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