Widening Access Is All of Our Responsibility

IIMAN ISMAIL explains that the root of the problem of lack of diversity is the number of state school and ethnic minority people who feel confident to apply.

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My name is Iimaan. I’m half Somali, half Jamaican. You’d be surprised how many people find it hard to believe that I’m a student at Cambridge University.

I was born and raised in inner city Manchester, a place where it is somewhat unknown for a person to end up studying at Oxbridge. I can count on one hand the number of fellow Mancunians I’ve come across since the start of Michaelmas term, a fact that is in no way linked to a lack of ability, work ethic or intelligence, but is due to a lack of self-belief among minorities. Many wouldn’t even consider applying to Cambridge because they believe unwaveringly in the Oxbridge stereotype: the idea that the university’s demographic is predominantly white, privately educated and middle/upper class. To my surprise though, I have found this stereotype to be an unfortunately fair representation of reality.

It’s not just my perception: the statistics published by ‘Race for Opportunity’, only 10.5% of students at Cambridge are from Black or Minority Ethnic backgrounds. The Guardian, at the end of last year, also used a report that stated students from private schools are fifty-five times more likely to be admitted into Oxbridge than state school students.

I don’t think the dispute here is whether or not Cambridge is a representative institution; it is evidently not in any way representative of Britain, nor does it reflect the talent and intelligence that can be found among young people across the diverse communities of this country.

I think what the figures reveal in part is a reflection of the stigmas attached to such an elite and traditionally white institution, which prevents potential applicants from imagining themselves here. University statistics show that in 2009, there were 33 Black Caribbean applicants, 212 Black African applicants, 128 Pakistani applicants and 57 Bangladeshi applicants, as opposed to the figure of 8288 White applicants. It’s easy to put the blame on institutional racism, as many do, or a discriminatory system, but when only 33 Black Caribbeans in the whole of the UK are putting in an application, how can we expect anything more than 6 acceptances?

We should be comforted by the fact that progress in terms of widening diversity is being made. The root of the problem is that we don’t have enough state school students applying; we do not have enough ethnic minority students applying. Getting people through the door to interview must be our first goal. Cambridge seems to have realised this and the Access department of CUSU has a lot of brilliant schemes on to encourage this, including Challenge Days, the Looked After Children scheme, Subject Matters, the Sutton Trust Summer School and GEEMA (Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications). The Islamic Society has its own annual Access Day to encourage applications from Muslim students, as well as its buddy system and alternative prospectus that is tailor made to answer Muslim-specific questions that are popular among the Islamic community. Cambridge is not at all short of Access programmes.

So why are they not being reflected in the Cambridge demographic? I don’t think it’s their effectiveness that is in question. I have a friend who took part in GEEMA who, because of the scheme, was encouraged to apply and is in now here doing Education with English. The individuals who take part are able to be shown that they should not be put off by the fact that they do not seem to match the stereotype, and that is their aim. Even if they don’t apply we can be justified in assuming there are other reasons for their not wanting to come here which are more legitimate.

Potential applicants at the latest University GEEMA event, which had 450 participants

The problem of widening access through these schemes is, oddly, one of access. Our aim now should be to reach more people with these programmes. Perhaps our task should be to create stronger relations with schools and colleges in inner city areas with a more diverse range of students, in order to do maximise the promotion of the Access schemes on offer. It’s one thing them being created, it’s another if the people they’re designed for aren’t aware of their existence.

So while we have no way to change the admissions system, or to coerce those in charge of selecting students, we can create a positive image of the University. There is nothing to lose in encouraging those people fully capable but perhaps not fully confident enough, to apply. And I would argue that it is all of our responsibility to do so: the first thing we need to widen participation in the Access schemes is increase the participation students to help manage and disseminate them.