The number of black British young people applying to Oxford rose by 19 per cent last year, according to new statistics from the university. The total number of successful black British candidates was also up 21 per cent, in what has been described by Oxford as the most competitive year in the history of the university – applications swelled generally by eight per cent, to 13,639.
"Competition for a place to study at Oxford was fiercer than ever last year," said Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions. "It is good to see that specifically targeted outreach activities, such as our work with black ethnic minorities, is beginning to bear fruit."
But questions have been raised about the validity of Oxford's claims. "If there's been an increase, we need to look at where it is coming from," says Dr Tony Talbot, education and curriculum adviser for the National Black Boys Can Association. "This kind of statement is a generalisation hiding the statistics. I think we need to make a distinction: yes, the number of students entering Oxford from black ethnic minorities has increased, but that sector is so broad. I don't think Oxford is exactly setting the world on fire with its achievements."
Indeed, when broken down, the figures tell a different, more alarming story. Despite growing numbers of black applicants, the total number of British students of African and Caribbean origin getting in to Oxford remained fixed at 20 and seven respectively. The new figures show a two percentage point drop in success rate for these groups. It is the so-called dual-heritage groups – mixed white and black – that have inflated the figures, and caused the rise in overall "black" acceptances.
Yet more startling is the gulf between the different black communities, which further widened last year. While the number of British black students of African origin applying rose significantly – from 113 to 137 – the number of British black people of Caribbean origin applying increased by just three, to a paltry 34. Cambridge University does not release its 2007 statistics until the spring, but its figures for 2006 tell a similar story: just 37 of the 191 black applicants (not including dual heritage) were British black people of Caribbean origin.
"Some of this is down to the forcefulness and pushing of the parents in the African community – which makes them similar to the Asian community in that respect," says Talbot. "For a student to succeed, there must be an important adult in their lives," he says. The Caribbean community suffers from high rates of single-parent families – affecting around two-thirds of families.
Then there is the issue of peer pressure. Clare Williams, daughter of Caribbean parents, is in her final year of an English degree at Jesus College, Oxford. She sympathises with the situation in which many bright young blacks, particularly British black Caribbeans, find themselves. "If you go to a school where the ethos is not pro-university and you choose to apply to a top university, the reaction from many people will be 'where does she think she's going?'. You might be seen to be selling out," she says.
The other reason is a fear of leaving one's comfort zone, says Dr Tony Sewell, educationalist and CEO of Generating Genius, a charity dedicated to encouraging black youths in Britain and Jamaica to study science. Indeed, for many young blacks, the choice is a no-brainer: why go to Oxford, which can feel like a village compared with London, and be a tiny minority, when you could go down the road to the University of East London, where around 30 per cent of the home student population is black?
"It's a mindset that says 'I'd prefer to be in a university space with people that look like me'," says Dr Sewell. "They're frightened of leaving the homestead."
He puts it in footballing terms: "You're not going to choose Kettering Town over Manchester Utd. But young blacks have not understood this in terms of education."
Then again, it's not a case of choosing the best institution, it's choosing the one that's right for you, and many young blacks, for reasons of cost and comfort, prefer to stay closer to home. Most don't feel that the grandeur of Oxford and Cambridge is their thing.
"People think it's the gowns and spires that are the problem," says Dr Sewell. "That's nonsense. Oxford University is what it is. If you're a black person, you have to learn how to survive, and being in a different environment is what education is all about. What do they want the lecturers do – start rapping?"
The current situation is not for lack of initiatives. The National Black Boys Can Association runs a project in collaboration with Oxford to get bright black students applying, and has been praised in Parliament for its efforts. A new four-year Oxford University Black Boys Can programme began last October.
Then, in November, with the help of the Rev Jesse Jackson, the Aspire programme was launched by Regent's Park College, a private hall with Baptist origins. The research initiative aims to discover the reasons behind the low numbers of black young people entering higher education, including Oxford University. "We hope to get behind the anecdotal evidence that there's a blind spot to people of colour," says Myra Blyth, chaplain of Regent's Park and co-ordinator of Aspire. "We want to get clear data, then nurture a network to help these students build the confidence to enter higher education."