‘No need’ for diversity laws, says Oxford University

When David Cameron suggested over the weekend that there should be new legislation to improve diversity at universities, an Oxford University spokesperson’s response was clear: “We do not see the need”.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is a conservative man with a wealthy background. Trained at prestigious institutions such as Eton College and Oxford University, he has known privilege. His time in politics has involved compromising resources for people in need, such as policies of austerity, including cuts to public services, blocking funding for food banks and wanting to place a cap on immigration from outside the EU.

Even this man can identify a problem with the lack of diversity in U.K. universities.

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Over the weekend, Cameron wrote on Facebook and in an op-ed for The Sunday Times that Britain seems like a diverse, open society. “It is much harder to see the open discrimination and blatant racism of decades gone by”.

But beyond the surface-level progress, there remains significant challenges. “Consider this: If you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university”.

He said that it was important for Britain to feel “shame” about the huge inequalities that have taken place and to try to do better. One way is to “demand more” of U.K. institutions, including universities.

“It’s striking that in 2014, our top university, Oxford, accepted just 27 black men and women out of an intake of more than 2,500”.

To address the extreme lack of diversity at Oxford and similar institutions, Cameron has proposed new legislation to ensure that universities are accountable for their admissions data. They would be required “to publish data routinely about the people who apply to their institution, the subject they want to study and who gets offered a place. And this will include a full breakdown of their gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background”.

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In response to Cameron’s proposal, a spokesperson at Oxford University has stated, “We are constantly working to update what information we provide and although we do not see the need for further legislation, we would welcome discussions on what more information we could publish”. There was a further claim that educational disparities start early and are “already pronounced before children begin formal schooling”. As such, the university sector cannot be expected to bridge the inequalities alone.

This is true, and investment in better services and education for children of all socioeconomic strata is required to maximise opportunity. However, the university is hardly doing its best. Oxford currently has almost 10,000 domestic undergraduate students. Only 367 have an ethnic minority background.

The idea that there aren’t more students with an ethnic minority background who deserve a place there is not just offensive — it’s statistically unlikely. According to the 2011 census, about 80 per cent of the population is “White-British”, not over 97 per cent as the Oxford admissions data would imply.

It is true that Oxford Uni has improved over the years with more diverse admissions. The number of students admitted from minority backgrounds has risen by 15 per cent since 2010 (from 319). But the world can’t wait for Oxford to change incrementally — it is, after all, an institution that still conducts major ceremonies in Latin. We’re already missing out on the insights of a big proportion of British youth, who may not have had every educational advantage in life but who can still offer so much if given the opportunity.

While it’s a surprising step forward for David Cameron to address the issue of educational inequalities so directly, what he proposes is not enough. As the Oxford spokesperson has rightly pointed out, a lot of universities do statistical reporting anyway. What is needed is new, fairer ways to assess the applications of students with diverse backgrounds.

Diversity schemes operate at different institutions around the world. They take into account relevant disadvantages that have affected prospective students, and they take note of their enthusiasm and potential to learn. They reduce the odds of students being denied the opportunity to thrive at university because of factors beyond their control.

At the heart of Cameron’s critical comments is a warming notion — that there is inherent value in creating a more equal society. He says, “We are in the process of building a common home together, where our shared British values should help us to live side by side. And we aim for a land where at last, everyone — no matter their gender, race, background or sexuality — can be accepted for who they are and expect to be treated with true equality”. It’s a wonderful idea indeed, but we have a long way to go.

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