‘The Oxbridge Whitewash’

David Lammy entered a Freedom of Information request to get Oxford and Cambridge to reveal information about applications and admissions.

The results (reported here) are appaling: Oxford admitted one black Caribbean student last year. 21 (out of 44) Oxford colleges made no offers to black students last year.

Lammy suggests the problem is not simply a matter of black and ethnic minority students not applying. Rather, white students were more likely to be successful than black students at most colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. This seems to be particularly so for black women:

The starkest divide in Cambridge was at Newnham, an all-women’s college, where black applicants had a 13% success rate compared with 67% for white students.

A spokesperson suggests that the low acceptance rates may be explained by the fact that black students tend to apply for the most over-subscribed subjects.

Class representation is also poor, as the data gathered show:

that Oxford’s social profile is 89% upper- and middle-class, while 87.6% of the Cambridge student body is drawn from the top three socioeconomic groups. The average for British universities is 64.5%, according to the admissions body Ucas.

From what we know about solo status and stereotype threat, there’s reason to suppose that such low numbers may affect the experience of working class and black and ethnic minority students at these universities. And there’s clear anecdotal evidence of under-representation putting off prospective applicants:

Matthew Benjamin, 28, who studied geography at Jesus College, Oxford, said: “I was very aware that I was the only black student in my year at my college. I was never made to feel out of place, but it was certainly something I was conscious of. …

“On open days, some black kids would see me and say ‘you’re the only black person we’ve seen here – is it even worth us applying?'”

And this is all in face of a fees hike…
It is worth noting that, as far as I know, both Cambridge and Oxford operate a ‘Special Access Scheme’, aimed at recruiting excellent students from schools which do not have excellent grade averages. One might wonder how effective such schemes are, in light of these figures.

24 thoughts on “‘The Oxbridge Whitewash’

  1. Out of the 6-8 (I can’t quite remember how many) Universities that I applied to for postgrad only Cambridge asked for a photo to be sent with the application. In fact they asked for several! I really could not understand why it should matter to my application what I looked like. It’s no wonder I didn’t particularly want to go when they did offer me a place! If I’d had several piercings, green hair, or (judging from the above) was black would they still have offered me a place?! Probably not! I’d rather not go to a University that only accepts me because I’m white and kind of geeky looking!

  2. Maybe there’s a worry about making sure the right person turns up for interview? But surely there’d be other ways of checking that (e.g. having the admissions tutor check identification on arrival). I can’t see any good reason for requiring photos.

  3. This isn’t much of an explanation but I do know that the photo that you send with your application is used for your university ID card. However, as noted above, they ask for more than one photo (one for the college, one for the department, and one for the university) and you don’t get three cards!

  4. FR, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to ask for photos with registration materials? otherwise they’re processing many more photos than will actually become IDs.

  5. I’m not in a position to argue that it is class, but to cite just race and percentage entrace either doesn’t tell us much about the cause or assumes that race is the only significant cause. But if racism is assumed, it can’t also be the conclusion. Actually, in newspapers it can be, but…

    I’m wondering about the quite good figures for Keble, and whether there’s something there are its missionary background, which I vaguely remember it having.

    Many years ago, my partner was a fellow of Keble. He got into great trouble for asking a (very distinguished) women in for lunch. It was one of the places I tutored for and couldn’t eat in. I do remember the Warden of Keble’s wife announcing to a morning coffee of fellows’ wives that I shouldn’t be teaching because I had a baby. Ah, those were the days!

    Opps, this isn’t the right blog for that.

  6. Leaving pictures off the application would of course be a move in the right direction, but that obviously won’t “blind” the applications as far as assumptions about race and class are concerned. If the applicant’s name is Imogen Taylor-Thomas or Fergus Fitzroy-Ferguson, then usually that person would be white and upper-class, non?

    Although such impressions aren’t always right, they are right in a sufficient number of cases to introduce a significant source of (unacknowledged) bias. In my home country, men with “Anglo” first names like Roger, Roy and Kenneth are overwhelmingly working class, and the assumption when meeting a “Roger” or “Glenn” or “Kenneth” is that this person is probably a plumber and certainly not a lawyer or academic (some clever person even uncovered statistics showing that men by the first name “Ronny” are twice as likely to suffer bankruptcy than men with the more patrician name “Henrik”). This in a country where distinctions of class are usually downplayed to the point of the ridiculous. So merely putting your name on the application would be enough to prejudice interviewers, whether they realize it or not.

    I must admit that my one time doing admissions interviewing at an Oxbridge college left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Since I am not British and not educated in Britain I asked several fellows of my college about the predominantly white upper-class and public school backgrounds of the students I had met, and asked whether the college was doing anything to recruit from a wider demographic. For someone whose teaching experience was predominantly US Ivy League at the time, it only seemed reasonable that of two candidates A and B whose grades were the same, but one of whom attended Eton, and another a state school, we should choose the latter, since that person surely had greater potential. (If two runners achieve the same result, but one has been running with a brick around her neck, then that runner is presumably the most talented).

    This line of argument was generally met with a look of pity (how naive!), and remarks to the effect that by the time students apply to university, it is too late to do anything about the effects of the divided school system. The college ended up with the upper-class students because the others were simply not up to the task.

    During the interviews I heard quite inappropriate remarks about some students’ appearance (the women), and it baffled me how my co-interviewers could be so sure that one person was more deserving of a place than another, when the interviews most of all seemed to show me some extremely nervous (and therefore inhibited) youngsters trying to satisfy what they thought were the interviewers’ expectations. It was painful to watch, and I still doubt that it provided much useful information. Also, the setting was such that an upper-class student would naturally feel more at ease than someone unaccustomed to such grand surroundings.

    It seems to me that Oxbridge academics, given their academic achievements, may be at particular risk of assuming that they are too rational or too experienced to let irrelevant factors like race, class and gender obscure their vision of a candidate’s potential. As we are now beginning to understand, one of the greatest obstacles to dealing with implicit bias is the confidence in one’s own unbiased rationality (philosophers are particularly prone to this kind of self-delusion, it seems).

    In my experience, few academics who have studied and worked exclusively in the British system understand the wide gulf in recruitment demographics that separate Oxbridge from the Ivy League. Statistics bear this out, and my own experience confirms it. In my classes in the US, I would regularly meet non-white students whose parents ran a gas station, and even one or two raised by single McDonald’s employed mothers (they were there on full fellowships). Nine out of seventeen students in a class I taught had a first language other than English, and a third were non-white. This was in the humanities, not engineering, where there were hardly any white students at all. While minority students were certainly not in the majority at the university, they were a sufficiently strong presence that Matthew Benjamin’s experiences at Oxford would have struck most as strange.

    Maybe there were more working class students at my UK college than I realized — it seemed that working class students would try to hide their background to fit in. No student I met ever volunteered that they were working class (in the U.S., emphasizing this fact would add to your glory — you made it!). It seemed that any accent with a hint of the north or a less than privileged upbringing was quickly shed. Zadie Smith has written insightfully about the phenomenon.

    It’s a good thing that there are so many other fine universities in the UK than Oxbridge. In my opinion, non-white and working class students should consider taking their talents elsewhere.

  7. Karen, American elite colleges may be more ethnically diverse than Oxbridge, but they are certainly not very socio-economically diverse. In my experience, most of the non-white students in American elite colleges are just as rich (or upper-middle class) as their white peers. Also:

    “For someone whose teaching experience was predominantly US Ivy League at the time, it only seemed reasonable that of two candidates A and B whose grades were the same, but one of whom attended Eton, and another a state school, we should choose the latter, since that person surely had greater potential.”

    I have to disagree with this. I attended a very mediocre high school, and I was accepted at an elite American college. Although I am very grateful that I was able to attend the college I did, I have to admit that, objectively speaking, someone who has perfect grades from an elite high school has demonstrated far greater merit than someone who has earned the same grades from a mediocre high school. Finally:

    “…remarks to the effect that by the time students apply to university, it is too late to do anything about the effects of the divided school system. The college ended up with the upper-class students because the others were simply not up to the task.”

    I have to say, I think this is a pretty good point. My freshman roommate (who, incidentally, was non-white) had attended Andover, and I found out very quickly that he was far better prepared for the rigors of an elite college than I was.

  8. Ben,

    There’s a huge difference in grading systems in the U.S. and the U.K. Students in the U.K are admitted on the basis of their predicted A-level results (the offer is usually conditional on the student’s actually attaining the predicted grades in the end-of-year examinations).

    These exams are administered by exam boards, they are not set by the student’s teacher. Students from vastly different schools are therefore graded according to the same standards. My point was about two *UK* students with the same grades, so your objection fails. In the US mediocre grades from an excellent high school may certainly indicate that a student is better prepared than a student with higher grades from a mediocre high school — but again, that is irrelevant to the point I was making.

    I agree that U.S. Ivy League schools aren’t very socio-economically diverse. My point was comparative: they are more socio-economically diverse than Oxbridge.

  9. Karen: I don’t know if this was true at the time you were interviewing, but nowadays the vast majority of applicants coming for interview have a record of only As (the highest grade possible), so making decisions on the basis of school grades alone is simply impossible.

    Also, it’s worth remembering that, for better or for worse, affirmative action is actually illegal in the UK.

  10. It’s slightly more complicated than that, anon. ‘Positive discrimination’ is illegal – that’s defined as choosing someone solely on the grounds of their race, gender, etc. rather than their abilities. But it is legal to take actions that seek to redress some past discrimination/disadvantage suffered by some particular group. (Whether the action of choosing the straight A student from the state school over the straight A student from the private school counts as the latter, I’m not sure.)

  11. Karen, I was aware of the A-level system, but I didn’t realize how standardized the grading is. I am actually from the same country as you, and as you know we have national exams in our country as well. Although in theory the grading standards for those exams are supposed to be uniform across the country, in practice that is not at all the case. However, after looking into the matter, it is clear to me that the grading for the A-level exams is much more standardized.

    Even so, I still maintain that between two candidates with the same (top) grades on standardized exams, one of whom attended an elite high school while the other didn’t, the student who attended the elite school is much more likely to be successful at an elite college like Oxford or Cambridge. The US also uses standardized exams, namely the SAT tests, and I myself got perfect and near perfect scores on the general SAT and on several SAT subject tests, in addition to top grades on our country’s national exams. Even so, I am positive that I was vastly under-prepared compared to students who had attended schools like Andover, Harvard-Westlake, Stuyvesant, etc. And it’s not just my anecdotal evidence that suggests that elite high school students have an advantage; the link I posted above indicates that state school students in the UK do indeed perform less well than public school students.

  12. I have removed two posts which claim that there are racial bases for degrees of academic performance. Not only are the suppositions of that large claim highly questionable, but the claims were also unlinked to explaining differences in entry to Oxbridge.

  13. In case any alleged heritable differences in racial IQ are relevant, readers cannot do much better than checking out:

    1) a two part 1974 paper co-authored by Ned Block and Gerald Dworkin published in Philosophy and Public Affairs:

    -“IQ: Heritability and Inequality, Part 1” Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 331-409.

    -“IQ, Heritability and Inequality, Part 2” Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 40-99.

    2) various work by Leon Kamin

    3) various work by Evelyn Fox Keller (on race and gender)

    4) various work by Richard Lewontin (on race and gender)

    5) Ned Block. 1995. How heritability misleads about race. Cognition 56: 99-128.

    6) Ned Block. Race, Genes, and IQ. Boston Review 20: 3-35.

    7) Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America Revisited. 2002. Sociology of Education 75: 1-18.

    Click to access soced.pdf


    This last one, number 7, is less directly relevant than the others but a favorite of mine and a gem itself in many of ways. Perhaps interested others could post comments with additional and/or better references/links.

  14. David Slutsky, it seems to me all the references you have provided are on the anti-“Jensenist” side of the debate on racial differences, and, with all due respect, they are also somewhat obsolete. By far the most prominent contemporary anti-Jensenist is James Flynn. Additionally, I feel that anyone seeking to get a balanced view of the debate should probably also read what the other side has to say, and no one is a better Jensenist than Arthur Jensen himself. In my experience the work of both Flynn and Jensen is consistently of very high quality.

  15. Ben,

    I contend that the positions/arguments in all of the references that I provided are highly relevant today, in part because I think that (many of) the positions/arguments (or the mistakes in the positions/arguments) from the other side seem not to change in sufficient ways over time.

    In any case, I did indeed invite interested readers to “post comments with additional and/or better references/links.”

    So disagree and comment away with your preferred references/links, Ben (if jj and stoat approve).

  16. I think it would be great if we could stick to the topic of Oxbridge admissions and closely related topics. Though other larger questions may be very important, they seem right now to take us away from the topic of the original post.

  17. “The results (reported here) are appaling:”

    Not really.

    “If you cut the data so finely as to narrow it down to the group “British black Caribbeans” only one was admitted, of 35 who applied. Cut a large dataset down to this level and these are just the sort of things that will jump out – Portugal had a similarly low acceptance rate, getting only one student accepted out of 25. Separately 23 “black African”, 3 “black other”, 7 “white and black Caribbean” and 7 “white and black African”, plus 35 “other mixed” and 9 “other” got in, but the article doesn’t mention that. From outside the UK the university also admitted 3 Mauritians, 2 Nigerians and 1 student from Trinidad and Tobago (ethnicity in all cases unknown).
    The scary “Oxford admits one black student” headline simply doesn’t wash, and playing with the law of small numbers to show that some individual colleges didn’t admit any black students is plain statistical illiteracy. There are 38 Oxford colleges. If the 221 “black Caribbean”, “black African” and “black other” Oxford applicants had achieved the university’s average acceptance rate of 26% there would still have been only 58 to go around. As it stands 25 achieved a place; even spread evenly throughout the colleges, this would have left 13 without a black student.”


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