Education: `Lit by tall candles, nearly every face was white'

Few black and Asian students apply to Oxford and Cambridge. The universities need to shed the Brideshead image to attract more. By Gita Kothari

IT WAS at my first formal dinner at Cambridge that I began to notice the lack of black and Asian students. I walked past the 17th-century chapel with bells tolling, and entered the wood-panelled dining-hall. There were long, wooden tables adorned with silver cutlery, lit by tall candles and filled with about 100 undergraduates in flowing black gowns. Nearly every face was white.

As Oxford and Cambridge strive to increase their numbers of students from ethnic minorities, the unanswered question is why such students choose not to apply. Nationwide, 11.2 per cent of higher education students are from ethnic minorities, but Oxford has just 5.7 per cent, and Cambridge 7.3 per cent.

The principal problem is that the Brideshead Revisited stereotype persists. Cambridge is pervaded by centuries-old tradition, which endears the place to many students and, of course, the tourists. Though some, including many from ethnic minorities, feel at home with the Oxbridge experience because they have been to public schools where their education prepared them for the culture of Oxbridge, wearing gowns to dinner and drinking Pimm's and lemonade while punting down the river can make other students feel excluded. To those unfamiliar with formal halls and imposing architecture, it can all seem alien and daunting.

Some people from ethnic minorities absorb themselves into college life and show little recognition of any difference with the students around them. Others group together in friendship circles. There are many societies based on ethnic status; some may even create a segregated community of their own.

There are also certain colleges, usually the newer ones, such as Fitzwilliam, which have a significantly higher proportion of ethnic minorities than the old colleges on the Backs. These colleges become known, and students from ethnic minorities tend to apply to them.

It has to be said that many such students are happy with their life at Cambridge; they have a genuine choice of whether to integrate themselves into college life, or to join a clique of students from a similar cultural background.

The under-representation of ethnic minorities at Oxbridge may be chiefly a matter of social background. Both universities have a disproportionate number of students from high social classes; it seems that young people from other classes are chary of applying, maybe because they do not feel comfortable with the Oxbridge culture. This trend means that there is a lack of applications from certain ethnic minorities who are disproportionately grouped in the lower social classes, such as Bangladeshi and Caribbean students. In contrast, Indian and Chinese students are well-represented.

Although both Oxford and Cambridge currently run worthy campaigns to increase their numbers of students from ethnic minorities, they must put more resources into their attempts to erode the stereotype of Oxbridge that is held by many such students. Perhaps more action within the schools would help to give a more attractive picture of the universities. It is all about breaking barriers; once one student from a certain area or school goes to Oxbridge, his or her experiences may help to break down the stereotype and encourage others to apply.

Until Oxbridge shows that all students are welcome, then, aside from its educational prestige, there are few reasons to tempt some young people. This may perpetuate the under-achievement of the brightest students from ethnic minorities; at present they are denied, or deny themselves, access to some of the best education in the country and access to some of the best jobs.

The writer attended a comprehensive school and is now reading law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us