Are Oxford and Cambridge prejudiced?

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham in North London, has recently acquired data on admissions to Oxford and Cambridge universities. It shows that the vast majority of those who get in to the UK’s two best universities are from relatively wealthy families. A disproportionate number are from London and the South East. And while ethnic minorities as a whole are well-represented, black students are underrepresented, making up only 1% of of offers from Cambridge between 2010-2015.

For Lammy, the reason for this is simple. Oxford and Cambridge are prejudice. But the problem with prejudice is that it is very difficult to prove and quantify. And while anecdotal evidence of bigotry should not be discounted entirely, it is difficult to see UK higher education institutions being intentionally discriminatory. Partly because discrimination is illegal, and any university would be significantly harmed were it to be found guilty of it. And partly because there is an incentive against discrimination. If universities do not prioritise merit above all else, their cohort of students will be worse.

The main reason some sorts of students are overrepresented compared with others is because they attend better schools, something which no university can change. To a lesser extent, socioeconomic underrepresentation at Oxbridge is due to wealthier students applying for less competitive courses, most famously Classics. Once predicted grades and the relative competitiveness of courses is taken into account, those who are accepted into Oxford and Cambridge are broadly representative of those who apply. Thus, Lammy’s accusation of Oxbridge discrimination is tenuous at best.

However, Lammy’s proposed solutions are not nearly as unreasonable. He calls for a centralised (as opposed to a collegiate) admissions process, the creation of foundation years programmes with lower entry requirements (many universities already do this), the direct contact of disadvantaged pupils to encourage them to apply, and weight to be given to a student’s background when deciding who to give offers to- something which the world-beating Ivy League universities do.

Of course, Oxbridge is welcome to do all of that, though socioeconomic considerations should not be so significant as to be given greater weight than academic success. But ultimately, universities ought to remain independent from government control. The last thing Britain needs is for higher education to be politicised the way standard education already has been. Running things by government diktat is nearly always inferior to delegation and local autonomy. Students ought to be free from being used as political football. So although the universities may implement Lammy’s recommendations, they should not be compelled to do so.

Ultimately, the problem with British education is that even within the state comprehensive school system, wealthy children considerably outperform their poorer counterparts. To a limited extent, this is inevitable: wealthy children benefit from pushy parents, private tutoring, and perhaps better genes. This is just as true in areas with selective grammar schools as in those without. Sadly, I don’t know how this gap can be closed. Funding could always be increased for schools in poor areas, but it’s difficult to see that making that much of a difference. I can only suggest that poor children should be encouraged to be as ambitious and successful as possible; the current stigma against wealth and intelligence in many schools, including the one I went to, must end. But until state schools in deprived areas up their game, the privileged nature of Oxford and Cambridge students will continue.

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