JCR Presidents and OUSU officers criticise Patten’s statement on quotas in open letter

Nearly two thirds of Oxford’s JCR Presidents and most of OUSU’s executive committee are among the signatories to a letter criticising the Chancellor, Lord Patten of Barnes, for his comments made about quotas last week.

At the time of writing, 24 JCR Presidents have signed the letter, plus many other JCR officers. The President of OUSU is also a signatory, along with several Vice-Presidents and a co-chair of Target Schools.

The letter states that Lord Patten “made comments which we fear are not representative of the ethos of the University of Oxford.” It elaborates: “You demonstrated a lack of respect for students from state schools and for BME students, as well as a lack of awareness of how ethnicity and class intersect in secondary education, in the university application process, and while studying at the University of Oxford.”

The signatories sent the letter to “demand a full apology for your words, and a demonstration of your commitment to access and anti-racism.”

Lord Patten had told The Telegraph: “I am in favour of universities recognising their responsibilities for promoting social inclusion but I don’t think that if you want high class universities you should expect them to lower their standards in order to make up for some inadequacies in our secondary education system.”

He continued: “I don’t support quotas at universities. Nobody will explain to me how you can make a system of quotas work while retaining the highest admissions standards … Quotas must mean lower standards. There are better ways of addressing social inclusion at universities.” The Chancellor also drew attention to the fact that Oxford runs several access programmes, which are expanding, and provides scholarship and bursary schemes to assist students from low-income backgrounds.

His comments came after a recent White Paper detailed the government’s proposals to publish admissions data relating to ethnic minority and disadvantaged applicants. These suggestions, which Universities Minister Jo Johnson calls a “transparency revolution” were included in the Queen’s Speech as part of the government’s Higher Education Bill.

In response to Lord Patten’s comments, the signatories said that “Without necessarily endorsing quotas as a method of diversifying the student body at Oxford, we must condemn these words.” They based their condemnation on the fact that BME students are underrepresented at Oxford. “The University’s 2014-15 Equality Report found that while 19% of UK-domiciled applicants to Oxford are BME, only 14% of offer-holders are. Only 13% of Oxford undergraduates identified themselves as BME in 2014, compared to an average of 18% across Russell Group universities. The Equality Report also found that black students are still under-represented at Oxford”, the letter states.

They said that, in light of this evidence, “it is shocking in the extreme that you believe that increasing the proportion of BME students at Oxford via a quota system would in itself amount to an erosion of standards. Your comments demonstrate an insufficient concern for the fact that BME students are disproportionately rejected, that they report a worse experience of studying at the university on many fronts, and that the ethnicity gap at finals stands at 5%. BME students must not be made to feel unwelcome by the Chancellor of this institution, and a dismissive attitude to these problems is unacceptable.”

Lord Patten has responded to these claims. He suggests that concern over his comments stems in part from “a misleading headline and news article in The Daily Telegraph” which was subsequently altered, and states that “As Chancellor I have supported every effort made at Oxford to diversify our student body. The University is deeply committed to innovative and ambitious work in this area. We recently launched an annual summer conference for BME students from state schools. This was jointly led by students in the African-Caribbean Society. I am fully behind it and developments like it, which include the UNIQ summer school for state school students.”

He continued: “I do not believe that greater diversity would lower academic standards. What I said is that Government imposed quotas are not the best means of achieving an aim we appear to share. … I hope you are reassured that I fully support a more diverse student body at Oxford, and that our aims and ethos are aligned.”