A matter of diversity

11 December 2010

11:34 AM

11 December 2010

11:34 AM

I was astonished by the Guardian’s story this week about the lack of British
African-Caribbean students at Oxbridge colleges. If we weren’t quite so blinded by the Wikileaks blizzard, I’m sure more would have been made of this. Hats off to David Lammy for
raising the issue. I suspect this is as much an issue of class as race, but it remains an aberration that Oxbridge is so monocultural and dominated by the product of the independent school system.

Like Alex, I don’t believe this is necessarily evidence of racism. The “Oxbridge problem” has always been that so few people from un-posh backgrounds apply. They, their parents or
teachers simply feel these are not institutions where they will feel comfortable. Mr Massie is right to point to the Virtual Economics website’s critique of the Guardian’s coverage of
the statistics.


In case anyone suspects me of primitive class resentment, I should at this point declare that I went to an independent school and a Cambridge college, where, needless to say, I was admitted
entirely on the basis of merit. However, there is no doubt that my school knew one of Oxbridge’s best-kept secrets: that the ratio of applicants to places is often very low indeed. If you
have good A-levels , the odds compared to any of the other Russell Group universities are very good indeed.

Oxford and Cambridge have made great efforts over the past two decades to diversify its student body. There is ample evidence that the prejudice runs in the other direction: inverted snobbery from
state schools who discourage students from applying.

However, there is another way of looking at all this. Oxbridge should not be happy to take its students from such a limited pool of talent. As an elite world-beating university it should make every
effort to reach out to the brightest students in the country, including those from the African-Caribbean community. I am now convinced that we should have a post-examination application system to
allow universities to know the results of the students before they offer them places. This would also allow them to reach out to high-performing students who had not considered applying to Oxbridge
or discouraged from doing so.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good view.

  • Simon Stephenson

    M Schwartz : 1.19am

    Is there actually a series of studies that gives compelling support to Charlton’s contention that “It is very likely that IQ is mostly hereditary”, or would it be fairer to conclude that he is taking as a given something that is little more than a presupposition?

    It’s just that “science” has become the tub-thumpers’ weapon of choice, so it is necessary these days for any claim backed by something scientific to have the science gone through with a tooth-comb to ensure it’s genuine, and not just the concoction of someone trying to window-dress one of his prejudices.

  • M Schwartz

    @ Simon Stephenson,

    That’s a good point, and it depends on traits being heritable. Charleton briefly addresses that after the references, writing:

    “Note – It is very likely that IQ is _mostly_ hereditary (I would favour the upper bound of the estimates of heredity, with a correlation of around 0.8), but because IQ is not _fully_ hereditary there is a ‘regression towards the mean’ such that the children of high IQ parents will average lower IQ than their parents (and vice versa). But the degree to which this regression happens will vary according to the genetic population from which the people are drawn – so that high IQ individuals from a high IQ population will exhibit less regression towards the mean, because the ancestral population mean IQ is higher. Because reproduction in modern societies is ‘assortative’ with respect to IQ (i.e. people tend to have children with other people of similar IQ), and because this assortative mating has been going on for several generations, the expected regression towards the mean will be different according to specific ancestry. Due to this complexity, I have omitted any discussion of regression to the mean IQ from parents to children in the above journalistic article which had a non-scientific target audience.”

  • Simon Stephenson

    M Schwartz : 11.06pm

    Thank you for your post, and also for the link to Charlton’s article.

    Do you know, I’ve read the article several times, but I’ve not yet found the section where he explains why it’s scientifically correct to use the measured IQ distributions of occupational social classes as the assumed IQ distribution of the offspring of those classes. Because if you read the article carefully, this is the assumption he makes, and without it, all he is able to assert is that on average the lower-skilled jobs are filled by people of lower IQ than those who fill the higher-skilled jobs – a revelation which is hardly startling.

  • M Schwartz

    ***If Oxbridge entrance policy is forced to be more representative of social and economic class, then it will cease to be an appropriate place for such a finishing school, ***

    Remember that, as Bruce Charleton has pointed out, there are average group differences across social class:

    “The ‘ex-poly’ university has a threshold minimum IQ of 100 for admissions (ie. the top half of the age cohort of 18 year olds in the population – given that about half the UK population now attend a higher education institution), the ‘Redbrick’ university has a minimum IQ of 115 (ie. the top 16 percent of the age cohort); while ‘Oxbridge’ is assumed to have a minimum IQ of about 130 (ie. the top 2 percent of the age cohort).

    When social class is measured precisely, it can be seen that the expected Highest SC to Lowest SC differential would probably be expected to increase from about three-fold (when the percentages at university are compared with the proportions in the national population) in relatively unselective universities to more than thirty-fold at highly selective universities.

    When using a more conservative assumption of just one standard deviation in average IQ between upper (IQ 110) and lower (IQ 95) social classes there will be significant differentials between Highest and Lowest social classes, increasing from two-fold at the ‘ex-poly’ through four-fold at the ‘Redbrick’ university to nine-fold at ‘Oxbridge’.

    In other words, according to social class definitions, the average child from the highest social class is from nine-to-thirty times more likely to qualify for admission to a highly selective university than the average child from the lowest social class.

    Naturally, this simple analysis is based on several assumptions, each of which could be challenged and adjusted; and further factors could be introduced. However, the take-home-message is simple. When admissions are assumed to be absolutely meritocratic, social class IQ differences of plausible magnitude lead to highly significant effects on the social class ratios of students at university when compared with the general population.”

  • M Schwartz

    ***The real outrage should be that of the 30,000 students this year that got 3 As at A-level, only 292 of them were black.***

    This is actually pretty consistent with psychometric data which also predicts the relative overrepresentation of East Asian students.

    Gottfredson, L. S. (2005). Implications of cognitive differences for schooling within diverse societies. Pages 517-554 in C. L. Frisby & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), Comprehensive Handbook of Multicultural School Psychology. New York: Wiley.

  • Sarah AB

    Hello Simone – I’m not sure if this answers your question but (looking at your previous comment too) I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is ‘nothing wrong’ with Oxbridge being dominated by the independent school system, but I don’t think it’s Oxbridge’s problem – it would be if they were complacent but that doesn’t seem to be the case. They certainly employ people whose sole remit is, I believe, to try to attract students from lower s/e backgrounds. Anyway – school type is a bit of a red herring and if anything masks the real problem as most Oxbridge state school students are still middle class and went to quite good schools, I’d guess.

    Although I agree that of course the headline statistic about race needed to be taken seriously, if, as Martin Bright suggests, class is the real issue, then it is perhaps superfluous to add that bit in the last para about reaching out to the A-C community. Responding to what you say about cultures – I suppose one could say there are many British ‘cultures’ and that you won’t see many students from some of these cultures (including white working class ones) at Oxbridge. And if you think in terms of many British cultures rather than a single one then you might also note that ethnic groups aren’t distributed evenly between these cultures/tribes.

  • Simone

    Sarah AB:
    “I agree that this has more to do with class than race (certainly rather than racism).”

    Martin Bright also mentions culture. Why are black Britons assumed to come from another culture? I have black friends who are as English as I am with regard to culture.

  • Simone

    Nothing wrong with monoculture; nothing wrong with being dominated by the independent school system.

    Everything good has to be dismantled these days. Why?

  • Fergus Pickering

    I went to Oxford and I went to Edinburgh and Oxford was better, much better. This was almost entirely because of the tutorial system. Once a week, for one hour, I had the benefit, one-to-one, of a meeting with a man called John Jones, one of the top people in the world at my chosen course of study, English Literature. He treated me as an equal (which of course I was not) and I sweated blood to make sure I got through the hour without looking a complete tit. Reread The Prelude, John. This is a poem by Wordsworth of some ten thousand lines. I reread it. Ha! I read it and then I read what clever fellows had to say about it. Then I wrote an essay of 2,000 words for him. All within the week. AND I kept up my study of Anglo Saxon with my OTHER tutor. Edinburgh could offer nothing like that. Could anywhere?

  • Sarah AB

    I agree that this has more to do with class than race (certainly rather than racism). Although I probably agree with MB more of the time than most other commenters here, I’m also reluctant to mess around with Oxbridge(I didn’t go there, used to work there, now work at a new university)- but I do agree that switching to post-results applications might benefit those with low confidence/expectations, and just makes sense generally.

  • David Lindsay

    If there are no black Britons at Oxbridge, then whom would Janet Daley have waiting at table there? Clearly, Toby Young and Michael Gove need to think again about their all-white schools.

  • Anne Wotana Kaye 1

    Apologies for the dreadful typing.

  • Anne Wotana Kaye 1

    Univesity should be the place where one receives education for the pure and simple sake of enriching oneself through education and knowledge. For the opportunity to prepare for a career, trade or craft, the place to be in is a good technical college. Lefty interference destroyed most grammar schools, polytechnics and technical colleges, and they still like to imagine oen can make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.

  • Maria

    Why should all the best people go to Oxbridge? We’ve got plenty of other good universities – can’t we get over the idea if you didn’t go to Oxbridge you are second rate?

  • normanc

    Maybe we should follow America’s lead and start using positive discrimination? Maybe give ethnics a 2 A-level head start?

    We’ve destroyed every other institution in this country with needless government meddling, why should Oxbridge feel left out?

  • Publius

    “Oxbridge should not be happy to take its students from such a limited pool of talent.”

    — Perhaps Oxbridge are taking the best, and the best just don’t happen to be coming from “the African-Caribbean community”.

    (And why oh why do you have to use this ghastly lefty identity politics language where every race you identify has to be called a ‘community’?)

  • Jez

    If it’s not broken don’t mend it.

    Haven’t people done enough meddling thinking they know best?

  • Sulis

    The real outrage should be that of the 30,000 students this year that got 3 As at A-level, only 292 of them were black.

    I don’t see how this can be laid at Oxbridge’s door.

  • Simon Stephenson

    I suspect that Oxbridge is regarded by the fortunate as little more than a finishing school, to turn the last corner of the fast-track to power and fortune, which, through family and school networking, their offspring have been on since birth.

    If Oxbridge entrance policy is forced to be more representative of social and economic class, then it will cease to be an appropriate place for such a finishing school, and the fortunate will find somewhere more controllable for their offspring to weld themselves into the hierarchy of the next generation.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    We could do with some decent discriminating exams to help them distinguish, especially, these days, between the hard-working and the clever. I propose that we adopt an exam from abroad which works at home, then we will not be able to interfere with it to manage outcomes.

    Of course Martin himself is exhibiting snobbery here to presume that there is some magic in Oxbridge which will make the student somehow better if he goes there rather than another university. How about the suggestion that the best (I am not saying brightest in this blog) will probably succeed anyway? Whether they go to university or not.

    RK. Imperial dropout.