To think of Britain’s most distinguishable universities, Oxford and Cambridge, is to think of Britain’s elite. Oxbridge – to use the portmanteau – is where the nation’s finest minds go on their most important step of education; or at least that is what the idea is supposed to be. However, the substantial disproportion of the white to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) student ratio suggests a policy of privilege as opposed to equal opportunity for talented intellect. Certainly, the thought of Oxbridge does not conjure an image of multiculturalism, it brings to mind a procession of Eton graduates and members of the Bullingdon boys club continuing on a production line for the entitled, white and wealthy.
Whilst both universities have claimed to have opened their doors to a more diverse selection of students, the figures hardly display an accurate representation of the current socioeconomic and ethnic make-up of Britain. In 2016, information from the UCAS showed that Oxford took on 2180 white students, while accepting just 35 black applicants. At Cambridge, these themes were continued: 2025 white students made up the overwhelming majority, with just 40 black students gaining entry.
Afro 'petted' by white students
It is difficult not to look at these statistics without recognising the presence of institutionalised racism at Britain’s elite universities. This notion can be backed up with statements from former BAME students who found themselves discriminated against during their time at Oxbridge. Cambridge student Timi Sotire told Business Insider that her afro was ‘petted’ by white students, who mocked her, stating that her hair would look better straight. Speaking to the same publication, a BAME student from Oxford spoke of a time during her first week when she was asked by another student if she could be called ‘the n-word’.
Whilst such stories make Oxbridge an unappealing tertiary option for many BAME students, those who endeavour to earn themselves a rare spot at either institution have to overcome a great deal of complex societal obstacles. A recent UN study discovered that BAME households are twice as likely to be stuck in constant poverty as white households. And one in four Asian and black children are similarly prone to live in a state of poverty, which compares to just one in ten white British children. These issues are all the more relevant when you consider that the greater majority of Oxbridge students come from wealthy, white families.
A joint study by UUK and NUS also proved an attainment gap between BAME and white students at not only Oxbridge, but all British universities. The findings show that white students are, on average, 10 to 15 percent more likely than BAME students to leave university with a first or 2.1 at 29% of UK universities. It is quite obvious that, alongside discriminatory racial profiling, coming from a socially disadvantaged background makes academic success harder to achieve. It was revealed in a study of Black Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students at Cambridge that 76% of those who had to work during the holidays in order to financially support themselves went on to receive poor exam grades – the study outlying the knock-on effect these issues can have on an individual.
Without the support and opportunities to achieve better education, some of the persistent socioeconomic problems in Britain will remain unsolved. For instance, ethnic minorities are still likely to suffer from a pay gap: Pakistani men were paid an average of £3.30 less per hour than white men from 2007-2014. If more BAME students could gain superior degrees from the best universities, this issue could likely be better balanced. It’s also worth noting that only 10% of UK university professors are BAME, with just 0.6 percent being black.
Greater disparity in ethnic diversity may occur
Sadly, with Brexit on the horizon, the opportunities for Britain’s universities to diversify the ethnic make-up of their yearly student intake will diminish. It’s predicted by the Higher Education Policy Institute that the number of EU students studying in the UK will decrease by 57 percent. This is because EU pupils will soon have to start paying the same tuition fees that current international students pay. They will also need to apply for a Tier 4 Student Visa before being accepted to study in Britain. The Financial Times claim that Cambridge has already seen EU applications drop by 14%, and it is likely Oxford will experience similar results.
In light of this, it is difficult to foresee Oxbridge evolving away from their tradition of a white-privilege dominated student base. Quite frankly, with the full effects of Brexit imminent, it looks possible that a greater disparity in ethnic diversity may occur. Indeed, the UN state that spending cuts consequent of the referendum will result in a 5% loss in income for black households; which is double that of white households. And given the concerning increase in hate crimes that has occurred since Brexit, it is more than likely that Oxbridge will retain its undercurrent of discrimination against minorities, deterring BAME students from applying to such prestigious institutions.;
Ultimately, Britain’s elite universities need to be doing more to make their resources accessible for all of Britain’s brightest minds; regardless of upbringing, ethnicity or privilege. With discrimination rampant, and economic issues to consider, BAME students undoubtedly face a great many obstacles during application for institutions like Oxbridge; let alone succeeding academically once there. And, with Brexit likely to impede any potential progress, a major rethink is needed in order to give all students an equal chance of success if we want to attain a society of equality. Put simply, one’s ethnicity should not impact upon one’s academic opportunities – so, in modern day Britain, why does it still?
Hal Fish is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration solicitors which provides legal support for students from overseas looking to study in the UK.
Photo: Graduation day at Cambridge University, May 2015. © Shutterstock