The stereotypical perception of Oxford and Cambridge is one of white privilege; playgrounds for the wealthy, the final stage in an expensive, exclusive education. Hardly an attractive image to BAME students. Sadly, this is still more of a truth than a cliché, and as a result both institutions have stated their intentions to become more inclusive. However, BAME students still face significant obstacles in terms of both gaining a place at our elite universities and succeeding academically once there. The reasons for this are complex, but are linked to socio-economic background, institutional bias and the fear of alienation. Brexit is set to inflame an already invidious situation, both by heaping more financial misery upon BAME households, and by triggering a rise in racially-motivated hate crimes.
Oxbridge’s claims that they are opening their doors to more students from BAME and working-class backgrounds are not mirrored by reality. Figures released by UCAS show that in 2016, 2180 white students took up a place at Oxbridge in comparison to 35 black students. The contrast at Cambridge was similarly stark, with 2025 black students gaining entry in contrast to 40 white. These numbers point to one of the key issues that both damage BAME students’ experience whilst at the two institutions and deter them from applying altogether- the fear of not belonging. When you are so considerably in the minority, is it very easy to feel like an outsider, a sentiment that is echoed in the words of BAME students.
Candice, a working-class, black student at Cambridge stated that ‘you want to go to a good university but you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb’. This encapsulates how fears of imposter syndrome can make our elite universities unappealing to the BAME community. Even more disturbingly, incidents of racial prejudice are all too common at Oxbridge. Timi Sotire, a student at Cambridge, told Business Insider that she ‘was asked if she could be called ‘the n-word’ during her first week of study, and even had her afro petted’. This behaviour is only allowed to perpetuate due to the extent of mono-ethnicity at the institutions. If students of all backgrounds had an equal chance of gaining a place, such conduct would no longer go unchecked.
It is reasonable to argue that Brexit will make this situation even worse for BAME students. A major reason for this is the rise in hate crimes it has triggered- 41% since the vote, many of which are racially motivated. Such statistics suggest that the hostile attitudes that BAME students face at our elite universities are set to intensify further. Furthermore, EU students will need to apply for a Tier 4 Student Visa after Brexit, and will be subject to the same fees that international students currently pay. The stress and cost associated with this will act as a deterrent from applying- research from the Higher Education Policy Institute predicts that applications from the EU will fall by 57%. This will result in an even less diverse student population, which will in turn breed even greater levels of intolerance towards those from outside the majority group, such as BAME students. This is one of the most notable ways that Brexit will worsen the plight of this community- by eliciting a rise in racial hatred and discrimination.
Arguably the most worrying aspect of the difficulties BAME students face when applying to Oxbridge is that offer rates are still considerably higher for white students even when A-level results are accounted for. A study by the Runnymede Trust found that black students have 7% less chance of receiving an offer than white students- even when their grades are just as good. It is wrong that anything other than academic attainment should be looked at, and the fact there are such disparities in offer rates between ethnic groups points to the existence of institutional racism within our elite universities’ admissions processes. Taking into account that UCAS forms display the applicants’ names, this is even more plausible. Brexit is significant here too. The rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric since the referendum has led to one’s ethnic background being scrutinised- this could play a role in the unfair situation BAME students face.
As touched upon, socio-economic background plays a major role in the difficulties BAME students face at Oxbridge- 75% of BAME communities live in 88 of the UK’s poorest areas. A study into British Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students at Cambridge found that 76% of those who had to work during the holidays to fund their studies received disappointing examination grades. In light of this, it is clear that household income makes succeeding at our elite universities far more difficult. Research from the Independent Commission on Social Mobility found that there are more young black men in prison than there are attending Russell Group universities, a fact that evidences the impact that socio-economic background has upon one’s ability to fulfil their potential. In addition, joint research by NUS/UUK uncovered that only 0.7% of professors are black, something that has a deleterious effect on the self-belief of black students.
Brexit is going to exacerbate an already dire situation. A recent UN report focused on how austerity measures hit the BAME community the hardest, and stated that spending cuts have resulted in a 5% income loss for black households, double that of white households. Leaving the EU is going to result in major cuts to public spending, heaping even more financial misery upon the BAME community. This will serve to make it even more difficult to both gain entry to Oxbridge and flourish academically whilst there. The issues facing working-class BAME students are reaching a critical point- our universities need to become more accessible and give everyone an equal chance.
When Oxbridge become accessible to all students, there will be more opportunities for the BAME community in sectors such as politics and economics. The number of BAME MPs is at a record high, yet this still comprises only 8% of the House of Commons. With Brexit set to problematise things further, the situation is approaching a nadir. Our elite universities need to open their doors to BAME students, and in doing so pave the way for a more egalitarian society.
Written by: Cameron Boyle
Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration solicitors which provides legal support for students from overseas looking to study in the UK.