Educational inequalities of opportunity and outcome are back on the national agenda, following data on elite university admissions being released to and compiled by David Lammy. The former Higher Education Minister and current Labour MP for Tottenham made Freedom of Information requests to every Oxbridge college between 2010 and 2015. The subsequent data reveals a failure on the part of the two universities to build a student body representative of the country in terms of class, background, race and region. Lammy wrote that it paints “a depressing picture of deep-rooted elitism” and called many Oxbridge colleges “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege”.
His report revealed that the English ‘home counties’ such as Hertfordshire and Surrey, as well as London, are far more likely to send their young people to Oxbridge than any other region. Yet only 11 per cent of students are from the Midlands, and 15 per cent from the North. Furthermore, glaring ethnic inequalities were found in the admissions process, with, for example, just over one third of Oxford colleges not making a single offer to a black A-level applicant from 2010-15, and a quarter of Cambridge colleges also failing to do so in the same period.
The situation seems to be worsening, with the proportion of offers made to applicants from the most fortunate two social groups rising from 79 per cent in 2010 to 81 per cent in 2015. Furthermore, over 80 per cent of Oxford colleges offered more places to applicants from the minority of independent and grammar schools than state ones. The number of places offered to Eton alumni was higher than those eligible to receive free school meals.
These results were said to be disappointing, especially considering both universities’ claims that diversity is one of their core values, spending £5m a year on broadening the diversity of their intake. Indeed, Lammy made the point that given the contribution of the taxpayer to such universities (£800m per year), it is important that British applicants reflect society.
However, many commentators were quick to indicate that these disparities are not so much explained by any institutional prejudice, but deeper societal problems. Ellie Gomes, a BAME third-year student and former state school pupil reading Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Keble College, Oxford, wrote an article for The Guardian in which she argued that Lammy “fundamentally misses the point”. Oxford was not “solely to blame”, she said, citing evidence of the different likelihoods of certain demographics to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. This interpretation of Lammy’s report echoed a Telepraph article, which argued that “Oxbridge’s diversity issues start further back along the education pipeline”.
These articles were corroborated by a Cambridge spokesperson, who said that it is a matter of academic performance, not background. Furthermore, Oxford’s African and Carribean Society released a statement which praised Lammy for bringing this issue into the public discourse. However, they also highlighted that “attempting to reduce such a complex issue to a series of political soundbites only serves to obscure the depth of the problem”.
Nonetheless, for Lammy and other campaigners, this only highlights the need for elite universities to be more open and encourage those with challenging circumstances to apply. He calls for admissions reforms that includes the centralisation of the process, direct contact encouraging underprivileged students, foundation years, and a stronger weighting on class rank. In the past week, the MP led a call from 107 other parliamentarians for the vice-chancellors of the two universities to take “urgent action” to improve access for the less privileged and minorities. This call shows cross-party support, including from former cabinet minister Yvette Cooper, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford.
Lammy closed his article by summarising: “It is right and proper that our top universities are elite. But for too long they have been allowed to be elitist as well, drawing up the ladder to success underneath them and reinforcing centuries of entrenched privilege.”