It’s not Oxbridge that’s the national disgrace, Dave

This post was written by Guest Post on April 15, 2011
Posted Under: Education,Society

This is a guest post by Andy McGowan, Access Officer at Cambridge University Students’ Union

So Nick and Dave are at it again – and I don’t just mean making embarrassing slips of the tongue like this one. They’ve also gone back to having a go at easy targets as a smokescreen for their own failures – in this case the number of black students admitted to Oxford.

As someone who has worked in widening participation for the past four years, I am obviously keen to see more bright students from under-represented backgrounds get the opportunity to study at Cambridge or Oxford. As a first-generation law graduate labelled by some student journalists as the “free school meals kid”, I am also very keen to see more students from ethnic minority and poor backgrounds do well in life. Under-representation, however, does not automatically mean that the institution is the one to blame.

Let’s look at the issue of wealth. On average, the University of Cambridge admits around 22 students each year who were eligible for free school meals. This is out of just under 3500 UK students admitted each year. Cue shouts of “shame on Cambridge – Cambridge obviously hates poor students”. At first glance, those numbers do look rather damning, but if you look at the issue of educational achievement amongst the poorest students on a bigger scale (think mosaic as opposed to postage stamp), the picture looks rather different. In 2008, only 160 students who were eligible for free school meals achieved 3 As nationally – that is out of around 30,000 students nationally who achieved AAA.

Shadow Higher Education MinisterDavid Lammy recently waded into the debate as well, and drew unfavourable comparisons between Oxbridge and the likes of Harvard and Yale. He mentions the fact that at Harvard (which he actually calls Yale), ‘no one with a household income of under $60,000 [pays] a dime in tuition or cost of living’. He seems to be suggesting that Oxbridge should do the same. Harvard’s financial support costs “a record-breaking $160 million”, which is about the same amount of money that will be generated when every single home undergraduate at Cambridge is charged £9000 a year (£95 million). Yes, Oxbridge have their endowments, but they are peanuts when compared to their Ivy League counterparts. The other way in which Harvard et al get their income is by charging the other 80% of non-eligible students much higher fees ($56,000 a year), and the average parental contribution is $11,400 per year per student. So unless he is all of a sudden advocating removing the cap on fees (which I sincerely hope he isn’t) or unless he knows of a huge pot of money that no-one else has found, it is rather unrealistic to assume that Oxbridge can all of a sudden do financial support the American way.

Lammy also seems to imply that Oxbridge should again ‘do as the Americans do’ by writing to every student from low-participating neighbourhoods who gets, for example, 3 As at AS Level. On the face of it, it sounds like a great idea – invite them along to an open day, give them details about how to apply, maybe even offer some e-mentoring. But like all ingenious plans that have yet to be enacted, there is a fundamental flaw – how exactly are the universities supposed to know which individual students from these backgrounds have got these high grades, without breaching the Data Protection Act? Once again, unless he knows something we don’t, it’s a bit unfair to expect Cambridge and Oxford (or indeed any university) to facilitate the breaking of the law, even if it is in the name of access.

As with students from poor backgrounds, there is again an issue of prior academic achievement impacting on ethnic minority students when it comes to university admissions. But this can’t just be labelled as a general “ethnic minority” issue. For example, if we look at Black students, UCAS data shows that fewer than 9% of Black students achieved 360 UCAS Tariff points or more (as opposed to 33% of Asian students). This means that Black students account for just 1.2% of degree applicants who secure AAA at A Level.

Where are the politicians calling these damning statistics on A Level performance, careers advice and inequality of attainment at secondary and primary education “a disgrace”? Where are the politicians questioning why 80% of students eligible for free school meals don’t get the GCSEs that many sixth form colleges require, let alone universities? And where are the politicians who are asking why, in 2011, your socio-economic background is still the biggest indicator of your likely educational journey? Positive discrimination, widespread use of differential offers and quotas are all methods that have been bandied around for years as a way of increasing representation of the under-represented, yet these would just be the plaster covering the bullet hole of educational inequality. Everyone knows they don’t solve the bigger problem and everyone knows that we need bigger action, But time and again we go for the plaster anyway.

Universities have a huge role to play in raising aspirations amongst students from a younger age and encouraging applications from a diverse range of students, but they cannot do it alone. Politicians constantly saying “naughty old Oxbridge” without the slightest bit of context (or sometimes even evidence) does not help in the slightest – all it does it cement perceptions about the “type” of student who goes to these universities. Instead, they need to be tackling the issue of low attainment, often triggered by low aspirations, amongst those from under-represented backgrounds. This is not about forcing students down one route or another, or claiming that one type of educational journey is less worthy than other. Rather, this should be ensuring that decisions about what and where to study are based on what is best for the individual student, not their gender, race or family income. It should be opening doors rather than shutting them off and it should be about promoting the opportunities available, rather than trying to grab easy headlines.

So yes, I do want to see more money going into outreach work with those schools who never send any students to Oxford and Cambridge; yes, I want to see Cambridge using creative ways to reach out to bright students through engagement with charitable organisations and local community groups as well as schools; yes, I do want to see more universities looking at more than just raw grades and instead consider the potential of the individual by looking at the environment in which those grades were obtained. But it is also time for the Government to up their game. Instead, what they’ve done so far is scrap EMA, treble tuition fees, and abolish AimHigher. So rather than the inevitable headline-grabbing finger-pointing at universities, let’s see their master plan for eradicating educational inequality, because frankly, it is their actions and their complete failure to deal with the bigger issue of educational inequality which are the ‘disgrace’.

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Reader Comments


Excellent points, well made. Sad to see this government, having promised so much change, are trying to use Oxbridge to score political points in exactly the same way as the last lot, and never mind the damage it causes to encouraging applications from non-typical Oxbridge backgrounds, which is what would actually make a difference.

Written By Owain on April 15th, 2011 @ 11:04 am

I wouldn’t take the Cameron speech about Oxford too seriously – it was a media game and prelude for the far more significant piece of electioneering he was about to do on the immigration issue.

And when people legitimately throw the charge of racist at Cameron over his immigration speech, he will no doubt respond by saying that he can’t be racist and he has just been standing up for black students getting into Oxford…

Racist and clever and tactical – not a nice combination.

Written By DavidR on April 15th, 2011 @ 12:01 pm
Andy McGowan

Davidr – The problem is that no matter what his reasons for the speech on Oxford was, it dominates headlines and then it’s much harder to get the full picture out there. Many people will only see the statistics and arguments that he decides to use (as well as Oxford’s response).

If he really cared about access (let’s not even get started on that argument), then he would think about the effects of what he was saying.

Written By Andy McGowan on April 15th, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

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