The most ‘socially diverse’ intake ever? A closer look at BAME representation in Cambridge

Cambridge admitted a record number of BAME students this year, but there’s still more to talk about

After A-level results day in August 2020, Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope released a statement about Cambridge’s new intake of freshers, claiming that the incoming cohort would “be the most socially diverse ever”. He substantiated this by saying that the university would be admitting “the highest proportion of students from state schools in our history, with more students from traditionally low-participation neighbourhoods.” 70 per cent of incoming freshers this year were from state schools.

The Cambridge Tab has conducted an investigation to get more information on specific statistics relating to racial diversity in the wake of the Vice-Chancellor’s claims. Using an FOI request, we asked the university for figures about ethnic diversity and BAME representation in this year’s intake of freshers. If the university is really serious about improving the diversity of the student body, then this should be reflected in their consideration of race as well as educational background. Having acquired these statistics, we then spoke to the SU BME Campaign as well as several student-run societies about what they do and do not tell us about widening participation in Cambridge.

Cambridge has admitted a record number of BAME students

This year, according to the FOI response, Cambridge admitted a total of 3,859 freshers. 1,326 of these self-identified as BAME, as per annual registration statistics. This means that BAME students account for at least 34.36 per cent of first year undergraduates. This figure is an increase from last year’s figure of 27.8 per cent, and the representation of BAME students is at a record high.

In October, the university issued a press release, announcing that it had admitted its highest ever number of Black students. 154 Black undergraduates matriculated this year, in comparison to last year’s figure of 91.

In the press release, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graham Virgo said: “In just three years the number of UK based black undergraduates taking up their place at Cambridge has more than tripled. This is testament to their hard work and ambition. The Collegiate University, its students, and partners, have been working hard to reach out to potential applicants to encourage them to apply.

“We accept this is not just about ensuring that our intake reflects UK society. The University, and Colleges, need to work hard to ensure 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. That is why we’re working with black students at Cambridge to ensure that their education is the best it can possibly be.”

Virgo’s statement makes clear that the real way to diversify the Cambridge community is not through performative action – simply admitting more Black applicants so the “intake reflects our society” – but through access work and encouraging more young Black students to apply in the first place. The Stormzy scholarship, partnerships with Target Oxbridge, and the university’s “Get in” social media campaign were among the initiatives credited for widening participation in this statement.

The Cambridge Tab spoke to Tami Briggs, Access Officer for the SU BME Campaign, about the increasing numbers of BAME students at the university: “In general, we are seeing an increase in the representation of BAME students in Cambridge. Broadly speaking, we are moving in the right direction in terms of representation”, she said.

However, Tami also highlighted that presenting these statistics under the umbrella term, “BAME” can be problematic and unhelpful: “The issue with conflating the statistics of different ethnicities into BAME is that it becomes difficult to see the access needs required to increase the representation of specific groups.”

She points out that a lot of access work is currently being targeted towards Pakistani and Bangladeshi students, “as these students typically have lower success rates in the application cycle in comparison to other BAME groups.” Tami also notes that groups like ClickCambridge, Cambridge University Bangla Society, Cambridge University Pakistan society, and Cambridge University Islamic society are heavily involved in access work for students belonging to these communities.

The Cambridge University Pakistan Society (Paksoc) spoke to The Cambridge Tab about some of this access work, aimed at supporting Pakistani students through the university application process. A spokesperson from the society said: “At Paksoc, we work with partner state-comprehensive schools in the Birmingham area to provide one-to-one mentoring for Year 12 students with the potential to apply to Cambridge. We welcome the university’s new initiatives to improve access for Pakistani students, and we hope that the university also starts supporting cultural societies, through financial or other means, in their access work.”

When asked about the use of “BAME” as an umbrella term for ethnic minority groups in Cambridge, the spokesperson agreed with Tami, saying it’s true that “Pakistani students have historically suffered from very low acceptance rates relative to other ethnicities in the application process, and this highlights the importance of considering each ethnicity separately when reviewing admissions statistics to ensure that access needs for all groups are met.”

Almost half of BAME students admitted were from state schools

The Cambridge Tab’s investigation found that 45.77 per cent (607 of the 1,326) of self-identifying BAME freshers were from state-educated backgrounds. The university also disclosed that 328 of these students came from independent schools, and 391 came from “other” school backgrounds  (“other” refers to non-UK schools or schools that do not come under “state” or “independent” classification).

Tami notes that whilst these are certainly positive findings, it is not clear how many of these “state school” students came from grammar schools and how many were from comprehensive schools. “In the past few years, grammar school students have been very successful in the Oxbridge application progress in comparison to comprehensive school students. So it would be more helpful if we could know about the grammar/comprehensive breakdown.”

She also responds to the stereotype that student-run societies promoting BAME representation are dominated by privately educated students. “I personally disagree with that perception. Student societies are amazing places to conduct access work because you can find students from a wide variety of backgrounds. It allows prospective students to see people like them in Cambridge. The work conducted by the ACS is a testament to this. They organise student mentorship and mock interviews through the Cambridge application cycle. It allows them to demystify Cambridge using the experiences of current students.”

Following on from Tami’s comment, Saron Mehari, President of Cambridge ACS, says that the society “is about both creating an open and empowering space for ALL students of African and Caribbean descent.”

Saron said: “The borders between private and state school students in our community barely exist, because we know how important it is to ensure that everyone finds their fit and is able to feel celebrated, especially in a traditionally white space. Coming from a state school background myself, I could not have made it in without the support from the ACS and mentors who were from private and state schools alike.

“It’s important that people realise that the ACS cannot be homogenised. There are students who grew up in inner city London or Manchester, students who grew up in Nigeria, students who are Muslim, students who are from the Caribbean. ACS has changed dramatically over the past few years, and so it has become even more vital that we are able to embrace all aspects of identity to avoid students feeling like a minority within a minority.”
Saron explains that “Black British” identity is typically presented in a certain way, but there are people who do not fit into this conception and still need to be represented. “We haven’t always done this perfectly, but I think change will definitely come with growing solidarity with other societies, be it the ASU, ISOC, BME Campaign or Fuse”.

The home/international breakdown

The university’s response to our FOI shows that 868 students who identified as BAME were “home” students, whilst 458 were “international” students. Using the term BAME when thinking about international students might prove to be problematic, especially when these students do not prescribe to this term themselves, and do not belong to an ethnic minority group in the country that they live in.

Stephen Ajadi, co-president of the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU), shared his own opinion about this terminology: “First of all, I think it’s very wrong to use the term BAME to represent Africans from Africa. The term, ‘BAME’ does not represent the identity of Africans in the context of the continent. When Africans arrive in Cambridge, they may unconsciously become part of a ‘BAME’ category, but back in Africa no one is really aware about the existence of this category.”

He went on to explain that even on the level of student-led societies, there are different ways of thinking about access and different kinds of students being represented. He explains that ACS is largely made up of “home” students whilst ACSU consists mainly of “international” students, although he states that even “‘home’ can be a problematic word for some”.

This difference is important for Stephen, however. He went on to say: “I guess the subtle divide [between Black British students and Black students from Africa] comes from a lot of things, identity being one of them. Others tend to be simpler things like clustering across degree classes. For instance, most of the ACS members are undergraduate students. This already means a huge difference in curricular and extra-curricular activities. I think with time, there will be a more sustainable bridge. However, I do not want this to be exaggerated as we all come together in many informal circles.”

When asked what can be done to keep the number of African students in Cambridge increasing from year to year, Stephen said: “My co-president and myself think it’s a dual-pathway approach. As individuals and as an association, we try as much as we can to engage the continent through various events and programs. There is more to be done and we are stepping our plans up. However, I definitely think the second pathway should be the effort of the university itself. Cambridge should further aid and lead initiatives here and also in Africa if they want to see a more positive organic change in terms of diversity.”

Going forward?

There are many nuances and subdivisions within the bracket of BAME representation, and that whilst numbers are rising on an overall level, careful attention must also be paid to these particularities. Tami and Cambridge Paksoc have shown us that close attention in terms of access and organisation to a single ethnic minority group has the potential to make a profound impact on social inclusion in our community.

The university’s claim that this year’s intake of freshers is Cambridge’s “most socially diverse ever” has indeed proven true in terms of state school and BAME representation more broadly, but more detailed statistics need to be made available in order for this diversification to be fully understood. It is not enough to simply lump students into mass categorisations of background, such as “home”, “international”, “state” and “independent”.

These categorisations were admittedly the terms we ourselves used when framing our questions to the university, basing our investigation on similar distinctions used in their undergraduate admissions statistics from the previous year. It can be expected that statistics about individual ethnic groups will be made available when this year’s statistics are released. These broad terms can be useful in one sense, allowing us to think about subdivisions and nuances, and avoid reporting on BAME representation as a single statistic. However, as many of the people we have spoken to have suggested, we also need to recognise that such categories have their limitations and that individual identities need to be given greater importance.

These figures are hugely encouraging, and so is the increasing amount of access work that is being done across the university to promote widening participation. The issue seems to lie less in what is being done about BAME representation, but rather how we as a community perceive and talk about BAME representation in the first place.

Ultimately, If we want to see actual diversity in Cambridge then we need to start tearing into the reality behind these large umbrella terms. We need to think about the individual students that we want to be able to feel welcome here and commit the required amount of dedication to making their admittance a possibility. BAME representation in Cambridge is not a tickbox activity and it shouldn’t be treated like one. 

The university press office, Cambridge University Bangla Society, and Click Cambridge have all been contacted for comment. 

Featured image credit: African Society of Cambridge University.