Once again the Prime Minister has made an unfounded and inappropriate attack on Oxford. Why are there so few black students, he asked? I have rehearsed the arguments before, in my 2011 post, Oxford Blues Whites and Blacks (http://lordsoftheblog.net/2011/04/12/oxford-blues-whites-and-blacks/) and, sadly, nothing has changed. Black potential students still achieve fewer 3A*/A A-level grades than white; and only 35 UK Black Caribbean candidates applied to Oxford in 2013. The most recent figures show that the success rate of white applicants to Oxford was 25%, and of all ethnic minority candidates 17%. Black applicants achieved a 13% success rate, British students of Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds did less well. Applicants of mixed background and mixed White-Asian origin did just as well as the white applicants. According to the most recent figures, 17% of applicants to Oxford are from ethnic minorities, which is slightly less than the percentage of ethnic minorities amongst the British population as a whole. Oxford is transparent about its figures – https://www.ox.ac.uk/media/global/wwwoxacuk/localsites/gazette/documents/statisticalinformation/admissionsstatistics/Admissions_Statistics_2013.pdf
and there really is no need for fresh legislation to compel universities to publish admissions statistics which are already available on the internet.
The problem, if there is one, lies in the applications themselves, that is, too few black candidates applying. In part this is because of their averagely lower school qualifications, and in part, as I explained in my 2011 post, because they are, quite wrongly, put off applying by the reverse snobbery of schoolteachers and parents.
In two respects however, I see strategies that could be adopted to improve matters. One is the ongoing disproportionate preference of black and minority applicants for courses that are oversubscribed, like Economics with Management, and Medicine: for instance, in 2013, 11.3% of Asian and Asian British Oxford hopefuls applied for Economics & Management, one of the most competitive courses in terms of the ratio of applications to places, while only 2.9% of white applicants applied for the same subject. The percentage of BME applicants applying for other particularly competitive courses, such as Medicine and Law, is also high, at 18.0% and 9.3% respectively for BME applicants as a whole, compared to 2.9% and 5.8% for white applicants. If only those candidates would apply for Modern Languages or Classics, where the success rates are 33% and 42% (2013), 44% and 36% (2014). Oxford could fix that by cutting the places on offer for Modern Languages and Classics, and switching them to courses that state educated pupils are more likely to want to study.
Nevertheless Cameron has scored an own goal. His criticism of Oxford will send out the erroneous message that black students have a hard time there, and that will undo much of the effective and costly outreach work that Oxford and Cambridge carry out. He has not studied the statistics; if he had he would realise that the paucity of black students is due to factors other than racism. He has insulted his own alma mater, and I can imagine no other Prime Minister in the world showing such disrespect for his state’s premier university, paradoxically one to which he hopes to attract foreign students. Gordon Brown acted similarly in the case of Laura Spence, and I cannot believe that David Cameron would wish to be bracketed with him as damaging influences.
I suspect the PM may have chosen this unfortunate topic to distract attention and headlines away for a day or two from his embarrassing EU negotiations.
Worst of all, if the number of BME applications to Oxford falls in future years, Cameron will only have himself to blame. For the government has decided to change the student maintenance grant, which is for living costs, into a loan, like tuition fees.
As I said in a debate on this in the Lords on 25 January, the effect of ending grants of up to £3387, designed for food and rent costs, is that more students will have to stay at home for their studies. This will eventuate in a decrease in social and academic mobility, and a ghettoisation of universities. It is already the case that teenagers from better off families are more likely to attend top universities than those from low income backgrounds, even though more students from less well off backgrounds are attending university. 5% of poor students went to Russell Group universities according to the latest statistics, compared with 12% from more affluent homes. BME school pupils, more than most others, may now decide that going away to university is too expensive and taking that step will only add to their debts at the end of the course. If black pupils have homes in say, London, Birmingham or Bradford, they might decide to study in universities in those cities, and live at home in order to save money. BME students, who are already more likely to study close to home, will not want to move away to Oxford and Cambridge, because that will involve extra living costs (although Oxford would never let anyone drop out for reasons of poverty).
In sum, what the government is doing by removing maintenance grants is not merely saving money. It is reinforcing segregation. Poor and ethnic minority students will have taken from them that golden opportunity at a critical age to widen their horizons and leave home for another part of the country. Academic choice will suffer. Racial and social integration will be put back. Better off students will continue to surge ahead in educational opportunities, and universities will become as segregated in their make up as some schools in some parts of the country already are. If the government believes what it says about every pupil fulfilling their potential, about all young people living in harmony, in a society open to all and equally accessible to all, it must restore maintenance grants. Real social and academic harm is going to result from this penny pinching measure.