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Blame the schools system, not Oxford

11 April 2011

6:31 PM

11 April 2011

6:31 PM

The most extraordinary row has broken out after the Prime Minister appeared to suggest that Oxford University has a racist admissions policy. He today said that, "I saw figures the other day that showed that
only one black person went to Oxford last year. I think that is disgraceful." But the university has since hit back, pointing out that, "the figure quoted by the Prime Minister is
incorrect and highly misleading — it only refers to UK undergraduates of black Caribbean origin for a single year of entry, when in fact that year Oxford admitted 41 UK undergraduates with
black backgrounds."

Laura Kuenssberg tweets that No10 is nevertheless sticking to its line:

"No 10 source – Cameron shd have said black Caribbean but says the figures are ‘still terrible’ + says , ‘what world is Oxford living in?"

In which case, Cameron’s source seems to have been a David Lammy article in the
Guardian a while back. Entitled "The Oxford whitewash," it mentions the fact that the No10 source seems to be referring to: "Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to
Oxford last year". Oxford also dealt with this at the time, stating that, "beyond black students alone, 22 per cent
of Oxford’s overall student body is non-white (BME)". It added that 44 per cent of all black applicants apply for the three most oversubscribed subjects, versus 17 per cent of white applicants.

So what world — as No10 puts it — is Oxford living in? That’s a very good question. I’d say it’s a world where international competition between universities has never been more fierce.
Its admissions policy should be unashamedly meritocratic. It is the job of schools, not universities, to teach kids properly and promote social mobility through excellence for all. When
universities are used as a branch of the welfare state, they go to ruin.

Oxford is also living in a world where black children in Britain are given a pretty poor education. You can argue that black kids are more likely to come from poor households, and that sink schools
cheat poor kids regardless of their racial background. But if the Prime Minister is looking for someone to blame, he should look first at the secondary school system — which, to his immense
credit, is being rapidly reformed.

If Oxford was rejecting a proportionately higher number of black students than it was white students, there might be a case to answer. But as far as this Glasgow graduate can make out, Oxford’s
admissions hold a mirror up to the British schools system. One where the rich are educated best, and the poor are shafted. This, alas, is the world that Oxford is living on.

In last week’s Spectator, Ivor Roberts looked at an argument that is increasingly being heard in Oxford: that it
should just go independent and finally sever ties with the politicians. The more Oxford is blamed for the failings of the state education system, the more tempting this option must be.

UPDATE: Matt d’Ancona writes that Cameron’s
statement itself is fine: ie "I think that is disgraceful, we have got to do better than that". I agree. Perhaps that’s what Cameron meant. But it was the No10 briefing later – tweeted by
Laura – which made this sound so much worse.

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