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Open letter from the university responds to reports of a ‘dearth of black applicants’

‘We believe a more honest and comprehensive understanding of the issues is needed’

After a series of critical articles in this week's Financial Times reporting a 'dearth of black students', Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, together with senior colleagues from the Cambridge Admissions Office, have published an open letter on diversity in admissions.

The headline statistic that emerged from the FT's freedom of information request (FOI) was that six of Cambridge's 29 undergraduate colleges had admitted fewer than 10 British black or mixed white and black students between 2012 and 2016. The FT also noted that applicants of black heritage had a below-average acceptance rate (of 16-17 per cent compared with an average rate of 20 per cent).

Disparity between colleges

The FOI data on colleges had already been challenged in a letter to the FT by Dr Anthony Freeling, President of Hughes Hall, Matthew Bullock, Master of St Edmund's College, and Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges. They laid bare several assumptions implicit in the FT's write-up that encouraged "some misleading interpretations."

"It assumed that all undergraduate college intakes are the same size, whereas in fact the largest accepts many times the number of home undergraduates, from a school or college, as the smallest."

They added that "the article did not take into account the very different pools of applicants and competitiveness of different courses", with evidence that black applicants apply to the most competitive courses which have much lower acceptance rates. Furthermore, it did not distinguish between black or mixed applicants, the latter of which have high success rates.

They concluded: "We hope that your readers are able to appreciate that such headline statistics can fail to reflect the real chances of success of black applicants to Cambridge; it would be unfortunate if articles such as this serve to reverse the recent advances made in terms of their representation in our student body."

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Message from the University


The letter from Virgo et al. tackled broader claims about diversity: that Cambridge's 2017 intake is "overwhelmingly white" and David Lammy's criticism of middle-class dominance.

They point out that 22 per cent of the overall number of UK students admitted to Cambridge described themselves as from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, "the highest proportion on record."

"This is in addition to 64 per cent of our students being admitted from state schools, the highest proportion in 30 years, when comparable records began. Our intake from low participation neighbourhoods is higher than the most recent benchmark for the University published by the government."

"To suggest that no progress is being made in relation to diversity is therefore not only wrong, but potentially damaging and could deter future high-achieving applicants from applying in the first place."

They added: "We also believe that diversity should be understood in the widest possible sense, including ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, geography, age and disability."

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Lammy's criticism of the open letter

Equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome

Virgo et al. also implicitly countered suggestions that there should be race-based quotas: "Our students, whoever they are, have worked hard to secure their place in Cambridge and we should celebrate their achievements. We strongly believe our students want to feel they have secured their place on merit rather than being singled out for special treatment."

This follows the publication of data last month showing that acceptance rates for black students are now not significantly below average, a result of the university's mission to improve equality of opportunity in admissions.

On this point, Virgo strongly criticised suggestions that the university should lower its entry requirements to accommodate a more diverse intake: "We are proud to be amongst the very best and highest achieving institutions in the world. We want our students to succeed and we will not waver in our commitment to academic excellence.

"Whilst our entry standards are very high and will continue to be so, with most Cambridge students scoring two or more A*s at A level, the nature of our educational provision and support helps ensure that almost all students who come to Cambridge graduate from Cambridge, regardless of background."

Virgo claims that the real problem is the number of minority students capable of meeting these conditions: "In 2017, the University of Cambridge admitted 58 black students. We recognise that this is very low as a proportion of our overall undergraduate entry. But the truly shocking statistic is that this represents a third (33 per cent) of all black students admitted to higher education in the UK that year who attained A*A*A at A-level.

"The University of Cambridge cannot single-handedly fix this endemic problem of academic attainment which afflicts all levels of education and society as a whole, reflecting deeper-seated inequalities across the country."