Cambridge University: The myth of inclusivity?

The university reported an approximate 50 per cent increase in black students this year, but what is the reality behind this statistic?


CN: Mentions incidents of racism.

Cambridge’s recent statement relaying its ‘praise- worthy’ achievement of accepting 137 black undergraduates this year has been seen as a milestone for the university. Their pledge to make sure “that once admitted, all students, no matter what their ethnic background, feel Cambridge is a welcoming place and one in which they can realise their potential and thrive,” implies that Cambridge is on the cusp of a dramatic change, and that the fears of social and racial exclusion are mere myths of the past. In the vein of progress, Cambridge recently announced that Dr Nicola Rollack has been appointed as a senior advisor on race and higher education and “will advise the Vice-Chancellor on issues of race, racism and equity”.

The Tab also reported that this June the Master of Fitzwilliam College made a statement in regards to promoting diversity in Cambridge: “We created an Equality and Diversity working group. COVID delayed our first meeting, but it cannot wait. I will Chair this group, made up of students, staff and academics, and we will take an unflinching approach to the work ahead.” Fitzwilliam College has also said that: “In March 2020 we established an Equality and Diversity committee to promote and support these values and take practical action where needs were identified. One direct result of this work is the introduction of anti-racism and micro-agression training, initially for all 152 Freshers, which will be delivered this weekend (24th-25th Oct) through online workshops, with leading practitioner Bilal Harry Khan.”

Whilst action groups tasked with the mission of making Cambridge a safe place for black students  have been put into place, the lack of clarity on how this will be achieved calls into question whether the 50 per cent increase in black students really does mean a progressive change in the treatment of black students at Cambridge.

Some home truths

This year up to 3,890 students were admitted to Cambridge, meaning that black students still make up only 3.5 per cent of the most recent undergraduate intake. Consequently, the animated response to the 50 per cent increase constructs a misleading notion that Cambridge is the epitome of inclusivity.  Many students like myself will be able to count the number of black students in their year groups on their hands. Starting Cambridge had made me more aware about my identity as a black woman; the paranoia of being held to racial stereotypes is amplified because, as a black person, your individual actions are unfortunately often seen as a reflection on your entire ethnic group.

Whilst it would be nice to believe that the paranoia was down to my own insecurities, recently reported incidents suggest otherwise. A fresher has revealed that they had not only experienced micro-aggressions, but a peer blatantly used a racially derogatory term in front of her. Being the only black person present when the incident happened made her fearful of speaking up about it due to the paranoia of being held to the stereotype of “the angry black woman.”

The fact that nobody present when the incident occurred confronted the perpetrator emphasises the fact that racism is still not called out by certain students at Cambridge – an increased number of black students does not necessarily make white students more racially aware in their interactions with black peers.

The fact that black students can fear reporting acts of racism by other peers due to concerns of being gas-lit, socially excluded or not being taken seriously needs to be addressed by the University further in order to make black students feel secure.

Additionally, the warnings about porters who ask black students to show their Cam cards disproportionately more often than white students reflects that there is still a problem within the college environment, and not only amongst students. Whilst racially motivated incidents or experiences of alienation may not affect all black students, the changing racial dynamic of Cambridge should not allow for the dismissal of the racial abuse some students have and continue to experience.

(credit: @Cambridge_Uni Twitter)

What is the point of accessibility without inclusivity?

The Stormzy scholarship, outreach days and student shadowing have all constructed the image of Cambridge as an environment where black students from all social backgrounds are welcomed. As an attendee on an outreach day, I can appreciate that their purpose is to encourage rather that dissuade future applicants, but I wish somebody had told me about the highs and lows of being a black student at Cambridge.

Cambridge’s progress in achieving a more diverse student body should be celebrated, however the racial issues students will encounter once at the university should not be dismissed as a thing of the past. Explicit racism such as using derogatory slurs should not be the only concern of the university. Many students have been reduced to stereotypes, suffered from micro-aggressions, and had other students trivialise their experiences of racism. The university needs to examine how black students are treated once at the university and acknowledge diversity does not always lead to inclusivity.

Cambridge, don’t be a catfish

The past few months have seen an increased awareness of how black people are treated in society. Cambridge University’s promotion of their efforts to encourage black students to apply, as well as their statements on increasing inclusivity are not inherently problematic. However, the lack of clarity on the racial issues students may experience once getting to Cambridge can lead black students to feel overwhelmed or alienated if they do experience racism. If Cambridge University acknowledged the problems black students may still face it would in turn signal an acknowledgement that, whilst there has been changes in the diversity of the student body, there is still a lot more to do to ensure the safety and inclusion of black students, and that the University would be prepared to work towards solving them. 

Cover image credit: Thea Melton

The University has been contacted for comment.