The Oxbridge whitewash
One college has not let in a black student for five years – a hike in fees will further entrench this bias
On Thursday MPs vote on whether to treble tuition fees. Ministers insist that unprecedented debt levels will not put poor students off doing degrees. But what will be asked of universities in return for their £9,000 cheque? Labour did much to widen participation to most universities, but the gates to the best remain extremely difficult to pass through. The results of my inquiries into Oxford and Cambridge admissions over the last six months reveal a system in which getting a place remains a matter of being white, middle class and southern.
Using freedom of information requests, I built up a picture of who the Oxbridge dons offer places to. The results provide shocking reading. If Britain has become a "classless society" then Oxford hasn't got the message. David Cameron's alma mater, Brasenose College, Oxford, recruits 92% of students from the top three social classes – the sons and daughters of solicitors and accountants. The average for UK universities is 65%.
The north-south divide is startling. Over the last four years the London Borough of Richmond received more than eight times as many offers from Oxbridge as were awarded to Rochdale, Barnsley, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stoke combined. In fact, that same borough received only 18 fewer Oxford offers than the whole of Scotland. Little wonder that no student from Knowsley in Merseyside has applied to Cambridge since 2003.
The picture on race is no better. Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year. That is not a misprint: one student. Merton College, Oxford, has not admitted a single black student for five years. At Robinson College, Cambridge, a white applicant is four times more likely to be successful than a black applicant. Last year, 292 black students achieved three A grades at A-level and 475 black students applied to Oxbridge. Applications are being made but places are not being awarded.
You will not find these figures on the Oxford or Cambridge websites. Our proudest universities were obstructive in responding to my inquiries. They provided patchy data, challenged valid requests and deliberately pushed back their deadlines until after Thursday's vote. If Oxford and Cambridge are ashamed of these statistics, they are right to be.
Rather than hiding from the truth, they should ask themselves some searching questions. In the US, Harvard proactively writes to every high-achieving minority student. Where are the Oxbridge schemes? One in every six Harvard academics are minority – they are rightly proud of this. Oxford is so proud of its figures that it wouldn't give me a breakdown of them. Cambridge doesn't employ a single black academic. How can they hope to admit a diverse student body without recruiting a diverse staff?
Yale employs staff in all 50 US states to reach talented but poor students; Oxford targets 21% of its outreach events at independent schools. In the last two years Oxford held nine "access" events at Eton – if that is their idea of widening participation then Britain is in deep, deep trouble.
Admissions are entrusted to individual colleges – have they justified this trust? Where is access money spent? What is it about the famed Oxbridge interview system that counts against students who didn't attend a top public school? The lesson from the US is not to compromise on excellence, but to search harder for those who are capable of it.
Universities are not like supermarkets: their job is to serve the country, not just the customers who happen to walk through their doors. Oxford and Cambridge receive nearly £400m a year of taxpayers' money. They cannot be allowed to spend that money entrenching inequality instead of addressing it.
Eighteen millionaires sit around the cabinet table. Their complacency is breathtaking. While they defend a fee hike, they have not published a word on what they will ask in return from Britain's top universities. How can MPs allow Oxford and Cambridge to charge £9,000 a year without assurances that these institutions will do more to recruit from every corner, colour and class of this country?
Oxbridge continues to recruit in the same image. It is the image of the prime minister and deputy prime minister, the authors of Thursday's bill.