Can Oxford University attract more black students?

Nick Jackson reports on the efforts it's making to overcome its elitist image
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The Independent Online

Last week, Shaw took part in an open day at Oxford, along with more than 100 other black GCSE students. The aim is to demystify the university for black students from inner-city schools, banish the idea that you have to be rich or white to go there, and get them used to all that sandstone. It was Shaw's first visit to the town. "It's so different from London," he says. "It's a lot quieter - it reminded me of a village - and there's so much history to it."

It is hard to imagine a village that looks quite like St Catherine's College, where the day was held. Loved by some for its sleek, organic architecture, hated by others for its windswept spaces, it is an image of bold modernity and openness that Oxford would like to give to the world. But when it comes to access for black students, it's an image that is not backed up by the numbers. Last year, Oxford took in only 24 black undergraduates out of a total of 3,176 or 0.75 per cent. Overall, fewer than one in 100 students at the university are black - a fifth of the national average, and a particular embarrassment for an institution already vulnerable to accusations of elitism and prejudice. And Oxford is far from unique.

The potential for black students to achieve more at top universities clearly exists, as Tony Sewell hopes to demonstrate with his Generating Genius project. Under the scheme, which began this summer, 20 black boys aged 12 - 10 from Jamaica and 10 from the UK - will spend the next five years doing medical training alongside their school studies. Sewell, an educationalist who used to teach at Leeds University, came up with the idea in frustration at negative stories of black boys underachieving. "These boys are not just victims, socially excluded and poor," he says. "I wanted to do something positive, so I thought, couldn't we get a bunch of boys and train them to be doctors at 12?"

The boys' summers will be spent at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, and their studies supported through the rest of the year by evening classes and teaching at British universities, including Oxford. According to Sewell, two of the boys are already able to pass their first-year medical exams. "It's been hard work but fun," says Jamal Miller, 13. " I didn't know that I could be a doctor, I didn't know I could excel. And my friends think it's really cool." And that, says Sewell, is the point. Many of the boys are chosen partly for their ability to influence friends at school. "I want to make science as cool as rap," he says. " There's nothing wrong with rap, but you can do that and find a cure for diabetes."

Sewell doesn't blame the universities for not taking black students, but he does point to the fact that his project is being funded in Jamaica, not Britain. Many blame the failure of more black children to gain access to top universities on lack of interest by the British educational establishment, at school and university level. But Oxford, at least, has being doing its best to turn the tide since students set up the Oxford Access scheme in the early Nineties. Oxford Access works with projects like Generating Genius and Black Boys Can, as well as organising open days, a summer school and visits to schools across the UK.

At one-offs like last week's event, and at school visits, the emphasis is economic rather than ethnic. At Copland Community College in Wembley most of the questions asked by pupils are about bread and butter issues like how to fund your way through university. And the most attractive incentive to study is the graduate salary. The 15 teenagers gasp and hoot when Oxford representative David Johnston tells of how a fellow student walked in to a six-figure salary as a legal intern in New York.

Most of them laugh at the idea that they will face particular problems because of their ethnicity, with one, ironically, calling out Ali G's refrain: "Is it because I is black?" The bigger worry is getting the grades and the money. "I thought it would be too much work," says Rouel Birch, 15. "But when one of the students said he was from Hackney, I knew it wasn't a problem." It's not clear whether that's because people from Hackney aren't rich or aren't clever.

But for some teachers, the outreach programmes are too little, too late. "Access has been of limited use," says Ben Taubman, deputy head at Christ's College, Finchley, which won an award from the National Black Boys Can Association. "They end up telling kids what we can tell them. Only students who know they want to go anyway find the courses useful."

Taubman believes that more good can be done by projects run by the schools themselves. At Christ's College, bright black students in the sixth form mentor younger pupils. "It's in Years 9 and 10 where the disaffection begins," he says. "There's peer pressure and a subculture of not being seen to be clever. If they have someone mentoring them from within the school whom they see on a weekly basis it has much more effect."

Universities and schools are not the only organisations trying to raise pupils' aspirations. For the National Black Boys Can Association, families are central. The NBBCA works with universities, including Oxford, schools, families and community groups to encourage teenagers to go on to university. Chris Daniels, 42, and his son Jonathan, 17, took part in a fortnightly project run by the NBBCA and Birmingham University when Jonathan was doing his GCSEs. The Black Boys Can project helped Jonathan and his friends look beyond the daily irritations of school to the opportunities it offered. "When we started the project we just thought school was something you had to go to," he says. "You see a lot of people on TV making money without an education, but it's a dead end. And it's not just about money, it's about respect. Now I think education's one of the most important things in life." Jonathan has now applied to Oxford to study maths and philosophy.

However well Jonathan does at his interview next month, he will still need the grades to get in. And this, more than hooray Henry stereotypes or financial worries, is the biggest obstacle for many black students. Last year, out of more than 60,000 A-level students who achieved the 420+ UCAS points that Oxford says that students need, only 439 were black, the lowest number of any ethnic group (other than "other"), and a smaller percentage than won places at Oxford. And there is not a lot that Oxford can do about that.

Ola Obanubi, 22: 'I don't feel in a minority - I just feel like everyone else'
Ola is a fourth-year maths undergraduate at St Hugh's College, Oxford

I'm part of the first generation in my family to go to university. My sister and my brother are at university, but neither of my parents went. I came to the UK in 1996, when I was 13, and went to school in Hackney.

One day when I was at sixth-form college, some Oxford undergraduates came round with the Access scheme to talk about Oxbridge. Until then, going to Oxford was not on my mind. I was focused on my academic work and not going to any particular university.

It wasn't until I attended the Access course for a week in the summer of 2000 that it became more realistic. The students there persuaded me, they were just so normal and so cool. I just got along with them, and I found it interesting.

I didn't have any training for interviews at school, but I did have an interview training day at Oxford. I did most of my preparation for interviews myself. I searched around for questions of the kind that might come up and practised them.

The interviews at St Hugh's weren't intimidating. The teachers were cool. I just went in there and did it. As long as you know everyone's going to get the same treatment, you just go in there and be yourself.

In my year in college, there are two other black students. I don't feel in a minority at all. I just feel like everyone else. The same things apply if you want to go to Oxford or anywhere, whatever background you're from. You just need to stay focused and get on with your studies, and make sure you get the right advice and help from your teachers. And get in touch with schemes like Access.