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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.

“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.

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.

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.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.