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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era