The Oxbridge Whitewash: A Damning Indictment

Henry Stewart's picture
The revelation in today's Guardian that 21 Oxbridge colleges failed to admit a single black student shows the extent to which Oxbridge has failed to ensure its admissions reflect actual ability. It is another indicator that admissions are based more on connections (of the schools they go to) than on student ability.

We already know that state school students are under-represented at Oxbridge and that this is not because of their A level results.  71% of A level A grades (and 70% of A* grades) were achieved in the state sector. Yet state sector students constitute less than 60% of admissions in either Oxford or Cambridge.

We also found out last week that students from comprehensive schools do better at university than those from grammar and private schools, who have the same A level grades. So if Oxbridge was truly seeking out those most likely to succeed it would be admitting state students in larger numbers than that 70% proportion. Instead they are somehow admitting less.

One explanation of why some groups (including state school students and black students) are under-represented is that those groups are less likely to apply. It has been argued that state school teachers deter their students from applying to Oxbridge. The Guardian article reveals, for black students at least, that this is not the case. For those black students that apply, it is simply harder to get in. Compared to a 1 in 3 chance for students generally, black students have only a 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 chance of being admitted. Indeed nearly 50% of black students with 3 As applied to Oxbridge, compared to 28% of white students with those grades.

The reality is that the easiest way to get into Oxbridge is to attend one of those schools with connections going back decades, and with years of experience of hothousing their students for Oxbridge admission. There have been genuine attempts by Oxford and Cambridge, over the last few years, to widen their admissions. But these statistics once again indicate that these do not go nearly far enough in tackling the inherent discrimination that determines who gets to these 'top' universities.
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Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 13:58

Toby Young has blogged on this issue, there's a bloke called assegai who's written some cogent remarks to try and redress the usual dross

Henry, I may be playing devil's advocate here but when you said that nearly 50% of black students compared with 28% of white students applied to Oxbridge with 3 grade As the report said "Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford's three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths with 7% of white applicants."

But it does appear that the Oxbridge selection process needs to examined more closely and whether black students from your school aren't facing a level playing field.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 13:59

PS Sorry, I meant Henry (not Francis).

Anne Reyerbach's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 14:57

Oxbridge Colleges are themselves really off putting unless you have been to a public school like Eton that resembles an Oxbridge College. No wonder so many go from Eton-it's home from home. And then there are so many other covert barriers: understanding of the language and the arcane conventions. And the need to have money whilst there-possibly quite a lot of it. These are deterrents to any one not public school educated- and they are retained to ensure few who don't understand ever actually bother top try to go there.
And anyway-if you were public school educated at c £27k per year why shouldn't you pay that for your university fees thereby subsidising those who are bound to be yet further deterred by the upcoming fees increase?

Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 16:14

Also noticed in the Guardian data dump that only 6% of Hackney students applying to Oxford got in (12.5% for Cambridge). That is 1 in 15, compared to 1 in 3 for students overall. Though its better than Tower Hamelts (2%) and Barking (0%).

For a university claiming to be seeking to attract more students from less-affluent backgrounds, these are not good stats.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 19:22

While I agree with most of the comments here, I do know the Director for Admissions at both universities are fair-minded people but really struggling to find ways of increasing access. We really need to get TEACHERS in these schools on board with the Oxbridge thing: the colleges will help students if teachers don't put them off.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 21:52

I wish I could agree with that Francis, but the whole process of Oxbridge admissions is daunting, even to the most socially confident, middle class, high achieving pupil and I write as the parent of a child who did get in. I think schools are partly to blame but the colleges too complacent . They should be actively seeking out the most eligible disadvantaged pupils, nurturing them and funding them, and also make the process less arcane. Many of the leading independent schools have representatives for Oxford on Cambridge on their governing bodies and I fear there is a very powerful lobby that wants to preserve places for their students, and is quite threatened by the idea that the floodgates might open to the less privileged and take those places away.

M Schwarz's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 20:50

If just 35 Black Caribbean students applied to Oxford last year that's not much more than one per college anyway.

Also, that is pretty consistent with psychometric data that also predicts the overrepresentation of East Asian and Ashkenazi jewish students (you particularly see this in the top US colleges).

John Blake's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 20:53

In reply to Anne, I would say that not all Oxbridge colleges look like public schools (my old college St Hugh's in fact looks quite a lot like the comprehensive I currently work in) - I think it is something more intangible that students find off-putting: the carefully created sense that being in Oxford is "different" from the outside world, which many Oxford students (including state-schooled ones) I think actively participate in.

Also, on Francis's point I agree it is of central importance to get teachers on-board with encouraging applications but I think there are problems in the universities too: access schemes have been run by the university for years, and for years it has been said that getting the teachers on board has been of central importance, but the class divide at Oxford hasn't decreased much if at all. I also think the statistics on the drop-out rates of students by class background would make interesting reading and might suggest a lack of consistent support across the colleges. Speaking about Oxford, it wouldn't be the only thing that lacked consistency across the university because of the divided nature of university government between the colleges and the central university.

Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 23:28

Absolutely agree, Fiona. What these figures show is that the belief that some groups are under-represented because they have been put off applying to Oxford is false.

The clear fact is that when black students and those from under-represented areas - like Hackney and Tower Hamlets - apply to Oxbridge, they do not get in - or find it much harder than those from more priviledged backgrounds with the same results.

The Heads of Admission may be well meaning but today they should have been looking in the mirror and asking what they are doing wrong to so badly fail to select students on a representative basis.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 08/12/2010 - 20:51

All of these comments and Henry's article have made me think again about this. Maybe we actually need to institute quotas for Russell Group Universities if we are going to solve the problem of lack of social mobility and under-achievement per se. If the Russell Group unis knew that they had to be representative of the population, then perhaps they would be more pro-active about taking on students. In my son's class in Year 6, it's very clear that there are some extremely intelligent students from backgrounds not represented at Oxbridge, yet I wonder how many of them will be there in ten years time...If Oxbridge knew that they had to take a certain percentage, maybe then they'd work more with schools to make sure that these groups achieved their potential in secondary schools.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 08/12/2010 - 22:30

This was the Oxford response to David Lammy's article, stressing that it does have outreach events for state school pupils.
A work colleague of mine (security guard) who's son had done well in his GCSEs and had attended a school which was in special measures had been put forward to Oxford by his teacher and received contact from Exeter College, Oxford.

There's also work by the Sutton Trust to help bright pupils who wouldn't normally get the same guidance as more elite students.

I don't think people should get too hung up about Oxbridge. Why should a good degree from Durham/Bristol/Warwick/UCL be less advantagous? There must be plenty of Scots who would choose Glasgow/Edinburgh over Oxbridge.

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