Written by:
Omar Khan

Three things wrong with Cambridge University's statement on diversity

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This piece was originally published by the New Statesman

The statement implies that critics of the admissions process are disregarding evidence.

“The collegiate University of Cambridge recognises the importance of the debate around diversity in admissions. However, we believe that it is critical that this debate should be fair and transparent and supported by evidence.”
When in a hole, stop digging. This bit of conventional wisdom is apparently too commonsensical for the dons at Oxbridge. First Oxford, and now Cambridge, responded to longstanding concerns about race and admissions with the same longstanding defensiveness that delays the day when unjust educational inequalities, whether of race or class, are effectively dismantled.

The most recent Cambridge statement, in the form of an open letter signed by three admissions bosses, goes on to argue that progress has been made in terms of admitting students from diverse backgrounds, that those students accepted deserve their places, and that the university is working hard to improve access.

There are three problems with this statement. 

First is the standard-issue claim, here implied in the second sentence quoted above, that criticisms of admissions policy are unfair and disregard the evidence. There is in fact only one statistic directly relating to admissions in the whole of the statement (on the number of black students admitted to Cambridge who attained 2 A*s and one A, or higher, at A-level). Cambridge’s statement, for example, does not mention Vikki Boliver’s more rigorous research, which found that all BME groups applying to Russell Group universities are less likely to gain entry even when they have the same A-level results.

 Oxford University’s 2018 annual report on admissions further highlights this point. Asian students are in fact even less represented than black students, compared to the proportion who achieve 3 As or higher. While 12.3 per cent of all students who achieved 3 As or higher at A-level in 2015 were Asian, this group comprises only 8.5 per cent of students at non-London Russell Group universities, falling to 6.4 per cent for Oxford. (Note that Oxford’s own report compares 2015 secondary results with Oxford’s 2017 entry – which rose to an intake that was 8.3 per cent Asian and so presents a more flattering picture, but that does not compare like with like). Cambridge appears to do much better with Asian applicants, but still doesn’t match the national average based on A-level attainment.

Another example of how Oxbridge presents its data selectively? Geographically. In both institutions, one-in-four admitted are based in London. By contrast, just 13 per cent of the UK population is based in London.

Yet Oxbridge’s London preference doesn’t result in better representation for black and ethnic minority applicants. Among 18-year-old Londoners, 47 per cent are white, 20 per cent are black, 20 per cent Asian and 13 per cent describe themselves as mixed race or other. It is highly doubtful that Oxbridge’s London intake even comes close to matching these figures, or those of any region.

The second, typical problem in Cambridge’s response is the flattened, imprecise shift in the framing of the question: from inequality and race to “diversity” generally. The statement declares:

“We believe that diversity should be understood in its widest possible sense, including ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, geography, age and disability.”

It may seem hard to disagree with this declaration. But Cambridge has issued this statement to respond to concerns about the admissions rate of black students specifically. To shift the debate immediately to “diversity” in all its forms is typical of a higher education sector that appears uncomfortable with directly discussing or addressing inequality, race and racism. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

This leads to the third and final problem: poor messaging. The statement implies Cambridge’s critics don’t understand the data, or the nature and complexity of their university and college systems:

“Rather than framing the conversation around diversity in a manner that undermines the progress made in access and the value of a Cambridge education, we believe a more honest and comprehensive understanding of the issues is needed.”

This is hardly a good starting point for constructive engagement, especially when it is difficult to access higher education admissions data, and where universities’ own reports do not always meet Cambridge’s stated values of fairness and transparency.

The statement professes concern that to suggest no progress is being made on diversity is “potentially damaging” because it “could deter future high-achieving applicants from applying in the first place”. The last section of the letter is headlined: “Framing the discussion and working together.”

Cambridge does need to think harder about how its framing is heard by potential black applicants: claims that it’s all about excellence and standards implicitly send the signal that black students aren’t achieving enough. The continued reference to excellence as a justification for the low numbers of black applicants may become a vicious circle. Another common defence, recently heard from Oxford, is that black students apply for the wrong, harder-to-gain entry courses. This betrays a lack of curiosity or understanding about the lives and opportunities of parents and families and the relative risk of studying Norse or Archaeology vs Law or Medicine for their children’s prospects, and again is likely to deter applicants.

Cambridge also says – unlike its critics, the statement implies – that it wishes to celebrate its students’ achievements. Yet the experience of black students at Cambridge isn’t exactly worth rejoicing: no Black Caribbean or Black Other students got a first in 2017, and just 10.5 per cent of Black African students did so, compared to the average of 24.4 per cent.

And the black (16.2 per cent) and gender (12.2 per cent) attainment gaps are actually widening (despite women having better A-level and entry scores). Perhaps rather than saying it wants to celebrate student achievement, Cambridge should do something to improve the actual experience and outcomes of black students in attendance. Similarily, Oxford – where no black graduates got a first, but one-third of white graduates did – should be even more circumspect when popping the champagne.

Cambridge is of course right to say that Britain’s secondary schooling generates large inequalities in attainment. But those inequalities cannot explain everything. Nor is the aforementioned statistic about black students as decisive as the statement suggests. In 2017, it acknowledges, Cambridge admitted just 58 black students:

“We recognise that this is very low as a proportion of our overall undergraduate entry. But the truly shocking statistic is that this represents a third (33 per cent) of all black students admitted to higher education in the UK that year who attained A*A*A at A-level.”

Yet the very same statement refers to inequalities in secondary education. In short, Cambridge clearly acknowledges that A-level scores are an imperfect measure of talent and drive. It is then curious to hold so firmly to the A*A*A measure. 

We might therefore say that a more important statistic are the 630 black students who attained 3 As or higher in 2015 (it is undoubtedly more now). In many secondary schools in Britain, we know that the top performing black and working class students get some Bs, as would many of the A*A*A pupils at independent schools if they didn’t benefit from their parents’ hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment, or if they had to navigate the challenges of their state school counterparts.

Should Oxbridge sit and wait for secondary education inequalities to be properly addressed, or should it instead adopt corrective measures – such as contextualised admissions – in response to these unjust inequalities?

Evidence on degree attainment suggests contextualised admissions are in fact fairer admissions. By using contextualised admissions, Oxbridge could find a larger number of talented and driven applicants, who could have been the best student in their year or their school’s highest attaining pupil eligible for free school meals. And if Cambridge and Oxford say they couldn’t possibly lower standards of entry, that black students must have the same marks, then how, precisely, do they explain the black attainment gap in degree attainment among those who now attend?

We agree with Oxbridge that framing and messaging matters. We agree we need constructive solutions and proper analysis. We agree that the focus should be on the students who could or should be applying, as well as celebrating and improving the experiences of those who already do. In that spirit, here are some changes that could lead to more diversity at Oxbridge:

1. All universities should be encouraged to use race as well as class as factors in making contextualised offers. Given the strength of research evidence, this should allow for at least two full grade drops from the current median for a particular course.

So if the median offer at Cambridge and Oxford is A*A*A, contextualised offers should involve AAA.

2. All universities, including Oxbridge, should adopt race specific outreach programmes, which should not be wholly subsumed within general “widening participation” work.

3. All universities, including Oxbridge, should tackle the BME attainment gap as an urgent priority. Vice Chancellors and Senior Management’s pay should not increase unless they tackle this gap.

4. Universities should directly involve BME students in their efforts to tackle race equality gaps in admissions, retention and attainment.

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