Racist or meritocratic? Oxbridge maligned

David Lammy MP claims to have extracted some interesting information about the admission of black students to Oxford and Cambridge through freedom of information requests.
In fact, much of this information was already available, but we'll let that pass. More significant, his conclusion – that Oxbridge is prejudiced against the poor, and against blacks – does not stand up to examination.
At first glance, his charges look damning. Just one black student of Caribbean origin was admitted to Oxford last year. Merton College has not admitted a black student for five years. “’Racist shame’ of our top two universities” headlined The Express. Mr Lammy’s own article, in The Guardian, was more modestly entitled “The Oxbridge whitewash”.
Both universities admit students on merit, not colour. The real tragedy is not that Oxford or Cambridge are prejudiced, but that black students fail to achieve the necessary qualifications at A Level – and those that do tend to apply for the most over-subscribed courses, perhaps egged on by teachers who are insufficiently savvy about getting good candidates into Oxbridge.
Oxford’s figures (rather different from Mr Lammy’s) show 452 black students in 2009 achieving three A grades at A level (excluding General Studies) against 29,000 white students. While 23 per cent of white students achieve this level – in effect the threshold for applying for entry to Oxbridge -  only 9.6 per cent of black students do. Black students do less than half as well at A-level as do white students.
However, enough of them do well enough to gain more than the single place identified by Mr Lammy. Here he is cherry-picking his statistics to make a point, by including only black Caribbean students. In 2009, the year only a single one of these gained entry to Oxford, the total black entry was actually 27, out of a total of 221 black applicants, an overall success rate of 12.2 per cent.
While this is considerably lower than the success rate for white students (see Table), it is higher than that of students of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin.
Why should it be lower at all? There are two reasons. The first, Oxford argues, is that black pupils with three As are far more likely to apply than are white pupils of comparable ability, and when they do apply they tend to pick the most over-subscribed subjects, where success rates are lower. For example, 29 per cent of black applicants in 2009 wanted to read medicine, where there are eight applicants for every place. Only 7 per cent of white applicants applied for medicine at Oxford.
Taking Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, 44 per cent of black applicants applied for them, against 17 per cent of white applicants. Schools experienced at getting pupils into Oxford and Cambridge know what to do: they will suggest applying for undersubscribed subjects to give their bright pupils the best chance.
This is no secret, as Oxford publishes the figures here. Chemistry admits 40 per cent of those who apply, Classics 45 per cent, Geology 46.2 per cent, Materials Science 44.5 per cent, Theology 38.1 per cent. But PPE admits only 18 per cent of applicants, medicine 13.6 per cent, and economics and management a miserly 8.9 per cent.
It’s a question of deciding whether you really want to go to Oxford, or you really want to be a doctor or an economist. If it’s the former, pick a minority subject, because in the long run it makes little difference what you read. If it’s the latter, don’t take a bet on odds as bad as one in eight or one in ten: look elsewhere. If bright black students aren’t getting this advice, they must lack bright teachers. It’s hardly quantum physics (24.4 per cent acceptance rate at Oxford, by the way).
Mr Lammy accuses Oxford of failing to reach out to black students, a charge which is disproved by the actual applications it receives. Last year nearly half of all black students who got three A grades applied to Oxford, against around 28 per cent of comparable white students. It’s entirely unsurprising, therefore, that their success rate was lower.
In passing, Mr Lammy also accuses Oxbridge of being prejudiced against the North, pointing out that no student from Knowsley on Merseyside has applied to Cambridge since 2003. It’s an appalling statistic, but again unsurprising, since just 1.4 per cent of pupils in Knowsley got three A-levels at A grade in the most recent year (none of them girls). Knowsley is the worst area in England for school achievement. Is that Oxford or Cambridge’s fault?
The truth is that most admissions tutors bend over backwards to make allowance for the disadvantages black applicants, or those from poor schools, have endured. But statistics suggest that this positive discrimination is unjustified.
If black students really faced insuperable odds to get university places, you would expect only the exceptional to succeed, which would be reflected in a better performance in finals. But a study by the Higher Education Funding Council published earlier this year found that between 2002 and 2006 just 3.5 per cent of black students got first-class degrees, against 11 per cent of white students. Just over a third of black students (37 per cent) got a first or a 2:1, compared to 62 per cent of white students.
Reversing the underperformance of students from minority ethnic communities is a very complex problem and one for which there are no easy solutions, as Universities UK remarked when this research was published. Mr Lammy’s attempt to land Oxbridge with the blame was totally unwarranted.