If you were to pause and think of the imagery conjured up by the word ‘Oxbridge’, it is certainly not that of an ethnically diverse, multicultural student community living in complete harmony.
In fact, the ideas associated with the UK’s top two universities stand in stark contrast to this. We think of the Bullingdon Club; rich, white post-Etonians and foreign secretaries in waiting, traversing the dreaming spires and hallowed halls.
Unfortunately, this stereotype is still corroborated somewhat by reality, something particularly worrying in light of the fact that both establishments are claiming to be shaking off this reputation, namely by increasing the numbers of students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
Lack of diversity only serves to increase feelings of alienation
However, the statistics show that any purported increase in admissions inclusivity still falls a long way short of achieving a culturally diverse student population.
Information released by UCAS shows that in 2016, Oxford accepted 2180 white students, whereas only 35 of those admitted were black. The figures for Cambridge were similarly telling, with only 40 black students gaining a place in comparison with 2025 white students. Such a lack of diversity only serves to increase feelings of alienation.
This is something that leads to self-consciousness at a time when feeling unsettled is fairly commonplace, with starting university often a stressful and intimidating process in itself.
The first-hand accounts of the racism suffered by BAME students at Oxford and Cambridge are alarming.
Cambridge student Timi Sotire told Business Insider about some of her experiences, including having her afro ‘petted’ and being told her hair looked better straight. Such anecdotes demonstrate the kind of environment that is allowed to proliferate at the nation’s top universities.
These incidents of racism are sadly all too common. An Oxford student told the same publication that a fellow student asked if she could be called ‘the n-word’ during her first week of study.
When stories such as this are heard on a frequent basis, one has to question the effect it has on BAME students’ desire to apply to Oxbridge in the first place.
Complex and systemic problems
However, the problems faced by students from minority backgrounds are more complex and systemic than they appear at first glance.
Being BAME puts you at an unfair disadvantage when applying for a multitude of reasons; a recent UN study found that BAME households are twice as likely to be in persistent poverty as white households.
This makes gaining entry to Oxbridge even more of a challenge, with such establishments largely comprising of the wealthy and privately-educated.
Not only are the students hindered by racial profiling and biased admissions processes, their plight is often made more difficult by their socio-economic background.
There is also a proven attainment gap between BAME and white students at all universities, not just Oxbridge. A joint study by UUK and NUS found that there is an attainment gap of 10-15% at 29% of UK universities.
This problem can also be observed at earlier stages in the academic development of BAME students. UCAS’ figures also revealed that only 2% of black A-Level students got 3 A-Levels in total, let alone the minimum 3 As needed for Oxbridge entry.
Not only this, but Afro-Caribbean students are nearly three times as likely as white British students to be excluded. It is clear that a major rethink is needed in order to give all students an equal chance of success.
Creating an egalitarian society
The success of those from minority backgrounds is crucial in creating an egalitarian society. At present, the number of non-white MPs is at a record high, yet they still only make up 8% of the House of Commons.
Ethnic minorities also still suffer a pay gap in many cases, with Pakistani men paid an average of £3.30 less per hour than white men from 2007-2014.
An increase in the number of BAME students gaining first-class degrees from elite universities will surely serve to redress the balance somewhat in this regard, due to the doors that are opened by possessing such a qualification.
The lack of those from BAME backgrounds in senior positions can be acutely observed in the field of higher education.
Mind the Gap: The importance of diverse role models in academia https://t.co/JLzI7y0vsX— FE News (@FENews) July 16, 2019
Across UK universities as a whole, only 10% of professors were BAME, and only 0.6% of this number was black, according to the report’s findings.
One has to question the impact this will have on BAME students’ motivation levels and belief that they can achieve their full potential.
It is clear that there are substantial issues faced by students from ethnic backgrounds at Oxbridge, both in terms of gaining entry and enjoying academic success, and also being able to go about their business without encountering racism and prejudice.
The impact of Brexit
With this in mind, one has to question the impact that Brexit will have. A study conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute predicts a 57% fall in the number of EU students as a result of Brexit.
They will be subject to the same high rate of tuition fees that current international students pay, the cost of which will act as a deterrent from applying. They will also need to apply for a Tier 4 Student Visa.
According to the Financial Times, Cambridge has already seen EU applications drop by 14%. What effect will an even less culturally diverse student population have on the issues BAME students at Oxbridge already face?
Given the sharp increase in hate crimes that has occurred since Brexit, it is plausible to suggest that feelings of imposter syndrome will increase in a similar fashion.
It is clear that there are already considerable obstacles preventing students from a non-white background both applying to and succeeding at our top universities. When the stories of racism are factored into this, it paints a very bleak picture.
Brexit is set to impose further barriers, adding fuel to an already raging fire. These include spending cuts, which the UN state will result in a 5% loss in income for black households – double that of white households.
Because of this, the need is greater than ever for our elite universities to open their doors to students from different backgrounds.
The time is now to move into a new era, where the success of the nation as a whole is inextricably entwined with the success of all its students, no matter what their race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration solicitors which provides legal support for students from overseas looking to study in the UK.