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28 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:53pm

I’m a Cambridge student and University Challenge contestant – but I almost didn’t get here

I was always conscious of low expectations about what I, as a black male, could achieve.

By Alex Mistlin

“There are more [Oxbridge] offers made to students from one school – Eton – than students on free school meals across the whole country,” lamented the Labour MP David Lammy this week. A freedom of information request by the former education minister revealed that nearly one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British A-level student in 2015. Similar data released by Cambridge revealed that six colleges failed to admit any black British A-level students in the same year.

Just a few days later, the Telegraph suggested another reason why black students might feel Oxbridge isn’t for them. The newspaper targeted the Cambridge students’ union women’s officer Lola Olufemi, who happens to be black, putting her picture on the front page with an inaccurate claim that she was demanding Cambridge “drop white authors” from its syllabus. 

As a black student who is more often than not, proud of my association with Cambridge University, these retrograde developments come at an interesting time. I recently represented Emmanuel College, and by extension Cambridge University, on BBC Two’s University Challenge.

Although all the extra attention both around college and on social media did feel a bit strange, I was incredibly proud to be featured on such a wonderful show that, in my opinion, exhibits many of the best attributes of British culture. There was, however, a nagging concern. Namely, that my presence on the show would be somehow remarkable due to the fact that so few black and mixed race people are visible in an academic context. I feared that those watching at home would view my performance as a proxy for their own preconceived notions about what black Britons were like. 

It’s a sad fact, given my love for the programme, but the only thing that ever made me question my application was the potentially hostile reaction my appearance would generate.

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Ultimately, I felt confident that most people would judge my intelligence or my idiocy based solely upon the number of points I contributed to the team. But, in a world where the internet allows new stereotypes to form alarmingly fast, it would be naive to think that everyone will be so judicious. Indeed, the show’s production team are aware of the problems that this can present. They were quick to warn that while they could not take responsibility for the way in which we were perceived, they would be there to support us if the reaction turned nasty.

By the time I sat down to take on St. Hugh’s, Oxford (our opposition in the first round), the challenging questions and Jeremy Paxman had swept these doubts from my mind. Still, I hope that in future, black students can experience the unique challenge of competing on the show without also having to confront their own internal anxieties about their suitability.

Unfortunately, for me, these anxieties have been ever present. Even before university, I was always conscious of the need to justify my opinions and intelligence in the face of low expectations from friends, family members, and even a minority of teachers about what I, as a black male, could achieve. The subsequent effect this had on my academic progress and my GCSE grades nearly cost me my place at Cambridge. Were it not for the intervention of a few exceptional teachers (many of whom were black or from ethnic minorities themselves) then I would never have ended up in the position I currently find myself.

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These days, I am conscious of the fact that my matriculation was not simply an induction into an academically elitist college, but an induction into the socially elitist establishment of Britain as a whole. I have been lucky enough to bask in the reflected privilege that comes with being a Cambridge student and rightly or wrongly, my association with the institution has changed the way I am perceived by myself and others.

While there has been real progress, when confronted by data like that produced by Lammy, Cambridge has often been keen to lay the blame elsewhere, namely on low attainment at school. However, this cannot suffice as an excuse for the universities’ own inaction, especially considering Oxbridge’s privileged position in British society. Universities can at least publicly recognise that prevalence of poverty and inequality in British society inexorably leads to a poverty of expectations and an unequal distribution of opportunities.

Quotas would be a radical step, but Oxbridge must be ready to accept new ideas. Without real change, it might not be too long before these ancient universities find themselves coming up short against rival institutions quicker to embrace the diversity of modern Britain.