Oxford and Cambridge are two of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. Many of Britain’s most prominent thinkers and academics have attended such as Stephen Hawking, T.S. Elliot and Isaac Newton. They have also produced a number of Prime Ministers, such as David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. It is perhaps a good indicator of the lack of diversity within these institutions that these Conservative politicians have overseen austerity- something that the UN found disproportionately affected Black, Asian and Middle Eastern (BAME) communities the hardest- or overseen racially-charged events like the Windrush scandal and the Grenfell Tower fire.
Oxford and Cambridge both claim to have been recently opening their doors to more non-white students in order to address the lack of diversity within their student populations. However, statistics from UCAS contradict their supposed action on the issue. Information released by UCAS shows that in 2016, Oxford accepted 2180 white students, whereas only 35 of those admitted were of black origin. The figures for Cambridge were similar, with only 40 black students gaining a place in comparison with 2025 white students. The continued lack of diversity highlights why BAME students at Oxbridge feel so isolated.
In 2017, Cambridge Student Timi Sotire spoke to Business Insider about her experience of racism at the university. She said that some students would ‘pet’ her afro, while others thought she would automatically know the word to every grime song. She also stated that being at the university was ‘extremely isolating’, as she was ‘the only black person in the friendship group’.
Sadly, Timi’s story is not unique. Many others have spoken out about the racism they have faced at Oxbridge. One student was even approached and asked if they could be referred to by ‘the n-word’ during freshers week.
BAME students get less chances to go to university
It is unjustly difficult for BAME students to gain a place at one of the UK’s top universities, which fuels the lack of diversity within their student bodies. A joint study by UUK and NUS revealed an attainment gap of 10-15% at 29% of UK universities between BAME and white students. This is linked to BAME students not being able to flourish within higher education, an issue further exacerbated by the fact that BAME households face significant socio-economic barriers. UCAS’ figures alone revealed that only 2% of black A-level students achieved 3 A Levels, which is concerning in light of the fact that applicants need a minimum of 3 As to be considered for Oxbridge.
In May 2019, the UN Human Rights Council released a report that found Britain’s racial inequality directly affected BAME students. The report found that Afro-Caribbean pupils are almost three times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts. In addition, racially motivated bullying and discrimination has increased. It is clear to see how the societal context plays a role in our universities’ lack of diversity, something further exacerbated by institutional racism within admissions processes.
Lack of access to higher education perpetuates inequality
Due to the difficulty BAME students find in attaining a higher education, many of the UK’s higher echelons of academia and politics are inaccessible. Non-white Members of Parliament have hit a record high of 8%, but this still falls considerably short and is nowhere near representative of the diverse society we live in today. Ethnic minorities still struggle from disproportionate pay- Pakistani men were paid £3.30 an hour less than white men from 2007-2014 according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the ethnicity pay gap. Further still, senior positions in UK universities continue to be overwhelmingly white: only 10% of professors belong to an ethnic minority while only 0.6% are black. Without radical change regarding the access to opportunities for the BAME community, the landscape in academia shows little sign of changing.
Intensifying matters further, universities are about to become even less diverse due to Brexit. One study unveiled by the Higher Education Policy Institute estimated that there will be a 57% decrease in the number of EU students post-Brexit, with the likes of Cambridge already experiencing a 14% application decrease already. This is before the stringent 2021 skills-based immigration plan has even come into effect with many fearing the arduous visa requirements will only serve as a deterrent. This is because EU students will need to satisfy the Tier 4 Student Visa requirements in order to be eligible, as well as facing ramped-up fees to do so. Indeed, the replacement of frictionless mobility across the Channel involves some of the harshest – and costly – redlines imaginable.
Despite increasing levels of awareness regarding the lack of diversity at universities, the future does not look promising. The May 2019 UN report paints a bleak picture of how austerity has hit BAME communities hardest. Further potential damage through Brexit, with a worse case being a no-deal Brexit, looks to exacerbate these problems. Both the government and leading universities must do more to address the problems in UK education and society as a whole, or else inequality will continue to thrive and our most admired and cherished institutions will fall behind.
Conor Kavanagh is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors who help students from overseas to study in the UK. @IASimmigration