- Kalifa Damani
- The number of black students applying for, receiving offers from, and attending Oxford and Cambridge universities is chronically low. Only 40 black students were accepted out of 2,210 placed UK applicants to Cambridge last year. And only 35 black students were accepted out of 2,210 placed UK applicants to Oxford. 15.4% of students at Oxford and 19.9% at Cambridge are international. Campaigners and experts put the under-representation down to a number of factors, including students’ fear of not fitting in and racism. Business Insider spoke to nine current and former black Oxbridge students to get their views on life at the universities and what can be done to improve diversity. Oxford and Cambridge said they are working to broaden their pool of applicants and improve diversity, but accept that more can be done.
University of Cambridge student Timi Sotire has first-hand experience of everyday racism. She has encountered people who are unable to pronounce her name, had her afro “petted,” had people assume she knows every grime song, and regularly heard the appropriation of black slang. She was even told her hair looked better straight.
“Unfortunately, this has all come from friends, and as the only black person in my friendship group, sometimes I am one of the only people defending my corner,” she told Business Insider.
“It makes being here extremely isolating at times, because if you don’t say anything, then you feel like you are betraying yourself. But at times I say something and have had people react in laughter, anger, or try to start a debate.
“It is as if I am expected to be the spokesperson for the black race, with my job being to educate people on racism. But this is mentally draining, as I feel as if I should not have to defend my humanity at every occasion. Sometimes for me, the only solution is to just stay away from everyone for a while.”
This experience is something that a white student would never have to put up with. It also highlights a bigger problem, which is the lack of black students who attend Oxford and Cambridge universities every year. In fact, in 2016, only 35 students who identify as black ended up going to Oxford, and only 40 attended Cambridge.
The white stereotype
For many black students who want to apply to the two prestigious British universities, the stereotypical white, middle-class student they picture is enough to put them off.
Sotire had her doubts for these very reasons. “I remember when I told my black friends that I had applied, they had the stereotypical image of Cambridge and wondered how I was going to cope,” she said.
“Although there are some extreme stereotypes held by people, it is true that white people make an overwhelming majority in this university compared to others. So perhaps black students would rather apply to universities they think that they will fit into.”
Sotire was not dissuaded, however, and is now studying Human, Social, and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. She was one of only 40 black students accepted into the university out of 2,210 18-year-old UK students placed last year, and her story highlights the chronic lack of diversity at Britain’s two most iconic education institutions.
It is why a photo of 14 black Cambridge students went viral in May this year. When they shared the image on Facebook, it wasn’t just to show the diversity problem at elite colleges, but to challenge the preconceptions people may have and encourage black students that Cambridge is a place they can go.
“It is important that despite their under-representation, we let young black people know that this is something that they can aspire to,” their Facebook post said.
- Facebook/Cambridge ACS
The photo was the starting point of a Business Insider investigation into the low numbers of black students at Oxford and Cambridge, or Oxbridge as the two universities are commonly referred to.
We secured figures that lay bare the Oxbridge diversity problem, and show how far the institutions are lagging behind some of their counterparts, particularly in London.
BI also spoke to nine current and former students at both Oxford and Cambridge, all of whom identify as black, to get their views on why so few black students enroll every year.
They revealed four main reasons for the under-representation: The fear of racism from other students, concerns around not fitting in, a lack of support in applying, and insane competition for places.
As for the universities themselves, they say work is being done to address the imbalance. Both are working with outreach organisations to broaden the pool of applicants, while they are also encouraging black alumni to share their positive experiences from their student days.
But they recognise that the job is far from done. “We realise there is still more to do,” the University of Oxford told BI. Cambridge added: “We are always looking for new ways to work more closely with students.”
Oxford and Cambridge’s chronic lack of diversity
Back in 1971, Shadow Secretary of State for Health Diane Abbott was accepted to Cambridge and was one of only three female black students in the year, and the only one from a state school in the entire university.
- Mary Turner / Getty
“My school didn’t send people to Oxford and Cambridge a lot,” the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington told the Times. “They were sort of proud of me, but only sort of.”
Furthermore, Abbott’s history teacher tried to put her off applying, saying it would give her unrealistic expectations outside her destiny for becoming a “canteen worker.”
Things have improved since the 1970s, but the diversity problem is far from over.
A breakdown of the stats:
- Black students made up less than 3% of the applications to Oxford and Cambridge in 2016, compared to 8% of total university applications. Fewer than 80 black students ended up going to Oxbridge last year and progress on boosting this number is erratic. Lower ranking universities, like London Met, are more diverse. Comparable US universities, like Harvard, perform better than Oxbridge, but there is a larger African-American population in the country.
Let’s start with the number of applicants. According to UCAS, the application process operator for British universities, black students made up 2.7% and 2.8% of the 10,000 and 8,000 applications to Oxford and Cambridge respectively last year. This equates to 270 and 223 black applicants respectively. It is also important to note that about 6% of applicants don’t declare their ethnicity.
About 3% of people in the UK identify as black, which means that as a representative sample of the population, 2.7% and 2.8% are low, but not massively lower than it should be on paper.
However, these figures are well below the national average of students applying to all universities. UCAS figures show that 8% of 564,190 UK university applications to all universities were from black students in 2016. So Oxford and Cambridge are pulling from a pool of black applicants that is less than half the size of those applying to all other universities.
It is worth noting that these numbers only concern the number of students applying from the UK, as UCAS admission figures usually only relate to Home (UK) students and don’t take overseas students into account. In 2016, Oxford took 7.2% of its students from other EU countries and 12.2% from outside the EU. Some 12.3% of Cambridge’s overall student intake in 2016 were from other countries.
International students pay higher fees than UK students, so colleges have an economic incentive to take them. Overall, 15.4% of Oxford’s students, and 19.9% of Cambridge’s students are international.
If the universities are aware they have a diversity problem – and they are two of the richest higher education institutions in the UK, so they have the resources to solve it – why don’t they increase the number of offers they make to talented international students of colour? They could follow the example of other universities such as Buckingham, which has a 58.1% intake of international students, Essex which has 33.3%, Imperial College London which has 41.0%, or LSE which has 44.3%.
A spokesperson from Oxford did not want to respond to this question. But he reiterated that Oxford wants the best students from all kinds of backgrounds. He added that 63% of graduate students at Oxford are from outside the UK and students from all types of black and minority/ethnic (BME) backgrounds made up nearly 16% of the 2016 UK intake, which shows progress.
The Cambridge spokesperson said: “Our admissions decisions are based on academic considerations alone. We are committed to admitting the best students from around the world who will thrive on our courses.”
Next, the number of offers Oxford and Cambridge make to black students. Of the 2,555 offers Oxford made to 18-year-olds last year, 1.6% were to black students. For Cambridge, it was 1.8% of 2,720 offers. This compares to 8% of total students applying to university nationally being black, according to UCAS figures.
The graph below shows the pattern over the past five years. Despite being below average, the number of offers to black applicants has gone up 50% and 25% at Oxford and Cambridge respectively.
Finally, the number of black students who actually end up attending Oxbridge. This is where the figures drop even lower, partly because students don’t get the grades they need, or decide to go somewhere else. Out of the 95 offers made to black students to Oxford and Cambridge, 75 ended up going. That means 12% of the already low numbers of black students offered places didn’t get to Oxbridge.
Again, the charts below show improvement over the past decade, but progress is erratic. Black students still make up a tiny proportion of first-year intakes at both universities, hugely outnumbered by white students.
Compare this with a lower-ranking university in London and the difference is stark. London Metropolitan University is the 127th best university in the UK and is known for its ability to attract BME students. Last year, there was near parity in the number of white and black students.
This isn’t to say that London Met is a model for university students. Rather, it shows that black students are concentrated in less prestigious institutions.
And what about further afield? How do Oxford and Cambridge stack up against their world-class counterparts in America?
Some 14.6% of students who enrolled at Harvard in 2016 were African-American. At Yale it was 7%, while 6% of the first-year intake at Stanford were black. Clearly, representation is better.
But African-Americans make up about 13% of the US population, more than four times the figure of people who identify as black in the UK, so the figures should be higher.
There are also similar campaigns to improve diversity at these US institutions. It was, after all, The Black Student Alliance at Yale that originally inspired the viral photo at Cambridge.
Four reasons why black students are under-represented
Raph Mokades is the founder and managing director of Target Oxbridge, an organisation that helps minority students get into Oxford and Cambridge by introducing them to students and lecturers, and giving them access to summer schools.
- Target Oxbridge
According to him, the small number of black students at the top universities isn’t necessarily a result of the universities having any sort of biases themselves. It’s because back students just aren’t applying in the numbers that they could do.
“Clearly, if it were fine, or good, Target Oxbridge wouldn’t exist, and it does exist and there’s a reason,” he told Business Insider. “When I was at Oxford a hundred million years ago, you could count the number of black men at the university on the fingers on one hand.”
Mokades said black students are under-represented for four reasons: A lack of support in applying, the fear of not fitting in, huge competition for places on certain courses, and racism.
A lack of support in applying
Mokades said only 4.7% of black students taking A-levels are awarded 3 As/A*s, according to DfE figures. Considering the average offer for Oxbridge is at least A*A*A – although some are lower at AAA – if many black students aren’t even getting to this stage, there is a problem.
“There’s an issue with black attainment,” Mokades said. “It’s not that there are no black people who are good enough to go to Oxbridge, that’s not what’s happening. But, black people aren’t doing as well in their exams as say, Chinese people or Indian people, who do better than white people too. It’s not terrible, and it’s much better than it was in the past, but we want more black kids getting As and A*s.”
Part of the problem, Mokades said, is black students wondering whether they should apply in the first place. This is where Target Oxbridge comes in. It helps the students who have good enough GCSEs get the A levels required for Oxbridge. The organisation also introduces them to minority alumni to help them realise they have the intelligence and the drive successfully apply.
Daniel Oluboyede is a first year medic at Downing College, Cambridge. He said he always would have applied, but Target Oxbridge made him realise how underprepared he was for the entry process.
“I am almost certain that without the programme I would not have gotten in,” he told Business Insider. “This is the story for so many students in inner city London and other less privileged areas. It’s not that I wouldn’t have had the potential, it’s that before Target Oxbridge I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reach that potential to be a successful candidate.”
The fear of not fitting in
Fopé Jegede, a second-year English student at Homerton College, Cambridge, said she actually subconsciously ruled out applying.
“For me, it was not so much a case of doubting my capability but my actual desire to apply,” she explains. “I am really fortunate in that I’ve always had incredibly supportive teachers, family and friends, and so it wasn’t really self-doubt I had to overcome but more, is this a place I would want to go to – would it be a rewarding and enjoyable experience?”
- YouTube / Universal Pictures
This was a common theme in talking to students from both Oxford and Cambridge. They weren’t put off from applying because they didn’t think they could get the grades. It was because they feared they wouldn’t fit in.
David Cameron, George Osborne, and Boris Johnson are among some of the famous faces who were part of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford – an elite and exclusive drinking club for white, wealthy students. It’s an image Oxford is trying to shake, but contributes to perceptions about the university.
“I remember when I told my black friends that I had applied, they had the stereotypical image of Cambridge and wondered how I was going to cope,” said Sotire, the first-year Social and Political Sciences student at Newnham College, Cambridge.
“Although there are some extreme stereotypes held by people, it is true that white people make an overwhelming majority in this university compared to others. So perhaps black students would rather apply to universities they think that they will fit into.”
Leah Grant, who is in her first year of Economics at Clare College, Cambridge, always knew she had the drive and talent to go to a high-level university. However, her enthusiasm was dampened when she attended a maths masterclass and economics summer school at Cambridge University in the summer after her GCSEs.
She was astonished at the distinct lack of BME representation all around her – she was the only black female in the maths masterclass and one of only four BME students in the summer school.
“I was apprehensive about my ability to navigate persistent feelings of isolation and inferiority that I thought I would encounter, particularly as the economics discipline is predominately comprised of the white-male archetype,” she said.
Serge-Raymond Nzabandora, a first-year Economics and Management student at St Peter’s College, Oxford, was told by friends that everyone was white at the university and he’d end up with “posh friends.”
“It is a bit worrying coming into an environment where very few people look like you, especially when you’ve come from a place which is so diverse,” he said. “It definitely put me on edge, but going to a highly selective grammar school meant that I have had that experience before and I wasn’t going to let it stop me from getting an Oxford education.”
Background plays a part
However, not every student sees it this way. According to Michaela James, a first-year medic at Lincoln College, Oxford, black students who have grown up in predominantly white spaces are not going to have the same sort of reservations.
“Having moved to a sixth form that was predominantly white, from a high school that was predominantly black and Asian, I had become accustomed to being a minority,” she said.
“I knew Oxford would be even more homogeneous than my sixth form but having had the experience of moving schools it was not the big culture shock that I imagine it would have been.”
Others saw it as a positive.
Ashley John-Baptiste, journalist and former “The X Factor” contestant, went to Cambridge after doing better than expected in his GCSEs. He was fostered from the age of two, and when he applied to study at Cambridge, he was getting ready to move into a council flat after bouncing around 35 different care homes during his life.
“When I thought about going to Cambridge, there were so many factors that I thought worked against me and disqualified me,” he told Business Insider. “I just had such a tenacity to go, such resilience to get into this university, that I wasn’t prepared to let what I saw as quite trivial factors – race or socioeconomic background – get in the way.”
He said he noticed the university was very “white-washed” when he first joined, especially coming from inner-city London. But he actually thought of becoming part of this new world a positive thing.
“I think being a foster kid in a weird way helped, because I was so used to transitioning between homes and assimilating into new families that for me Cambridge was just another chapter.”
John-Baptiste ended up attending Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge, which he said had a large intake of state school students, so he was less conscious of things like his dialect. As soon as he started, he became aware that any preconceptions were wrong, and the student union and the university were keen to promote diversity.
“I think the problem is the stigma attached to the university that you hear about before you even go,” John-Baptiste said. “So actually the problem for me was local people, like local teachers, social workers, and people who I knew generally saying ‘that’s a posh place, people like us don’t go there.'”
However, it is certainly true that students coming from a private education have a better chance of getting into an elite university than those from state schools.
According to Dr Vikki Boliver, a social science professor at Durham University, applicants from state schools are over one-third less likely to succeed in their application than private school applicants with the same grades in the same subjects.
Over 40% of the students Oxford and Cambridge take on every year are from private schools, which educate just 7% of the total UK student population. Black students are already likely missing out if they aren’t privately educated.
The third reason Mokades noted as a reason for low black representation is racism.
Many of the students approached for this article said they had encountered casual racism from fellow students, such as having their hair petted, or being asked if they could be called “the n-word.”
Kalifa Damani is currently studying for her PhD in Education and Psychology at Cambridge, and she wrote an article for The Tab about how racism is very much still a problem there, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not.
She told Business Insider that some of the things that put black people off most are the fact Cambridge students are mostly white; Eurocentric education; the lack of a larger and diverse black community; and the misunderstanding, lack of empathy and plain ignorance of black people’s experiences, history, and culture.
“I heard comments about black people being intellectually inferior, been ignored whilst trying to talk to people … and then had people deny that I experienced racism,” Damani said.
“Those things together led me, during my first year, to seriously wonder what was real or not real about my experience. I began to distrust my own feelings, discount them and doubt my reality because some of the people that I spoke to, some white people in Cambridge, didn’t believe me, or tried to convince me that my feelings weren’t valid or warranted.”
- Kalifa Damani
Nzabandora said he experienced racism for certain, but it wasn’t particularly obvious. It was similar to the casual remarks you hear that people make to each other at school, he said.
“It isn’t the sort of discrimination which people are quick to call out but constant stereotypes which are ingrained in most minds I feel have contributed to me being treated differently at times,” he said. “Oxford does have a cultural bias which is against black people in the same way the whole of the UK does, but perhaps of more severity.”
James said she was asked what she thought of “the n-word” and whether it would be okay to call her it by a fellow student in her first week at Oxford.
“I expect it’s ultimately just an experimentation of racial boundaries by the perpetrator. However, I have noticed that male banter, in particular, can revolve around race,” she said. “On two occasions someone I know has said something racially offensive when drunk although they are aware and remorseful of their comments when they are sober.”
Insane competition for places
The fourth reason for low numbers of black students at Oxbridge is more of a technicality and comes down to the subjects students are choosing to study. It’s a game of numbers, because there simply aren’t the spaces on these courses to take everyone who applies for them.
“Black kids have tended to apply for subjects like economics, politics and economics, or medicine, or law,” Mokades said. “No matter whether you are black or Asian or white, these are the hardest things to get in for, because everybody is applying for them.”
He added that these three subjects only make up about 8% of the undergraduate places at the universities, and they are three of the hardest courses to get onto.
John-Baptiste had direct experience of this. He recalls being in the library with all the other history undergraduates at Cambridge, and there was only one other black student in there. As far as he remembers, they were the only two black people studying history that year.
“The majority of black students who I knew at Cambridge were studying economics, law, medicine, maybe engineering,” he said. “But I was a historian as an undergrad, so you can imagine, the literal term of being the only black in the village really did apply to me, because that is very, very middle-class subject as far as I understand.”
What the universities are doing
According to Oxford, the most important thing is that the total number of students accepted to the university has remained constant for a number of years, and the number black students is rising, albeit slowly.
- Gordon Bell/Shutterstock
A spokesman told Business Insider that the university is aware that many people still have preconceptions. They said staff are working to try and address this by collaborating with organisations like Target Oxbridge, and having good relationships with BME student societies, such as the Oxford African and Caribbean student society, and the Islamic Society.
“Our admissions and outreach teams in particular work closely with these societies – and we know that our students are the best advocates for showing other young people that Oxford is a place for them if they have the academic ability and potential,” he said.
For example, in July grime artist Stormzy was recognised by the Oxford African and Caribbean Society for his contributions to the society and the wider black community.
“We think it’s really important that academically minded young black people believe Oxford is for them and can compete successfully for places at the University,” Dr Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at the University of Oxford, told Business Insider.
“Our figures show that a growing number of black students are applying to and being offered places at Oxford, and our students speak positively about the benefits of studying here.
“We’re encouraged by this, but we realise there is still more to do, and we will continue to work with school students of African and Caribbean heritage, as well as other groups that are under-represented at Oxford. One of the challenges to making progress in this area is prior attainment, and we are also working with teachers to help them support their most talented students in realising their aspirations.”
Oxbridge isn’t for everyone
Jon Beard, the Director of Undergraduate Recruitment at Cambridge, said getting more black students to apply will require government, schools, universities, charities, parents and students to work closely together. He added that it wouldn’t make sense to simply offer more black students places.
“Cambridge is a fantastic place to study but we don’t and shouldn’t make the assumption that everyone wants to come here,” he said.
“We offer demanding, academically-focused, theoretical courses which not all students would choose. If you don’t apply, we can’t offer you a place. So our message to bright students is: Explore what Cambridge has to offer, visit us and speak to us. If you like what you see and hear, apply. We’re not interested in where you come from, only how you think and where you want to get to.”
A Cambridge University spokesman added it has been working closely with student vloggers, several of whom are BME students, to help them “share their authentic Cambridge experiences and advice with a larger audience.”
“Our students play a vital role in widening participation through official university – and college-run events, student-run societies and as individuals,” they said. “The University and Colleges encourage this activity in many different forms and we are always looking for new ways to work more closely with students.”
The student perspective
The students we spoke to think more can be done.
“While I appreciate the huge effort the university has put into access in recent years, I do think more access schemes could help as well as an even more contextualised admissions process,” Oxford student Nzabandora said.
“The truth is I don’t know the best course of action right now but I do think as social attitudes become even more accepting and revolve less around unfair preconceptions, we will see a more even representation at Oxford.”
Medicine student Oluboyede agrees that there is more to do, but Cambridge is off to a good start with Target Oxbridge.
“The attitudes towards elite universities can be changed by reaching schools and giving a clear message, encouraging students that the university wants them and is a safe and comfortable environment for them,” he said.
“This will undoubtedly be received better by secondary school students if this message comes from students with similar backgrounds to them. As such, this is a priority for the university if they truly want to increase diversity and it’s also the responsibility of the current ethnic minority students and alumni to partake.”
James added that an important way to make black students feel more comfortable at Oxbridge university is to make sure they don’t feel their identity is an obstacle in the community.
- Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr
“The university should continue to invest in outreach projects, visiting diverse schools, and accommodating school trips around the age where the most influence can still be made – which I think is around year eight or nine,” she said. “Also not just limiting outreach to schools with an overall excellent academic record as some very talented students can be found in schools which do not.”
Thanks to Target Oxbridge helping to pave the way, many black students get into Oxbridge and the figure is rising. The numbers aren’t where Mokades wants them to be, he said, and there is still much more work to do, but he is confident things will keep improving.
“The reason for that is dead simple,” he said. “There are brilliant, young, black people out there. Once you’ve found them, we have a model that works, it’s just a case of getting through to those people and help them get where they need to get.”
Sotire said Target Oxbridge is a step in the right direction, and without the programme, she wouldn’t have realised her full potential.
“This is because in my head, applying to Cambridge did not only involve getting good grades, but many other factors that I had no control over played a role; I found this really overwhelming,” she said. “But Target Oxbridge dispelled all of those fears … You get so much training and practice, so once you get to the interview stage, you are sure that you stand a chance.”