What South Park can teach us about Oxford

The furore over black students at Oxford won’t die down until schools listen to the wisdom of Eric C

You want to know why there aren't more black students at Oxford? Watch South Park.

In the South Park episode Eek! A penis!, Eric Cartman – an obese, astonishingly foul-mouthed eight-year-old – heads to an inner-city school and teaches black and Latino students how to succeed like white people – by cheating. Cartman gives the class a pep talk:

The reason that you think you can't get into college is because you haven't been taught how to cheat properly. How do you think white people get ahead? Because they cheat all the time!

And it's true – particularly when it comes to university entry. During the recent furore over black students (or "the black student", if you're David Cameron) at Oxford, the university gave out a very thorough press release that broke down the application success rates for ethnic minorities. It made one thing strikingly clear.

The reason black applicants struggle to gain access to Oxford is that they are applying for the subjects that allow them the smallest chance of success. Take a look at these two figures, taken from the press release:

28.8 per cent of all black applicants for 2009 entry applied for medicine, compared to just 7 per cent of all white applicants.
10.4 per cent of all black applicants for 2009 entry applied for economics and management, compared to just 3.6 per cent of all white applicants.

Medicine and economics + management are the two most competitive subjects at Oxford: 12.6 per cent of applications to study medicine are successful, while a mere 7.6 per cent of management applicants get in. Black applicants struggle to get into Oxford largely because they are applying to study the most competitive subjects.

Meanwhile, the subjects that have extremely high application success rates, such as theology, classics and archaeology and anthropology, are stuffed with the pasty-faced products of Britain's public schools. Forty per cent of theology and classics applications are successful, while just under a third of archaeology and anthropology candidates get a place.

There is a game to be played if students want to avoid becoming another Laura Spence, who applied for the most competitive subject (medicine) at one of the most competitive colleges (Magdalen) and, lo and behold, failed to get a place. Black students should instead follow Nick Clegg's example.

Clegg studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, despite being far from the archetypal archaeology student. Indeed, young Clegg spent his teenage years burning down greenhouses in Germany, working as a ski instructor and – according to that interview with Piers Morgan – frantically fornicating with anything female-shaped.

The typical archaeology student does none of these things. So why did Clegg study A&A as an undergrad and not, say, politics, which he did at postgrad and then chose as a career? Because it was easier to get into Cambridge that way. A&A has half as many applications as politics. He knew it, his private school knew it and so Clegg played the game. While black students claw and fight for a place on the most competitive subjects, the Cleggs of the world stroll into Oxbridge through the back door.

This isn't cheating, it's savvy. Until secondary schools wise up and start giving pupils better advice about their applications to the top universities, highly qualified candidates from unprivileged backgrounds will continue to struggle to gain access to the upper echelons of Britain's higher education system – and the headlines that have hit Oxford over the past few weeks will not go away. Britain's secondary schools need a few more Eric Cartmans.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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