Oxbridge ‘failing to address diversity’, David Lammy says

MP says universities put pressure on journalists to change stories about lack of black students getting places rather than addressing concerns.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Oxbridge ‘failing to address diversity’, David Lammy says” was written by Richard Adams, Education editor, for The Guardian on Friday 20th October 2017 18.21 UTC

Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of failing to engage in serious debate over their lack of diversity by the former education minister David Lammy, who first highlighted the issue with data obtained by freedom of information requests.

The Labour MP said the universities had been “trying to make journalists change their stories” rather than address how little progress they were making in recruiting talented students by race, social class and location in England and Wales.

His accusation came after sparking national controversy over data – first published in the Guardian – that showed that as many as 16 Oxbridge colleges failed to offer any places to black British applicants in 2015, the most recent figures under the FOI request.

On Friday Lammy sent a strongly worded complaint to the vice-chancellors of both Oxford and Cambridge, saying that university staff had been pressuring journalists over data uncovered by the FOI request.

In a joint letter to Louise Richardson, the Oxford vice-chancellor, and Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Lammy said: “I have been made aware that your press teams have been demanding corrections to stories that are factually correct and accurately refer to the figures provided,” and called on them to investigate.

“I am deeply disappointed that both universities have refused to engage on the substance of the data published and are instead trying to make journalists change their stories.”

The release of the new data has been contentious, with Oxford refusing to publish a detailed breakdown of undergraduate offers by ethnicity. Instead it published only a narrow set of data showing “white” and “black” offers, ignoring Asian, mixed or other ethnic groups.

Lammy’s campaign on admissions received support from the higher education minister, Jo Johnson, who wrote: “Oxford must clearly do more to open up to under-represented groups.”

Johnson included a link to a formal direction he sent last year to the admissions watchdog, the director for fair access, which specifically picked out Oxford as “demonstrating little progress” on admitting disadvantaged young people.

While Johnson’s letter received little attention when it was published last year, the public naming of Oxford caused considerable controversy behind the scenes, including protests from the university itself.

Labour MPs were also dismayed at the low level of representation at Oxbridge from within their own constituencies.

The FOI data showed that eight local authorities – Sandwell, Halton, Knowsley, and Rochdale in England, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tydfil and Neath in Wales – gained a combined total of eight offers from Cambridge between 2010 and 2015.

In comparison, students from the largest eight local authorities – including Kent, Surrey and Essex – received more than 4,800 offers during the same six-year span.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “This is the latest damning evidence on the government’s failure to widen access to our most selective universities.

“The proportion of comprehensive school pupils getting in to top universities under the Tories is lower than when Labour left office, and this data shows that the problem is especially serious at Oxford and Cambridge.

“Ministers claim their system is working, but these figures show that it isn’t.”

Cambridge separately released figures showing that in 2016 it admitted 39 black British students as undergraduates, and between 2007-16 the number of black British students it accepted annually increased by 30%.

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