Equality and diversity at tertiary education level are  a tangled set of important and emotive issues. Needless to say, David Lammy has made a complete dog whistling breakfast of the whole thing. (Note: all the following figures not taken from his article are from table 5 in this summary, and relate to home students who filled in an ethnic diversity form.)

In an expose of racism in Oxbridge admissions for 2009 (on the watch of the last Labour Minister for Higher Education, apparently a Mr David Lammy) he has perpetrated statistical no-nos such as:

  • generalising from insignificant sample sizes (highlighting 1 Black Caribbean admission in Oxford for 2009, but failing to mention that it comes from 35 applications in that category, which in 10,210 applications and 2,653 acceptances, is pretty much noise),
  • cherry-picking (choosing the Black Caribbean group at all, with its acceptance “rate” of 2.9%, as opposed to, say, the Black Other group with an acceptance rate of 21.4% – but more about that anon),
  • a particularly technical error which I think is known as “making stuff up” (stating that there are no Black faculty members at Cambridge, something which will come as an enormous existential surprise to people who are in fact Black faculty members at Cambridge).

This is very sad, because a look at Table 5 suggests there is potentially something to investigate here. That healthy-ish 21.4% success rate for Black Other students? Also an inappropriate cherry-pick, of course. Hey, I could be a shadow minister! It represents 3 admissions out of 14 applications. Following Lammy’s logic, we’d have to surmise that some highly complex form of racism was going on which selected Black Other applicants over Black Caribbean applicants. This is clearly unlikely to be the case.

Anyway, averaging out these two groups along with Black African (which I realise is a bit of a lumpen way to treat people’s ethnicity, but they’re pretty lumpen categories anyway) you get 27 acceptances out of 221 applications, or a success rate of 12.2%. That sample size, 2.1% of applications and 1% of acceptances is still within the margin of error, but let’s be generous and take it as an indication, if nothing else. Not at all healthy, is it, given that the overall success rate for all British domiciled students is 26%.

If this indicator does represent a genuine problem, and not statistical noise, what might be happening? This is Oxford’s gloss:

Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths… This goes a very long way towards explaining the group’s overall lower success rate.

(Note: Where I have placed the second ellipsis, the Guardian has the words “with 7% of white applicants.”, no capitalisation, straight after the full stop of the previous sentence. I have assumed this is some kind of subbing error, but can’t be sure. They spelt “rein” as in “to rein in” with a g on their front page the other day, so anything’s possible.)

Now, this could well be special pleading on Oxford’s part. We just wouldn’t know without seeing the full figures, which they’re not releasing any more than Lammy is. Frankly, the way Lammy appears to have mauled the stats, I don’t think Oxford could do worse than release the lot in full – ethnicity breakdowns by subject and college.

But, pending such mere inputs as hard data, the Oxford response has a slight ring of truth about it, and I’ll tell you why. We might posit that as a general rule, black kids are less likely to be applying from public schools, private schools and top state schools. They are disproportionately educated in lower-achieving schools in poorer areas. That means that, amongst many other unfortunate things, their Oxbridge preparation is not going to be so hot. And one of the things they tell you in Oxbridge preparation is “maximise your chances”. If you want to apply for a big name subject, but there’s another less popular variation that will do just as well, go for that. If you’re not that fussed about golden twiddly bits on your college, go for one of the concretes or redbricks as your first choice.

This is how Oxford (and broadly Cambridge too, as far as I know) admissions works: you pick a first choice college, and you get allotted another two (alternatively, you can make an open application, in which case you’ll be allotted three colleges, and they will probably be the ones with fewest applications). If you’re called for interview, your first choice college will interview you. If they want you, that’s it, no more interviews. If they don’t want you, and your second and third allotted colleges still have places to fill, you’ll be sent along to those. And here’s the crucial thing: all of this happens within a week.

You can see what happens to people who apply to the popular colleges. Not only have they lowered their chances by applying to a competitive place as their first choice – their second and third choices are compromised too. Because by the time their first, popular choice has chewed them up and spat them out, the second and third colleges have already filled plenty of places from their own first choice (or allotted open) applicants. Fewer places remain for the scramble of applicants rejected from popular colleges. And if you’ve picked a popular subject as well, then you’ve exacerbated the problem. Very probably, this means that some of those who get rejected every year could have got in if they’d applied to a less popular college, or subject.

The point of all this is not, of course, to imply that black students can’t get onto these courses, or into popular colleges. All other things being equal, they stand the same chance as everyone else – but everyone’s chance is lower than the chances of those applying for less popular subjects and colleges. So a disproportionate number of black applicants to popular subjects would indeed have the effect the spokesperson suggests.

But, as I say, this isn’t really demonstrable without the full figures *hint to media*. As a matter of fact, the most shocking statistic for me to emerge from the whole thing doesn’t have anything to do with Oxbridge admissions. It’s this one:

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford.

*attempts Steve McQueen impression* Four hundred and fifty two? There are probably more people than that in John Lewis on Oxford Street right now. They are outnumbered by our MPs. Jesus.

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