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Whiteness Dominates Oxford - But That Shouldn't Discourage BAME Students From Applying

23/10/2017 09:02 BST | Updated 23/10/2017 14:17 BST

In light of David Lammy's investigation into diversity at Oxbridge, I've been added to four separate group chats titled "Oxford is racist." This is on top of the seven with similar titles that I am already a member of, some of which have existed well before I even began studying here.

Students and staff at Oxford have been aware of the issues highlighted by the recently released admissions statistics, through David Lammy's FOI request, for years - this is not new or surprising information. But the fact that these four new group chats were created today demonstrates the impact, both positive and negative, that media storms like this one can have.

An entrenched systematic bias persists at all levels of the University, especially with regard to racial and ethnic diversity. Whiteness dominates Oxford in terms of curricula, colonial heritage and staff representation: just 6% of teaching staff here identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic (Oxford University Equality and Diversity Unit, 2016). This bias manifests itself in all stages of the application process, especially in the interview process, meaning that candidates from ethnic minority and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are often unfairly discriminated against.

It is deeply frustrating to watch the situation not only failing to improve, but actively getting worse. Tired with Oxford's promise of a "long road" towards a more representative student and staff base (the university is, after all, 921 years old), recent student-led access initiatives have gone a long way towards changing the status quo. These include student-led drives to diversify curricula in a number of departments including History, Maths, Politics and Theology. The African-Caribbean Society's groundbreaking annual access conference gives state educated British African-Caribbean sixth form students a platform to "engage with and navigate the barriers they uniquely face in accessing higher education" (annualaccessconference.co.uk). In 2014, the student union's Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) conducted a survey of BAME student experiences at Oxford, which helped to spark a number of initiatives to widen access and participation of BAME students and staff in Oxford.

It is worth noting, however, that these initiatives are offset by the University often choosing to concentrate its effort in tokenistic efforts that tend to go nowhere towards creating tangible change. The University has expressed a desire to work towards the Race Equality Charter Mark, which in its current form appears to be a mere box-ticking exercise.

Excluding bursaries, Oxford spends approximately £6 million a year on outreach. Unsurprisingly, throwing money at the problem hasn't been especially successful in stopping it. Oxbridge access tends to focus its outreach work on encouraging more applicants from state schools, despite this not being an accurate reflection of the barriers to entry for these elite institutions, as the statistics revealed show. As long as these initiatives fail to effectively address the intersection of race and socio-economic status when it comes to prospective Oxford students, they will continue to fail students who fall into either (or commonly, both) groups. The admissions system must be altered to give significant weight to an applicant's socioeconomic background in order to ensure that bright young people who have excelled against the odds are given a chance.

The problems highlighted by Lammy's investigation are not just "Oxbridge" problems. The fact that, as Lammy rightly points out, "Oxford is moving backwards in terms of elitism" is unsurprising when examined against the widening disparity between rich and poor that we see across our society. Again, there is an important point to be made here about the intersection between race and class; as the government's recent Race Audit has shown, BAME students are disproportionately from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is far easier for the Department of Education and Ministers to criticise an elitist, out-of-touch Oxbridge than to introduce policy changes that tangibly improve the quality of secondary education on offer in certain parts of our country. Recent press coverage has failed to address the paucity of people who identify as Black, Asian, from a minority ethnic background, or from a low socio-economic background, who are applying to Oxford in the first place, whilst the sole focus on Oxbridge perpetuates the elitism of these institutions.

The solution lies firstly in engaging with both prospective and current students on the issues they face day-to-day, but even more crucially in focusing time, money and energy on to a strategy that addresses the wider problem of an increasingly divided country. This includes policies like free education, a progressive taxation system, and a targeted attempt to combat the structural racism that pervades both public and private life.

There is a certain degree of value in exposing the systemic bias of Oxbridge through uncovering admissions statistics that our universities too often seek to sweep under the rug. However, the sensationalist media reporting of the problem year upon year perpetuates the image of Oxbridge as unattainable for BAME and working class applicants. A good deal of the access work we do involves convincing young, bright students that Oxford isn't as racist as they fear, that they won't be discriminated against in the admissions process, and that they would not be miserable for the length of their undergraduate degree. These false stereotypes are almost certainly perpetuated by media storms like this one.

Academics, administrators and policy-makers should seek to create fair classrooms and admissions systems that support the learning of each of their students equally. They should take tangible steps to eliminate unconscious bias in their interviewing, in their grading and in their interactions with students, working towards creating environments in our schools and universities that are free from the impact of implicit bias and explicit intolerance.