Students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are under-represented at elite British universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge. Here, guest blogger Phil Nash from the Immigration Advice Service explains why higher education must tackle the attainment gap

Phil Nash from the Immigration Advice Service

Despite publicly stating their determination to address this issue, the student bodies at many of the UK’s most prestigious universities still fail to reflect the full socio-economic and ethnic makeup of the country.

In particular the number of BAME students at many top-tier institutions paint a rather disheartening picture.

According to Business Insider, 2016 saw only 35 black students gain a place at Oxford – alongside 2180 white applicants. Cambridge did only marginally better, accepting 40 black students among a total intake of over 2000.

Diversity efforts failing

Efforts to increase the diversity of the student population are clearly falling and accusations of institutional racism are becoming more difficult to rebuff.

Anecdotally, one Oxford student complained to Business Insider that on joining the institution, she was asked by a fellow student whether she would allow herself to be referred to as ‘the n word’.

Other BAME students have reported having their afro ‘petted’ and being told their hair would look better straightened. Racial prejudice, explicit or otherwise, is clearly an ongoing concern at some of our leading centres of learning.

When you look further, some uncomfortable truths about modern-day Britain are revealed.

Tellingly, BAME students are far more likely to come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. BAME households are twice as likely to be in prolonged poverty as white households. Academic success is made hugely difficult by socio-economic disadvantage, with only 2% of black students receiving 3 A-Levels.

These socio-economic obstacles persist among university students, particularly from Black Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families.

Research suggests that 76% of students forced to work through holidays to support themselves financially and that they achieve lower grades than their more affluent peers.

Unfair playing field

In modern Britain, race and class combine at every academic level to make a truly balanced playing field unlikely.

Problems with the attainment gap, it must be stressed, extend well beyond Oxford and Cambridge. In a joint study by Universities UK and NUS, it was highlighted that there is a BAME attainment gap of 10 to 15% at 29% of British universities.

This appears to be a continuation of trends established in early childhood.

As well as the grades deficit, Afro-Caribbean students are three times more likely than white British students to be expelled from their secondary school.

Understanding the complex relationship between aspiration, poverty, latent racism and access, involves recognising the lack of diversity in our universities as an expression of deeper cultural fault-lines.

Redressing the balance

Redressing this imbalance in the long-term should begin by increasing the number of top BAME graduates. Without the best qualifications, men and women from BAME backgrounds will continue to be underrepresented in senior positions.

Take the field of higher education itself. Only 10% of professors currently employed by UK universities are BAME, and only 0.6% of that figure is black. What takes root in our classrooms soon grows to reach every subsequent branch of society.

Brexit threat to inequality

Brexit also threatens to make the inequality in our universities even more acute, with HEPI among others warning that leaving the EU will greatly reduce the number of non-British students studying in Britain. Once free movement has ended, EU students will be charged the same higher rate currently paid by international students. Additionally, they will need a Tier 4 Student Visa, meaning they will face further expenditure and administrative hoops to jump through.

The Financial Times, has already reported that Cambridge has experienced a 14% drop in applications from EU-based students.

Picture: Oxford University

At a time when British universities are attempting to promote and bolster diversity, the UK government appears to be making it far harder for students from overseas to apply, especially from Europe.

So clearly much more needs to be done to help BAME students fulfil their academic potential. Incidents of racism, whenever they occur, must be dealt with quickly and firmly.

Furthermore, the rupture of Brexit must be managed carefully so as not to worsen an already imbalanced situation.

If the UN’s projections are correct, Britain’s departure from the bloc will result in a 5% income drop for black families ¬– double the figure predicted for white households.

With this in mind, it has never been more important that our elite universities are accessible and welcoming to BAME students.

Obstacles must be removed, incentives built into the system. Only then will the UK truly benefit from the immense range of talent at its disposal.

  • Main photo caption: Only 35 students who identified as black gained a place at Oxford in 2016