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‘Most influential black Briton’ intervenes on University’s side in ‘dearth of black students’ debate

‘It is not the universities that need assistance’, says Sir Kenneth Olisa

With the University branding reports of a 'dearth of black students' in certain colleges by the Financial Times 'misleading', Sir Ken Olisa, Chairman of the Aleto Foundation, has weighed in on the debate on the University's side.

Olisa, who spoke at the Cambridge Union last month and was named as the most influential Black Briton, topping the 'Powerlist', in 2016, wrote to the FT, arguing that 'Cambridge and Oxford universities must be right when they say they cannot tackle the meritocratic admissions challenge on their own.'

He added that: 'It is not the universities that need assistance.'

The FT found 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, and that Cambridge is 'overwhelmingly white'.

These headlines have been criticised as counter-productive and 'misleading' by University leaders, who note that not 'all undergraduate college intakes are the same size' and that 'the article did not take into account the very different pools of applicants and competitiveness of different courses'.

Olisa suggests a more nuanced interpretation is needed: 'Despite some embarrassing disclosures about specific colleges, the recent data from Oxford and Cambridge show that their problem is demand, not supply.'

This refers to the fact that there is insufficient demand from black, as well as other minority groups, to apply to Cambridge, despite success rates for black applicants being only slightly below average. In 2017, Cambridge admitted 58 black students, 33% of all black students admitted to higher education in the UK that year who attained A*A*A at A-level.

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Sir Kenneth Olisa

For Olisa, who is now Chairman of Interswitch, Africa's largest e-payments company, the problem is getting more black students to this grade level. Those that do, in fact, have a high chance of getting into Oxbridge.

'For those of us working with talented young people from tough reality backgrounds, the evidence shows that those with little or no inherited knowledge of Oxbridge must overcome tremendous social barriers if they are to contemplate a place at one of our elite universities. All too often, the difference between daring to apply to Oxbridge and accepting that great institutions such as these are "not for people like you" depends on the hit and miss initiative of a talent-spotting teacher with the time and motivation to encourage aspiration.'

Olisa's proposed solution is an open source academic aptitude test available to all young people.

This would 'enable every child with the necessary talent to discover unequivocally that our top universities were indeed for people like them. And each budding undergraduate so identified could then demonstrate the resourcefulness that is a prerequisite for those destined to thrive in the bewildering worlds of Oxford and Cambridge by using the test's result to muster support from sources far wider than "schools and parents".'

Olisa's intervention follows considerable support for a 'foundation year' at Cambridge and will no doubt, despite its practical challenges, help refocus the debate on schools, rather than Oxbridge alone.