Photo of black Cambridge students goes viral
An image aimed at inspiring black people to apply to Cambridge has spread on social media. It revives a time-old debate: what can the UK’s top universities do about their diversity problem?
“We did it,” says Donte Nembhard, a student of chemical engineering at Cambridge University. “Why can’t you?”
Nembhard is one of the 14 black male undergraduates at the university to feature in a picture that has taken social media by storm. The image echoes the famous group photos of highly exclusive, all-white Oxbridge dining societies — but it sends the opposite signal.
Uploaded to the Facebook page of Cambridge’s African Caribbean Society (ACS), the photo aims to encourage black people — who are under-represented at the university — to apply. Its message has resonated with the country: since Monday, it has been shared and retweeted thousands of times.
Ethnic diversity in the UK’s top universities is a perennial issue. Of the 2,573 British students accepted to start as undergraduates at Cambridge in 2015, only 38 identified themselves as black. At Oxford, from a similar pool, the number was also 38; more came from Eton College. David Cameron, then prime minister, criticised the university for “not doing enough to attract talent from across our country”.
Broaden the picture and the statistics improve somewhat. The proportion of black and minority ethnic students at Cambridge — and across the entire Russell Group of universities — is rising. Oxford offered a record number of places to state school students in 2016. Both universities spend large amounts on access and outreach programmes.
Statistics aside, however, Oxbridge is still dogged by the stigma of racism. In 2015, one of Cambridge’s own academics branded the university “institutionally racist”. Earlier this year, an Oxford college caused an outcry when it circulated a CCTV image of a black student on its grounds, warning staff and students to “be vigilant”.
The ACS does not blame Cambridge for the scarcity of black students — they praise “the hard work” of access officers. Rather, they want to dispel the assumption that it is not a place for people like them. Can their photo make a difference?
Oxbridge so white
Absolutely, say some. Few black people go to Oxbridge — but then few apply. These universities try hard to recruit them. The problem is that, in the public consciousness, they are for white, middle-class students. The fear of not fitting in is what puts minorities off. The more campaigns we have like the ACS’s, the faster this will change.
If only it were so simple, reply others. The reasons for the lack of black applicants run deep in society. Black kids are more likely than white ones to come from poor areas and low-performing schools. Their grades are lower and they are not as wise to the “tricks” of the Oxbridge application system. More drastic measures are needed — like quotas.
- Are you interested in applying to Oxbridge?
- Should universities have ethnicity quotas?
- In groups of four, pick a social issue you feel strongly about. Then stage a photo designed to raise awareness of the issue, and show it to the class.
- Read Oxford’s sample interview questions in Become An Expert. Pick one, and answer it in 500 words — without reading the explanation! (You can use the internet for research.)
Some People Say...
“Britain is a meritocratic society.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- In 2015, 16.4% of black applicants to Cambridge were accepted, as opposed to 28.9% of white ones. At Oxford, the figures were 13.5% and 25.0%. In other words, even when they do apply to Oxbridge, black people are less likely to be accepted than white applicants.
- What do we not know?
- Whether this is due to racism on the part of application officials or deeper problems with society.
- What do people believe?
- Many — including top scholars — allege that universities are racist, not only in their application procedures but also in their curricula. This is definitely arguable, but hard to quantify. Others point out that black applicants are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and be predicted to achieve low grades, harming their chances of receiving an offer.
- Dining societies
- Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, to which David Cameron and Boris Johnson once belonged, is a well-known example.
- Eton College
- The UK’s most famous school has become a symbol of privilege and class. Just under a third of its pupils go on to Oxbridge.
- Russell Group
- An association of 24 British universities, many of which rank among the best in the world.
- Between 2011 and 2015, the number of black and minority ethnic people who got an offer from Cambridge rose by 38%, according to Channel 4 News.
- Record number of places
- Just under 60% of places were offered to state school pupils. Considering that they account for 93% of all British schoolchildren, this figure is still far from proportional.
- Oxford and Cambridge comprise dozens of colleges, which oversee many aspects of students’ lives and studies. This structure is unusual among British universities.
- For example, many private schools train pupils for the tricky Oxbridge application interviews. They also sometimes help pupils choose courses and colleges with good odds for acceptance.