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COMMENT: Oxbridge’s application bias stems from ignorance, not racism

Posted on Tuesday, 14 May by

Oxbridge

It was fifty years ago that Martin Luther King announced his dream of racial equality to the world. It was a dream of a planet where members of minority communities are not ‘judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Fresh accusations have suggested that the University of Oxford poses a threat to the achievement of King’s dream. 2010 and 2011 figures obtained by the Guardian suggest that an “institutional bias” exists against minority applicants to the University, with 25% of white applicants to Oxford receiving an offer of study compared to just 17% of black and minority (BME) applicants.

In thinking about these statistics, we’ve got to be careful not to fall into the trap that King warned against. It is essential that we refrain from viewing race and ethnicity in the context of skin colour, an arbitrary manifestation of diversity. In making judgements about individuals or institutions on the basis on the colour of ones skin, we are no better than the people that Martin Luther King was fighting against. Data collection of this sort indicates that we still have some way to go in reaching King’s dream.

What is required is for our distinctions and judgements to be made in the context of the cultures, norms and values that such races and ethnicities represent. The phenomenon that the Guardian’s figures’ attempt to portray is not, literally and figuratively, black and white.

What the Guardian’s statistics are attempting to illustrate is that the University of Oxford scores poorly in its attempt at embracing of cultural diversity. The issues of Oxford’s admissions process can be boiled down to a lack of cultural understanding (not blunt skin-colour racism). It is this that represents a real barrier to building the kind of society that King and billions across the planet had in mind.

If our society is to be anything like Martin Luther King’s ideal one, we need Oxford to be an academic environment that fosters respect for diversity.

Aside from predicted exam performance, key to the process are applicants’ interview performances and the content of their personal statements. These constitute profound expressions of applicants’ academic and extra-curricular identities, not just in their substantive content, but also in the ways that these identities are conveyed and communicated to admissions tutors.

As such, it’s vital that a large degree of cultural understanding and sensitivity is reflected in admissions’ assessment criteria, and within the admissions tutors themselves. The admissions process must facilitate the identification, recognition and crediting of cultural capital in applications from prospective students with diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Ultimately, if our society is to be anything like Martin Luther King’s ideal one, we need Oxford to be an academic environment that fosters respect for diversity. Currently, Oxford doesn’t quite cut the mustard here. Its admissions process seems to be characterised by a lack of cultural empathy towards minority ethnic communities. While the admissions process seems to encompass the judgement of applicants based on the content of their characters, the issue is that these characters are not always valued or understood entirely. It is this, it could be said, that results in an “institutional bias” in favour of applicants whose cultures admissions tutors are more familiar with, and thus more understanding of.

Ultimately, it’s time to get away from this black/white divide. Viewing racial disadvantage in this light only goes to reinforce and solidify ethnic inequality that already takes place. We need not be concerned with the colour of a person’s skin, but with the colour of their thinking.

On a personal note, I find the black/white distinction particularly uncomfortable. Why? Because the colour of my skin does not form part of my personal identity. What underpins my identity is my culture; the norms, values, roles and customs that I hold dear. What we should be interested in is how and to what extent our society’s academic, political and economic institutions respect my culture, and that underpinning the identities of all members of our society.

When I (we) live in a society like this, not only will I be living Martin Luther King’s dream, I’ll be living mine too.

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Josh Babarinde

Josh Babarinde

20-year-old student from Eastbourne studying BSc Government at LSE. Actively collaborates on tackling issues involving the youth of the area alongside local Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Lloyd.


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