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Oxford is accepting more state school pupils – in the South East at least

Nearly half of Oxford offers went to applicants from London and the South East.

“Which school did you go to?” It’s a grim question, carrying all kinds of presumption. Presumption that I went to private school, or maybe one of the big grammars. A subtext that, if whoever is asking the question hasn’t heard of my school, my school doesn’t count.

I’d like to say that I reply with a dressing-down about social and geographical inequalities. I’d be proud of myself if I sarcastically pointed out that there are more than a handful of schools in the UK, meaning to ask “which” is a bit of a narrow question. I’d even settle for an eyeroll.

But my reaction is usually automatic: “Oh, just a northern state school”. It’s that word, “just”, which is an issue here.

Oxford, like Cambridge, is great at many things. It’s academically rigorous, with some of the best student societies in the country and beautiful architecture. But it’s also great at making you feel less than what you are for having come from what is actually a very ordinary background. 

Both universities have done a lot in recent years to combat this. Oxford has exceptional financial support for students from low-earning backgrounds (I speak as a grateful recipient of a full Oxford Bursary). It holds three open days a year, with other school visits running regularly. It also takes its open days on the road, jointly-running free Oxford and Cambridge Student Conferences to allow subject and student talks, and the opportunity to talk with real students who grew up local to the area.

But the hegemony of affluent areas and private school remains strong – and so too does the likelihood of encountering an alienating question or classist comment.

As a result, you’ll forgive me if, on reading David Lammy’s statistics, sourced from an Freedom of Information request, I’m not exactly shocked. Living on the Derbyshire/Yorkshire border, I am apparently part of the less-than-5 per cent who were admitted in the 2015 intake from the East Midlands, a region that makes up 7 per cent of the UK. Nearly half of Oxford offers went to applicants from London and the South East (a geographic area that represents roughly a quarter of the population), 15 per cent went to the North West, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and 3 per cent went to Wales.

Many of the towns around which I’ve grown up are in the shadow of a long-gone mining and agriculture trade. Many parents drive their children off to university as the first in the family to do so. Seeing them off to higher education at all, whatever university that might be, is not a given - it is a new adventure for many families.

So, having participated in a great deal of access events, it’s clear to me that a great deal hinges on representation. To talk to a northerner at Oxford is a rare pleasure – to talk to one who is a scared and timid state-schooled 17 year old at an open day is rarer still.

Things are improving. In 2016, 59.2 per cent of all Oxford offers were made to state school pupils. That figure has been on the rise for two decades now. But Lammy’s figures rightly complicate the data. Broad figures aren’t enough – and may well lead to complacency. We do need a holistic approach to seeing who is admitted from where: after all, it should be painfully clear that not all state schools are created equal.

That’s because, even aside from the critical discrepancies between school performance (AAA from a state school means something different to what it does at any given private school), northern schools are hamstrung by that word again – representation.

In London and the South East, there are networks. Alumni visits. Dedicated Oxbridge officers. Advice as to which course and college to apply to maximise chances of getting in (even if the university themselves claim that this no longer has a material impact).

My school tried very hard for me, giving me the best chance of success that they could with imperfect resources, and I was lucky to be part of what was described as one of the strongest academic year groups in recent memory.

That’s a testament to the hard work and support of my teachers – but grades and a place at Oxford don’t always match up. When it comes to interviews – basically mock-lessons - students from non-academic backgrounds can find themselves thrown by oddball questions, or by the simple intimidation of “oh God this room is in a literal castle”. Bright students are often neutralised and incapable of showing themselves at their exceedingly-capable best.

Professors and outreach teams rightly say that there is a specific-Oxbridge style of teaching, based on debate and discussion. They say, rightly, that a lot of rejections come from a student being bright enough, but not fitting that outspoken mould. But in certain learning environments, academically gifted, state school students learn to be silent, to strip their vocabulary of larger words, to stifle themselves. 

It comes down to academic confidence – something which a gutted Midlands sadly can’t often give to its young, but which affluent London and South East areas often can.

So while Oxford’s access work is well-funded and incredibly well-meaning, it clearly isn’t going far enough. Less well-off kids certainly apply – and they’re certainly hindered by a combination of socioeconomic and personal factors which work against them. This should – and must – lead to further, continued change, to give the opportunity for a world-class education wherever you’re from.

So, which school did I go to?

A northern state school. And I’m really proud of that.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.