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20 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:55pm

If Oxford colleges exclude black students, the university should intervene

The university has already made tentative steps to improve admissions - now it must act decisively. 

By Lewis Iwu

Oxford University is not an inherently racist institution. However, it really shouldn’t be possible for a college to only offer one place to a black British A-level student in six years, as the Guardian reports. It’s been a while since I graduated from Oxford, but during my time there I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on your perspective) to be elected both as President of New College JCR (the undergraduate decision-making body) and then the first black President of the Oxford University Students Union.

During my tenure in both roles, I held the university’s feet to the fire on its role in making the university more accessible to all students. And change is happening. Students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds made up 15.9 per cent of Oxford’s 2016 UK undergraduate intake, up from 14.5 per cent in 2015. The number of offers made to black UK students has more than doubled since 2010.

Yet while these figures show a promising trend, like many others I’m bitterly disappointed by the latest statistics. We need more radical change, more quickly.

There are two parts to this challenge – what happens at the admissions gate and what happens with attainment within schools. On the first part, admissions, Oxford has complete control. We should welcome the fact that the university now requires everyone who interviews prospective students to undergo unconscious bias training – though the jury is out on how effective this can ultimately be in screening out racial bias.

Oxford has less influence over schools, a sector it heavily relies on to produce talent. We know that black pupils from Caribbean backgrounds are scandalously overrepresented in pupil referral units. We know that there are not enough black male teachers in our classrooms to act as role models. The education gap between poor pupils and their wealthier peers is still shamefully wide, and particular minorities feel the brunt of that inequity.

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To tackle the representation problem we need as much of a focus on the attainment gap as there is on admissions. Oxford and schools need to work in partnership rather than in opposition to each other. 

First, Oxford University (a highly devolved institution) must be willing to stage interventions in colleges that go for years without admitting any black students. It’s not clear to me why a college with a persistent access problem should retain control of its admissions. Additionally, positive discrimination should not be taken off the table in such circumstances. The university should explore giving students from BME backgrounds different offers. This is an extension of the principle that underpins contextualised flags – a process already used by many universities, including Oxford. The Oxford alumni network should use its influence to apply pressure directly to colleges.

Second, Oxford needs to expand its footprint in schools by supporting proven attainment-raising initiatives in schools, working in partnership with educators. Programmes such as Target Oxbridge have been responsible for almost 50 successful applications to Oxford in five years. Oxford and schools now must find a way to work with those students at a significantly earlier age to increase impact.

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Third, I think those who call for the end of the interview system are wrong. The conversation needs to shift towards how Oxford and schools can help more BME students thrive in the combative and sometimes adversarial nature of Oxbridge interviews. I’ve spent a number of years arguing that more young people should be part of a debating club at school. If you’re a teacher and have a cohort of young black students who you think could thrive at Oxbridge, get in touch with Debate Mate or the English Speaking Union as soon as you can. I wouldn’t have got a place to read politics, philosophy and economics without learning how to debate.

Most important of all is the need for a counter-narrative to the myths that are so difficult to dispel about Oxbridge. I’ve had too many conversations with talented BME students who perceive Oxford to be a university that’s not for them. There are lots of valid reasons why someone may decide not to apply to Oxford, but deciding not to send an application because of your ethnicity should never be one.

To build confidence in those that doubt requires a considerable PR offensive. Oxford has been accused in the past of being defensive on this subject. It now needs the awareness to recognise the challenge it faces, but must also have the confidence to publicly demonstrate what it’s going to do about it. Last month, the university supported the founding of the first ever Oxford University Black Alumni network, which will campaign to offer that counter narrative.

It’s time to channel our anger into developing ways in which Oxford and schools can work in partnership to crack this challenge.

Lewis Iwu was the former director of the Fair Education Alliance and is now a director at Finsbury. Follow him @lewisiwu.