Two of the world’s most prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge, have been accused of “social apartheid” by a prominent black British lawmaker, as new figures reveal the state of racial diversity across its admissions.
One in five Cambridge colleges and one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black student with A-levels (the most commonly-taken final exams in Britain) in 2015, according to data obtained by David Lammy, a former education minister.
The universities, collectively known in the U.K. as “Oxbridge”, are Britain’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institutions. Each is made up of a collection of autonomous colleges which are responsible for their own admissions. The universities educate many of Britain’s future top politicians and public figures; Oxford alone has produced 27 prime ministers.
Together, they have long been accused of inequality and privilege, with previous statistics showing even starker evidence of systemic bias. In 2009, it emerged that 21 of the 69 Oxbridge colleges admitted no black students with A-levels. Lammy, who obtained the data using freedom of information laws, writes in the Guardian: “Seven years has changed nothing at Oxbridge.”
Lammy, a member of parliament for a London constituency, was the first black Briton to attend Harvard Law School and championed Harvard and Yale as examples from which Oxbridge could learn. “One in five Harvard students are from families with an income less than the national average and they pay nothing for their studies,” he wrote. “Yale employs staff in every single state to connect with talented but hard-to-reach students who may lack the confidence or support networks to apply to the Ivy League.”
Six in ten of the U.S.’s most selective colleges consider race in their applications, according to a 2015 survey by the American Council on Education, in a process known as affirmative action. Affirmative action (called ‘positive action’ in the UK) was virtually unheard of in Britain until it became legal in 2010. But Cambridge states on its website: “Positive action must not be confused with positive discrimination.”
“Where positive action has been taken to encourage applicants from disadvantaged groups to apply, every applicant must be considered on individual merit and selection for interview and appointment must be based strictly on the agreed selection criteria.”
Previously minister for higher education in the last Labour government, Lammy questioned Oxford and Cambridge’s claims to national prestige, calling them “wholly unrepresentative of the country at large” in terms of race, geographical range of applicants, and income.
A spokesperson for Oxford responded that changing the system would be “a long journey that requires huge, joined-up effort across society – including from leading universities like Oxford – to address serious inequalities.”