diverse that checking one’s privilege is a necessary precondition to a successful social life.

This will take a long time to achieve as privilege has become so entrenched in Oxford’s social customs that many of them have entered tradition. For example, despite it being played by only a small minority of schools in Britain, the most popular female sport in Oxford is lacrosse and the varsity game is a big social event. To over half the female student body it is a sport they have grown up with whether they play it or not and its popularity at Oxford is normal and natural. For a substantial minority of the female population, to embrace lacrosse is to embrace Oxford – it is not seen so much as a symbol of privilege but a quirk – its different, it’s fun. This is an example of the effect of Oxford’s homogenous culture – privilege has the weight of tradition supporting it and tradition socially exonerates it’s up-keepers. If the student body was more demographically representative of the country, it would be harder for lacrosse to remain as popular as it is and there would be less pressure on the female population to embrace it as the sport to play. This is an example of the social tension needed as a necessary first step to challenge privileged customs in Oxford.

A more diverse culture should be a learning experience for all parties.

If Oxbridge are not institutions of “social apartheid” they must be fully committed to social progression and must therefore be fully committed to fostering a culture that can enable such progression to flourish.

The only way to do this is to remove the net and let the weight of the fish naturally challenge the weight of tradition that currently serves to normalise privilege.



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