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Racism in Oxbridge? Really?

December 7, 2010

I’m annoyed with Twitter.

People who’ve read other posts in this blog will know that I’m a fan of Twitter. I’ve said a few times how good it is for communicating important things, especially things that might not otherwise have reached so wide an audience. But tonight I’ve realised that this power Twitter has is one that can work both ways. It can spread news that is informative, helpful, you may even say necessary, but it can also spread hyperbole, miscommunication and an agenda faster than anything has ever been able to before. If you haven’t seen the minor rant that I just vented on Twitter then allow me to fill you in.

Picture the scene; me arriving back home from a rather excellent Scissor Sisters concert, in a good mood from the experience and the three drinks I had there but nowhere near what anyone would deem incapacitated. I get in, greet my housemate and we watch an episode of Miranda together on BBC iPlayer, and then while the computer’s still open I hop on Twitter to see what’s been going on while I was out. I have no replies so I go to log off, but before I do the trending topics catch my eye, specifically the word ‘Oxbridge’. It turns out Oxbridge’s application systems are racist, according to two articles on the Guardian website, and a lot of people on Twitter are tweeting about this because it’s “shameful”, “disgusting”, etc. Just so you know from the outset, I was rejected from Cambridge myself and although I hold no grudges I’m not exactly a fan of their application system either. However, when I was reading the tweets about this alleged racism I found myself more than a little dubious of such a bold claim so I decided to investigate. Here’s what I found.

A “bleak portrait of racial and social exclusion at Oxford and Cambridge”?

The title of the first article I came across, by the Guardian’s education editor Jeevan Vasagar, tells me that “Twenty-one Oxbridge colleges took no black students last year”. The first seven paragraphs set out some statistics that elaborate on this title, mainly percentages, before paragraph eight links these findings to the topical and controversial tuition fees issue. I’m still dubious at this point so I read on, and it turns out I was right to be dubious. According to the facts, specifically those in paragraph 12, the “bleak portrait of racial and social exclusion at Oxford and Cambridge” described at the start of the article isn’t as bleak as the misleading use of statistics early on make it out to be.

After doing some number-crunching on the figures that are actually stated (it’s a bit tricky but don’t worry I’ll spare you) we can work out that black applicants to Oxford in 2009 had a 2.8% chance of securing a place. This is based purely on probability given the proportion of black to white applicants in that year (roughly 35 white applicants for each black one) and doesn’t account for actual academic merit. But at Jesus College, Oxford, white candidates “were three and a half times more successful than black candidates over an 11-year period”. This works out at roughly 20% of all successful students being black (it would be 25% for “three times more successful”), much higher than the 2.8% probability for 2009. If 2009 was similar to the years in the 11-year period described then these figures show black applicants were more successful than they might have been expected to be based on pure application statistics. As for Cambridge, in 2009 in Newnham College, cited as the worst Cambridge example for that year, “black applicants had a 13% success rate compared with 67% for white students”. If we assume that Oxford and Cambridge saw a similar racial imbalance among their applicants in 2009 and apply the 2.8% probability of success, 13% of black applicants being successful doesn’t actually look too bad. Maybe the lack of successful black applicants at Oxbridge last year was because of racism, but if so then it’s sprung up very quickly because in the previous 11 years things seem to have been pretty un-racist according to my calculations.

Now, all that number crunching is a bit tricky and I admit it could be pure tosh, but even without doing it you can from the article see that the number of black students who are actually applying is far lower than the number of white students, so simply comparing success rates for the two groups isn’t going to yield that many helpful statistics, especially considering the following quote:

A spokeswoman for Oxford said: “Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths. […] This goes a very long way towards explaining the group’s overall lower success rate.

I’d agree with that. Shame really that it’s buried down in paragraph 12.

All of the above focuses on the facts given in the first article. As you can see the way they are laid out isn’t that helpful. Journalists know that the first few paragraphs of any article are the most important so that’s where they set the argument and the tone, and everything that follows is merely there to back up the already-stated conclusion, here that there’s “racial and social exclusion” going on at Oxbridge. However, the facts are all there if you look for them. Also there is a reference to “[f]igures revealed in requests made under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act by the Labour MP David Lammy”. This was the other article I found, entitled ‘The Oxbridge whitewash‘, which I encourage you to read (don’t worry, it’s fairly short). As it’s a commentary piece by Mr Lammy himself rather than a strict news piece suffice it to say that it’s a lot less impartial, and also a lot less factual. For example there are no references to the actual numbers of black or white applicants, just those same misleading percentages. The tone is also very different and sounds much more subjective.

“…more than a little misleading…”

Now I’m not saying that David Lammy’s conclusion is fundamentally wrong or that he’s deliberately misrepresenting facts, but from what I’ve seen – which is what he’s written, the comments thereon and facts therebehind – his conclusion, that top British universities are being prejudiced against certain groups, is more than a little misleading. Maybe he felt that it was a point that needed to be made, and powerfully, but he wasn’t able to fit a comprehensive overview of the situation into his article. If that’s the case then he needs to edit better. Or maybe he thought the facts spoke for themselves and that he genuinely needn’t elaborate on them any further. Yes facts can speak for themselves, but only when all of them are presented. Otherwise they can only speak for the writer who selected them, and such selection easily leads to misrepresentation whether intentional or not. Or maybe David Lammy’s was so distressed by his findings that as a result he was sloppy with his piece. He is black after all, according to his Twitter avatar anyway, so perceived racism is likely to be something that will distress him much as perceived homophobia will distress me. But David, I was annoyed when I sat down to write this, I said so at the start. It’s not just Twitter that’s annoying me either, I’m also tired, I’m getting a headache and my right ear hasn’t stopped ringing since I left that gig over 5 hours ago (it’s now 4am, I should definitely be asleep by now). And yet in this state I’ve been resourceful enough to locate and use the presented facts and arguments to form my own opinion, and present it rationally and, I hope, without dramatization, exaggeration or misrepresentation. And I’m not an MP in a position of power and influence, I’m just a graduate who sat down at 1am to blog about something that was annoying him.

So maybe this is political. David Lammy’s article starts and ends with references to the controversial and painfully topical issue of university tuition fees, not referenced in the other more objective article until eight paragraphs in. His article is damning on Oxbridge in particular but also on the state of higher education in the UK, something that he is likely to have a vested interest in as he is, according to the Guardian website, the Labour Minister for Tottenham and the former minister for higher education. My take on this issue is unlikely to reach a wide audience, whereas his arguably political slant is already circulating the internet at a rate of knots and getting a lot of responses, for example in the tweets below:

(These tweets were captured as screenshots and as they are already in the public domain I thought it unnecessary to censor them, however some strong language is used)

(Edit (30/3/11) :I very cleverly managed to delete all of the photos that were saved in the archive for this blog, which sadly included all of the tweets I screenshot’d and included here. I’ve managed to re-screenshot the following 3 but the rest, I fear, are lost to newsfeed history)

My opinion is set out here as David Lammy’s is in his Guardian article. There are only two differences between them. The first is that his opinion has significantly more clout behind it than mine does, and the second is that I am now going to admit that I could be wrong. I could have totally misread this situation and be talking absolute bunkam, and David Lammy’s article could be right on the money. But I’ve spent a while thinking and working this out and, even if I do say so myself, I’m not stupid. And even if I am, I’m not the only one who disagrees with his premise.

(Edit: Again, there were tweet screenshots here but they got deleted. See those above.)

Update: I’ve just spotted Oxbridge trending again and found this concise and rather excellent article entitled Telling lies about Oxbridge on the blog. It’s got facts and logic to back it up and talks a lot of sense, go and have a look at it.

Now I’m not saying that this whole issue is a fuss over nothing. As these tweets and articles indicate, there is an issue to be looked into here whether it be in the university application systems, the state of further and higher education in general or access to education for those who come from minority backgrounds. However what’s actually happened is that David Lammy’s article has created an unnecessary and unhelpful fuss in an area where more careful scrutiny is required. And because he’s done it publicly this fuss is spreading unchecked and making a lot of people think that Oxbridge is racist when I don’t believe that’s the case.

“an unnecessary and unhelpful fuss”

So there you have it, I’m annoyed with Twitter. Like I said above I’m also annoyed because I’m tired, I’ve got a bit of a headache going on, my right ear STILL hasn’t stopped ringing and I’ve now been drafting this for 4 hours. I really need to chill out and not look at aggravating stuff when I’m in this kind of mood.

But the worst part of this for me is that, having seen an argument like this with (it seems to me) no leg to stand on spread so quickly, I’m starting to question all the other things that I’ve seen blossom in the same way. Were all of those revelations Good Things, or was I taken in by distorted facts and puffery arguments that weren’t as obviously misleading as the ones currently before me. I guess I’ll never know, but I’m definitely going to avoid jumping to conclusions in future. As they used to tell me in uni, background reading is key. And as I’m telling you now, never blog when you’re still on an adrenaline high. Otherwise you’ll never get to sleep.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. M Schwartz permalink
    December 12, 2010 7:45 pm

    Another thing is that you’re going to get group disparities due to what University of Chicago geneticist Bruce Lahn refers to as human genetic diversity. That is groups are going to have overlapping distributions of traits, but may have different proportions (like more men being over 6 feet tall). In terms of psychometrics you can expect to see a higher proportion of East Asians, at elite colleges because they tend to average slightly above other groups.

    Gottfredson, L. S. (2005). Implications of cognitive differences for schooling within diverse societies. Pages 517-554 in C. L. Frisby & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), Comprehensive Handbook of Multicultural School Psychology. New York: Wiley.


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