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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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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