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What the US can teach Oxbridge

David Lammy was right to raise concerns about how few black students there are at Britain’s elite un

The coalition may have won the vote on tuition fees but it was a close call. It was rather fun to watch Nick Clegg and Vince Cable trying to wriggle out of the mess they had created for themselves. The Lib Dems' ratings fell to 8 per cent in a recent YouGov poll.

I am very concerned about the government's tuition fee proposals, which appear to have a major funding hole that no one seems to want to talk about. It remains unclear how univer­sities are supposed to get their funding over the next few years, given that the government is cutting their teaching budgets by 80 per cent. Promises of payback by graduates some time in the future won't help now. Universities are going to have to borrow on the security of the promised income stream. One possibility would be for them to issue bonds, presumably on the back of some sort of government guarantee, which would inevitably increase the deficit. The quality of education is likely to drop just as its price rises.

Why should the young be singled out for such harsh treatment - with the Education Maintenance Allowance cut and increases in tuition fees - when older folks have been protected? Old people have non-means-tested bus passes and winter fuel allowances, which means that there are many company directors earning more than £100,000 who enjoy these freebies.

The NHS, which mainly supports the elderly, has been protected from cuts for reasons that were never fully made clear. Given the fixed target for public-sector savings, this has meant that cuts elsewhere have had to be significantly ramped up. No wonder the young are cross.

Poor boy blues

Unusually, I found myself agreeing with Max Hastings, who argued in the Daily Mail: "The truth is that the money no longer exists to provide everyone with a free pass to higher education." The worry is that raising fees will further reduce access for the poor and minorities.

The Labour MP and former higher education minister David Lammy, writing in the Guardian on 6 December, reported back on responses to a series of Freedom of Information requests which suggest that getting a place at Oxford and Cambridge "remains a matter of being white, middle-class and southern". He noted that David Cameron's alma mater Brasenose College, Oxford, recruits 92 per cent of its students from the top three social classes - the sons and daughters of solicitors and accountants. The average for UK universities is 65 per cent. Lammy also found that only one British, black, Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year. Merton College has not admitted a single black student in five years. Black students are applying - but they are not being accepted.

Cameron reiterated concerns on 8 December that the current system had hurt social mobility, saying: "Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools - Eton and Westminster - than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals." It isn't that way where I work. More than a third of Dartmouth's students are minorities, including 7.6 per cent African Americans. Thirteen per cent of our students receive Pell Grants, which are given to students with family incomes under $20,000. Some 10 per cent are the first generation in their family to attend college.

We operate needs-blind admissions, even for foreign students, which means that if you are poor, we pay. Harvard, Princeton and Yale operate comparable policies and have similarly diverse student bodies. There are no sports or merit scholarships in the Ivy League.

US universities generally do not just look at the results of SAT test scores, but look more broadly at achievement to ensure the system doesn't work against those from poorer backgrounds. Dartmouth gives particular weight to an individual's high-school rank. Over a third of our students are first in their high-school class, the so-called valedictorians.

To put it bluntly, the idea is to ensure that there is a level playing field, so that the (smarter) black youngster with a slightly lower SAT score from a poor family in the Bronx is able to compete on more equal terms against the (dumber) rich white boy with an expensive private education and a higher SAT score achieved in no small part by lots of tutoring for the test. This is about trying to determine ability and potential. Harvard and Dartmouth take the black kid from the Bronx with an off-the-scale IQ, who will get a free ride for all four years. Oxford takes the rich white guy.

Minority report

Sally Mapstone - Oxford's pro-vice-chancellor for personnel and (lack of) equality, who is also apparently an expert in older Scots literature and book history, whatever that is - responded to Lammy the next day in the Guardian, denying discrimination.

She did not deny that Oxford has a far from diverse student body, but argued that it was not the university's fault - black candidates applied for the most popular subjects and their attainment at school was lower than whites'.

Mapstone noted that, in 2009, 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford (three As excluding general studies), compared to just 452 black students - although she didn't explain why Oxford then admitted so few of these seemingly perfect candidates.

US universities have increased diversity both in their student body and among their faculty, even in the face of threats of reverse discrimination suits by non-minorities. The universities felt that, if challenged, they could prevail in court by demonstrating the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body and the societal benefits of increasing access. That Oxford and Cambridge are apparently ignoring these benefits is a disgrace.

Lammy told me: "It is OK for Oxbridge to be elite institutions; what's not OK is for them to be elitist institutions." The worry, naturally, is that a rise in fees will compound and entrench this bias. I suspect it might be a good idea for any black student who applies to Oxford or Cambridge with three or more top grades at A-level and is rejected to forward the correspondence to the Prime Minister.

Dr Mapstone, I suggest you make sure you have a good explanation for each and every rejection when Downing Street calls, along with a well-worked-out plan to make your student body more diverse. And soon.

David Blanchflower is professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling

David Blanchflower is professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee 

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special