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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. 

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.

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.

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.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.