Are the UK’s top two universities practicing ‘social apartheid’ in admissions?

Sajeda Momin

Published: Updated:

Earlier this month Malala Yousafzai attended her first lecture at Oxford University where she is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics. As the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is a matter of pride for Oxford that Malala is following in the footsteps of many world leaders and studying at their university. However, most British students of Pakistani origin are not so lucky.

A scathing report by a former minister for higher education has said that Britain’s top two universities – Oxford and Cambridge - continue to be discriminatory towards Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students. David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, said that the two world-renowned educational institutions were practicing “social apartheid” and many of the Oxbridge colleges remain “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege”.

Lammy’s data, which he got using the Freedom of Information Act, showed that most Oxbridge colleges were not taking any British Afro-Caribbean or black students at all and of the few colleges that did accept them, the numbers were in single digits. British students of Pakistani origin faced a similar problem with less than 1 per cent of candidates who applied to Oxbridge colleges managing to get even an offer.

Affluent communities

Surprisingly the fate of Indian origin British students was much better with almost 30 per cent of applicants receiving a conditional offer. Analysts say the reasons for this difference is the fact that the British-Indian community is generally more affluent than other ethnic minorities and more of them can afford to send their children to expensive private schools which are the essential feeders to Oxbridge colleges.

Lammy has slammed the two world-famous universities for perpetuating elitism by accepting the overwhelming majority of their students “from a small, privileged minority in the south of England”. “Seven years ago, both Oxford and Cambridge granted 79% of offers to children in the top two social classes – the sons and daughters of barristers, doctors and chief executives – a figure that rose to 82% in 2015. There are more offers made to students from one school – Eton – than students on free school meals (children from low income homes going to government schools) across the whole country” said Lammy. Eton is the most expensive and famous private boys’ boarding school in the UK.

Oxford and Cambridge are national universities and receive more than GBP 800 million of taxpayer’s money each year, and as Lammy points out, paid for by people in every city, town and village of the UK and yet students taken are predominantly from London and a few counties surrounding it. If Oxbridge can’t crack this discrimination argued Lammy then “why should the taxpayer continue to foot the bill?” Oxford University is the alma mater of 13 prime ministers and it still draws more than 50% of its students from private schools in a country where only 7% of its population is educated privately.

Comparing Oxbridge to the USA’s Ivy League which are doing their utmost to connect with talented but hard-to-reach students who may lack the confidence or support networks to apply to premier institutions, the two British universities were spending only GBP 5 million a year each on outreach programs. “It’s clear that whatever they’re doing isn’t working” said Lammy. One in five students at Harvard are from low-income families – less than the national average – and they pay nothing for their studies.

Batting for Oxbridge

Lammy’s report got immediate reactions from those batting for Oxbridge. They blamed the education at government school’s claiming it was not good enough. “The greatest barrier to participation at selective universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is low attainment at school” said a spokesperson for Cambridge University. However, the argument did not stand up to scrutiny with Lammy’s data. In 2011, 103 students from government schools in Sunderland in north England got 3 ‘A’ levels with all A grades or better – the minimum needed for a place at Oxbridge. Yet only four students from Sunderland received offers of a place at Oxbridge. The figures show that the situation is just as bad in 2015.

The former education minister pointed out that it was proper that the top universities were elite but they should not be allowed to be elitist too. “For as long as an Oxbridge degree is the golden ticket to a job in our top professions, its opaque admissions process will determine who the next generation of cabinet ministers, high court judges and newspaper editors will be”, lamented Lammy.