Opinion: Can there be a rebalancing of university admissions without discrimination?

The dominance of white, privately educated men within the university admissions system might soon be a thing of the past

White, privately educated and male is not the typical demographic thought of when people talk of discrimination at Cambridge. However, a fellow at Gonville and Caius is arguing these men represent the new disadvantaged group within the Cambridge admissions system.

How can a group that is still so pervasive within the Cambridge psyche be disadvantaged? When the walls of our colleges are littered with their faces and our libraries with their work, how can the most traditionally well-established demographic in Cambridge be the deprived? Yet with a turn to increasing state school, ethnic minority and female intake, might this be the case?

The debate as to whether white, private school men are being discriminated against goes part in parcel with the idea that another group is being given preferential treatment. Language of positive discrimination has been used within this discussion, with some commentators arguing that we are just mirroring one form of discrimination with another.

Yet, the current application system at Cambridge does not promote positive discrimination, indeed under the 2010 Equality Act, it is illegal to do so. Rather, the Cambridge system is seeing a turn towards positive action which seeks to provide greater representation for marginalised groups that have been systematically excluded.

Questions of whether women are being privileged in the admissions system have been prevalent since the universal admission of women into Cambridge colleges in 1988. Yet as far as the public records suggest (though these are only easily accessible back to 2010), the 2020 cycle was the first year when admissions of female students were higher than that of males at a ratio of 48:52. With such close numbers, it can hardly be said that men within Cambridge are being discriminated against, or demonized, as the Caius fellow suggested.

Therefore, it seems logical to look to the other two factors he picked upon: whiteness and private education. These were viewed by the fellow as the great foundations on which Cambridge was built. Foundations that he believes to be cracking.

However, when the intake of ethnic minority students is only 29.3% – the highest it has been in the 2010-2020 period – we are not witnessing some radical overturning of the ‘whiteness’ of Cambridge. Rather, a slow trudge towards equality might be a more appropriate phrase.

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The great debate between private schools and state schools is rife within Cambridge. Indeed, it isn’t possible to go through Fresher’s Week without an extensive discussion about which school you went to. These conversations inevitably lead to further sub-classifications and questions as to whether you brushed shoulders with future British prime ministers whilst on your way to play lacrosse or not.

Whilst the university has been clear in its aim to reduce private school intake, it is still disproportionately high, with 29.4% of the 2020 intake being privately educated despite the fact that only 7% of the population attends independent schools.

Whilst the university may be moving to assert more positive action, it cannot be said that Cambridge is systematically marginalising white, privately educated men. Rather it may be said to be seeking a balancing act between its traditionally favoured students and those that have historically been denied participation despite academic merit.

The denial of opportunity is at the crux of the issue of student intake. Cambridge is highly competitive; the quality of the applicants is high and the positions are scarce. Though I have no experience within the admissions department, I would wager that there are more applicants of the standard than there are positions in the university and inevitably that will lead to the rejection of highly intelligent candidates. Yet this is what the pooling system is for and this is where the Caius professor took most issue in terms of so-called discriminatory issues.

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Arguing that white, privately educated men have no hope within the pooling system as they are deemed undesirable is a gross generalisation and ignores the hard work of all those involved in the admissions process. Yet, the purpose of the pooling system must be interrogated. From my understanding, the pool seeks to redistribute candidates from oversubscribed colleges to those that may be lacking in applicants, thereby giving worthy applicants a greater opportunity for acceptance.

Though white, privately educated males may have a lower chance of being picked up in the pool than they did previously, this is not due to some active discrimination. Rather, it is a rebalancing of a system which historically has grossly privileged this demographic. However, as this demographic is still a noticeable part of university life, the pooling system cannot be held responsible for some kind of ‘brain drain’ as the fellow suggested.

It has taken over 30 years for the number of women to marginally outstrip the number of men. Therefore, I think it a bit presumptuous to be declaring a crisis over the loss of white, privately educated men from Cambridge. Rather, Cambridge can look forward to welcoming a more diverse cohort of students, which includes white, privately educated, men as much as it does black, state educated, women.

When contacted for comment, Professor Abulafia stated:

“Positive action is an unnerving euphemism for positive discrimination; and positive discrimination in many settings involves negative discrimination against those who are excluded. No one gives any thought to candidates who have been rejected despite having an outstanding academic record. 
“While it is good to know that nearly 30% of students come from an ethnic minority (however defined) the national figure for ethnic minorities is thought to be around 16%. But skin colour is not a valid criterion for admission. Unfortunately Critical Race Theory has racialised rather than deracialised modern society.
“Independent schools are often highly selective, so you have to accept that they are putting forward an very high proportion of suitable students. In one famous and expensive school about 150 needy pupils receive from 75% to 100% remission of fees. School type is the crudest possible measure of disadvantage.
“The reference to a notional minimum “Cambridge standard” is misleading. Entry is competitive and one should go for the academically best. Those who are simply acceptable must lose out to those who are ahead of the pack, whatever their background. Every effort needs to be made to encourage the widest range of applications, but final decisions must rest on academic criteria.
“I applaud the rise in female admissions. This is of course part of a wider national trend.
“Contextual data are valuable in making a choice between candidates on the borderline. But to go further and to turn away the best and brightest from private schools is unacceptable.
“Importantly, universities are not engines of social engineering.”

Gonville and Caius declined to comment. 

The University of Cambridge was contact for comment. 

Featured Image Credits: Keira Quirk

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