University accused of “institutional bias”

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lammEthnic minority applicants are far more likely to be rejected by Oxford than their white counterparts, a Guardian study has claimed.

The figures, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, showed that 25.7 per cent of white applicants received an offer to study at the university, compared with 17.2 per cent of ethnic minority applicants.

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, claimed the figures “suggest institutional bias, and certainly show sustained institutional failure”.

Lammy has been a high-profile critic of the Oxbridge admissions systems in the past, making the headlines in 2010 after he obtained data revealing that just one British black Caribbean undergraduate was admitted to Oxford in 2009, a figure later cited by David Cameron.

The figures suggested that, for medicine, white applicants were twice as likely as minority students to receive an offer, even amongst students who went on to receive three or more A* grades at A Level, with success rates of 43 per cent and 22.1 per cent respectively.

However, the University was keen to point out the limitations of The Guardian’s enquiry.

A spokesperson stated: “Due to the small data sample sizes, almost any analysis by individual courses and individual ethnic groups (rather than white/non-white) will not have statistical significance. It would therefore be misleading to draw any conclusions based on a breakdown into that level of detail.”

Oxford University did release a statement responding to the article’s claims: “We refute any allegation of discrimination or institutional bias in strong terms, and consider such allegations to be unsubstantiated and very serious.

“Oxford University is committed to selecting the very best students, regardless of race, ethnicity or any other factor. This is not only the right thing to do but is in our own interests.

“Differences in success rates between ethnic groups are therefore something we are continuing to examine carefully for possible explanations. We do know that a tendency by students from certain ethnic groups to apply disproportionately for the most competitive subjects reduces the success rate of those ethnic groups overall. However, we have never claimed this was the only factor in success rate disparities between students with similar exam grades.

“We do not know students’ A-level grades when selecting, as they have not yet taken their exams. Aptitude tests, GCSEs and interviews, which are used in our selection process, have not been explored in this analysis and are important in reaching reliable conclusions.”

OUSU’s Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs, David Messling also pointed out the lack of consideration for factors other than A Level performance which impact upon whether or not candidates received offers, describing it as a “massive and ill-informed jump to move from these figures, based on small numbers, to labelling Oxford with ‘structural discrimination’”.

He continued: “There are important issues surrounding BME [black and minority ethnic] access to Oxford, but many of them are to do with a perception of the University as unwelcoming – a picture which this article will only strengthen. The Guardian is right to look for more detailed data, as this issue is much more complex that the headline figures.

“OUSU is concerned about these issues, but what’s needed is detailed work to understand what drives these numbers – only then we will be in a better place to change them. There is work to do, but it lies in the kind of inspiring and encouraging schemes that are taking place like Target Oxbridge, not in throwing about ill-informed and overly simplistic soundbites.”

Jack Morel-Paolo, Access Rep at Merton, commented: “I agree that Oxford admissions aren’t perfect, but I think this article is taking one factor in the process- exam results- and treating it as if it’s the only determinant. The interview makes the admissions process very fair because it places emphasis on someone’s academic potential.”

He added: “To anyone thinking of applying, I would say that academic criteria – i.e. whether you would flourish under the tutorial system – are the most important, not your ethnic origin, the school you go to or anything else the myths might lead you to believe.”

He also pointed out that the Regionalisation Program, which assigned each college parts of the country to target for Schools Liaison, meaning that “every area has a College they can contact to find out more about Oxford”, citing his college’s work at Kingsway International Christian Centre in London, “a mega-church whose attendants are mostly from ethnic minority groups, trying to inform people about Oxford and encouraging them to apply for the subject that’s right for them.”

William Golightly, Access and Academic Affairs Rep at St Hugh’s was keen to point out that improvements had been made. He said: “It is worth remembering that numbers [of ethnic minority students] are rising, however steadily, and no doubt like the gender imbalance of the twentieth century, this will over the long-duree be resolved, but hopefully with more zeal from the university than we are currently seeing.”