Black students are failing to apply to Cambridge because there is a lack of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers in the city, the university’s pro-vice-Chancellor has said.
The “unexpected” finding arose during research into what deters black students from considering the institution, according to Professor Graham Virgo.
Speaking at an event held at King’s College, Cambridge, he said this was one of the barriers that black students face in applying to the university.
“We have been doing some quite detailed research, particularly with black students, particularly in London, looking at obstacles to applying to Cambridge and thinking about Cambridge. And number three on the list was hairdressers,”
Prof Virgo, who is a QC and expert in criminal law as well as Cambridge’s senior pro-vice-Chancellor for education, said this revelation sent a “really important” message to the university.
The research, which involved surveying some Cambridge undergraduates and sixth form students, was carried out in preparation for a new campaign aimed at encouraging more black students to apply to the university.
“[We asked] what is the obstacle, what is stopping you from thinking about Cambridge? The real message was about hairdressers,” Prof Virgo said.
“It’s unexpected but we need to look at applying to Cambridge from their eyes. For those students this is their concern. Really being able to engage with these perceptions enables us to say ‘how are we going to respond to that?’”
Students also had anxieties around whether they would have enough money and whether they would fit in, he added.
Prof Virgo made the comments at a panel discussion on Wednesday evening, convened by the investment bank J. Stern & Co as part of a series of seminars on education.
Universities are under pressure from the higher education regulator to admit more students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Last year it emerged that six of Cambridge’s colleges admitted fewer than ten black British students in five years. The university said at the time that it cannot change diversity “on its own” and called for parents and schools to encourage ethnic minorities to apply.
Naomi Kellman, founder of Target Oxbridge, a programme to assist black students with Oxford and Cambridge applications, said the question about hairdressers “comes up really frequently”.
“If you are from a majority group you assume you will be catered for, anywhere in the country can manage your hair,” she said. “But if you have afro hair, the expertise is needed. Things that are really basic and simple become quite a big challenge.”
As well as asking about the academic demands of courses at Oxbridge, black students are also concerned about what kind of food and night life will be on offer, Ms Kellman said.
Cambridge has a number of hairdressers including the Afro European Beauty Centre, which says on its website it specialises in “Afro and European hair care for both men and women”.
However, Dr Tony Sewell, CEO of Generating Genius, a charity that encourages youngsters from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue STEM subjects, said a lack of hairdressers is not the reason why black students are put off from applying.
“It may be another lame excuse – kids need to get more resilient and get with it,” he said. “As a minority, you will have to be confronting a situation where you are the only one. You have to face that and learn how to adapt to that. That’s the key issue.”
Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, said “cultural differences” mean that some ethnic minority students are more likely to apply for a university in their home town rather than move away.
“This difference is holding some young people back in terms of going to their local university when they have the potential to go to a much higher ranked university,”
“Part of this is about cultural differences with many students worrying that they won’t fit in.”
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Written by: Camilla Turner