Can black kids get into Cambridge?
I confess, I have escaped to Rome (to the American Academy, on which more later). The idea was to do some of the research which is my job. The truth is that I have spent most of the last 24 hours answering emails and writing references.
Since I left Cambridge, the students has ended their occupation (well done, one and all for keeping our eyes on what will happen to arts and humanities if the con-dem proposals have their way). And then the Guardian had an exposé of how few black students get into Oxbridge.
Can I stick up for us, again. There can be no sensible person who thinks that it is ok that 21 Oxbridge colleges took no black student last year. But before we go down the "Oxbridge snobs arent interested in most of the ordinary kids of this country" route, can we stop to think. Oxbridge bashing is often a convenient alibi for not reflecting on what the bigger problem is... it's easier to dump on racist Oxbridge dons that to fix some of the big things that might be the matter with state education.
Let me put a few points:
1) The figures quoted by the Guardian were about black students; not about ethnic 'minorities' overall ... Asian, Middle Eastern etc. It is true that the number of black Afro-Caribbean students at Cambridge is woefully low, but that is not the case with other ethnic 'minorities'. Obviously it varies from subject to subject, but it is simply not true that Cambridge is a middle class white place. My college (Newnham) came out badly in the number of black students it took, measured by proportion of applicants to places .. but I defy anyone to come and say that it 'feels' white.
2) The figures are always more complicated than they seem. There is no single variable when it comes to 'getting in' (however much it suits journalists to pretend that there is) -- you need to factor race against class and school/educational background etc before you get a start at understanding what is going on. On this scoring Kwasi Kwarteng (black Etonian, ex-Trinity) counts for ethnic diversity (true, but not exactly what most of us mean by 'access').
3) There are other ways in which you need to break the figures down. As the Guardian article was honest enough to point out, more than 29000 white students got three As or better at A level; fewer than 500 black students did (though nearly 50% of those applied to Oxbridge, whereas fewer than 30% of the white students did). There is also a subject bias -- in that black students disproportionately appled for the most competitive subjects. (Though that is tricky again, the fact that there are fewer applicants per place for Classics than for most other subjects does not mean that it is a back door route to Oxbridge for the privileged.. despite the sounding off of Michael White).
4) I have to say That I haven't seen racisim in Cambridge admissions, far from it. I know that the answer to that is that institutional racism is invisble, so of course I wouldnt have noticed it. But the fact is that we DO get training in interviewing, so that we dont just wreak our prejudices. And the university has a great campaign (GEEMA) for encouraging minority applicants. A lot of people put a lot of time into this. Simplistic conclusions of the "Oxbridge is racist " variety only make their job more difficult.
And I dont think that it is true.