Cambridge graduate Bilal Harry Khan, 26, says that inequality in the education system starts long before it's time to apply to university, and it's important to take factors like racism and class into account
“Congratulations, you’re going to Cambridge.”
Well, in my case, I went to Nandos first to celebrate this momentous occasion with my family. Growing up, it wasn’t a sentence I ever imagined I’d hear, in an era of reports about schools failing black boys and Pakistani, Asian, and Afro-Caribbean males being the worst academic performers.
I achieved the dream of getting into Cambridge against the odds, but the statistics have barely changed. A 2016 report from the Department for Education found that although black students’ attainment levels had risen, “Black Caribbean students have long been a focus for concern over low educational achievement and this merits continued monitoring”.
But why is this happening? According to Toby Young, “it’s that too few black British students are getting three As at A level. Solution is to improve schools”. David Lammy lambasted Young on Twitter for saying that, and he is right that Young will never have experienced institutional bias. But on schools not providing enough support, he has a point.
Institutional racism and the marginalisation and exclusion of black people on the grounds of their race begins far before the application process to top universities.
Growing up without seeing visible representation of people who look like you at the matriculation table, you are subconsciously sold the message that it is not for you - that top universities are white spaces.
This is not helped by a system that reinforces the idea that black students underperform, seemingly unaware of a whole range of socio-economic and systemic factors affecting the picture. The government’s Race Disparity Audit found that “low educational attainment and progress is closely associated with economic disadvantage - in 2016, black pupils were over three times more likely to be eligible for free school meals than Chinese pupils”.
You can’t ignore structural inequality and stereotyping when it comes to the fact that there are lower numbers of applications from BME people to elite universities. In 2017, there were over 12,500 applications to Oxford from UK students, but only 396 were black.
We’re are often pigeonholed early on into careers in performing arts, sport or media – subjects not considered ‘academic’ enough by the elite institutions to offer courses in.
If your school doesn’t offer you the support to achieve 3 A’s and an A* at A Level, then you’re discounted from the pool of potential candidates for Oxbridge before you’ve even finished your exams.
Listen to Joshua Tulloch, Vice President of Oxford's African & Caribbean Society, and Toby Young debate with Julia Hartley-Brewer above
In recent years Target Oxbridge has been working hard at increasing the numbers of black applicants from Black students by debunking the myth that this space is not for us.
Through a holistic programme including summer conferences, one-to-one mentors from existing black students and mock interviews, they offer a solution to the lack of support generally offered by the wider education system.
Investing in schemes offering tailored support and earlier intervention in a young person’s life to prepare them for the application process could shift the numbers of young people applying, while also challenging the stereotypes that Law, Economics and Medicine are the only successful courses.
As Young pointed out, they're also among the courses with the lowest acceptance rates because of how popular they are.
It’s remarkable working-class black students get to elite universities in the first place. Recently, on an episode of OverTheBridge, a podcast I run with three fellow black & mixed-race Cambridge graduates we began by asking the question, 'Would you do Cambridge again?’.
Hesitantly, all four of us agreed we would. But we also shared numerous anecdotes of microaggressions from our time there, such as being asked by other students if we really went there and being stopped by porters for simply existing on the grounds while our white counterparts would roam free.
The opportunity to exist in this space is one I don’t regret. But increasing representation is only giving people seats at the table, and there’s more work to be done once they’re inside. Underrepresentation is only symptomatic of a wider educational - and societal -problem.