Some years ago I was chair of the committee in overall charge of Oxford University’s admissions policy and I spent a great deal of my time in outreach activity. In fact, Oxford has spent many £millions over the years on attracting students from all sorts of backgrounds to apply to Oxford. The result is, according to the latest figures, that there are about 17,000 potential students applying for 3000 vacancies. Success in attracting candidates inevitably brings with it disappointment for many more. I deplore the ill informed and damaging comments made today by the Prime Minister about his own university, giving the impression that either it discriminates against black candidates or that it is not doing enough to attract them. In no other country would a senior politician speak like this about a top national university, thereby undermining its reputation and all the efforts made to open up access. In fact, nothing gives lecturers more pleasure than discovering and nurturing talent in students from less privileged homes. After all, they want the brightest to share their own passion for their academic subjects, and the success of their students is their success too.
Mr. Cameron got his facts absolutely wrong and should apologise. 19% of all Oxford students are BME, whereas the percentage in the general population is about 14%. Nationally BME students are overrepresented in the university population. But I do not believe that there should be any concept such as “overrepresentation” or “underrepresentation” in considering the makeup of university students. Is anyone going to complain that there are “too many” students from one race or religion? The notion of quotas should be alien, for restrictions on the entry of certain groups to higher education is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes.
Oxford can only accept the students who apply. Their most recent figures show that 40 Black Caribbean students applied, but there were 214 Chinese, 208 Pakistani, 533 Indian and Bangladeshi and 201 Asian applicants. Nationally, 452 black students achieved AAA or better at A-level that year out of 4650 BME 3A students. A futher obstacle is that a disproportionate number of BME students apply for the courses at Oxford that are the most oversubscribed: Medicine, Economics & Management and Maths. 28.8% of all black applicants for entry to Oxford 2009 applied for Medicine, compared to 7% of the white applicants. Chances would be better if the BME applicants considered other sciences and humanities in greater numbers.
In the end, everything comes down to family and school influences, as I discovered when I used to visit schools to encourage applications. There were too many teachers who were anti-Oxford and discouraged their students, and there were many students who did not want to go away from home, or whose families discouraged them from aiming higher than their parents. The cost of living away from home in university residences is in fact more of a burden than tuition fees, but Oxford is very supportive as far as finances go and it is unlikelythat an undergraduate would be allowed to drop out of Oxford for purely financial reasons. £6.6m is spent on bursaries to help students there. We all know that life chances may be determined at a very early age indeed and that there are problems with our state schooling.
Gordon Brown got it wrong about Oxford in 2000 when he criticised it for not accepting Laura Spence (Magdalen College had 22 applications for Medicine and there was room for only 5, some of whom were from state schools.) Surely David Cameron does not want to be another Gordon Brown?