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‘Unconscious bias’ in Oxford University admissions process still a problem

A cyclist is silhouetted in front of Balliol College, founded in 1263, it is one of the oldest constituent colleges of Oxford University in Oxford, England. Image via AP.

Oxford University has been accused of ‘unconscious bias’ against black and ethnic minority students in their admissions process by former Higher Education minister, David Lammy, as reported by The Guardian. At a symposium on admissions held last Friday evening, Lammy had a heated debate with senior representatives of the university regarding its recruitment process.

The Labour MP for Tottenham raised issues such as whether there was comprehensive training to recognise ‘unconscious bias’.

“You’ve got academics writing on it, yet I suspect the training is not actually happening across the system. We all tend to recruit in our own image,” Lammy said.

“It’s not about teachers saying, ‘don’t go to Oxford’. It’s also about the academics saying ‘that young Somali girl, whose accent … ’” he said, until he was interrupted by the access fellow at Pembroke College, Peter Claus, saying that was “absolute nonsense”.

“Are you saying there’s no unconscious bias? Are you suggesting that?” Lammy said.

Claus said admissions officers spend many hours on the interviewing and admissions process. “The interviews are but one part, one tiny part,” he said.

Lammy said: “All I can say is that, as a black politician serving the most diverse constituency in the country, I find it worrying that there’s a roar of, ‘oh we can’t possibly be racist’.

“When I speak to my constituents and they come into an institution like this and they are coming in for an interview with an academic, and they are coming from a tower block called Broadwater Farm, on the 15th floor, a Somali girl – I’m sorry but the burden is on this institution to demonstrate that there is no unconscious bias, and I’m concerned that you don’t believe that.”

Claus ended the tense debate by saying Lammy was “misrepresenting the admissions process, that’s all”.

Former Minister for Higher Education, David Lammy. Image via AP.

This is not the first criticism of its kind made against Oxford’s lack of diversity in its student cohort. In 2010 and 2011, the Guardian had revealed under the Freedom of Information Act that 25.7 percent of white applicants received an offer to attend the university, compared with 17.2 percent of students from ethnic minorities.

Lammy had previously stated that getting into Oxford and Cambridge “remains a matter of being white, middle-class, and southern”. It was also noted that 92 percent of the students from David Cameron’s alma mater at Oxford, Brasenose College, are from the top three social classes – mainly the offspring of solicitors and accountants. The average for UK universities is 65 percent. Oxford’s Merton College was revealed to not have admitted a single black student for five years.

On Friday, Lammy commented that British universities’ efforts on diversity still fell behind those across the pond, such as Harvard. “That balance, between being an elite institution and being an elitist institution, is still work in progress for Oxbridge,” said Lammy.

Lammy’s sharp criticism came against a backdrop of an event heralding Oxford’s attempts to diversify its student cohort. Held at Lady Margaret Hall, the convention exhibited the college’s new admissions programme, in which talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds are admitted for a foundation year of study.

Moira Wallace, the provost of Oriel College, also presented on a major report on the university’s admissions process.

“We don’t start with a blank sheet, and we don’t start in a position where there are no disadvantaged people at Oxford. There are loads,” said Wallace.

Currently, one in 10 UK students at Oxford come from households earning £16,000 a year or less, and one in four come from households earning less than £42,000 a year.

“Actually there are lots of people from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds and less well-off backgrounds here already. But we’d like to see there be more,” Wallace said.

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