THE BLOG

Age-Old Elitism at Oxbridge

12/08/2010 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While it might not come as a complete surprise that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not a bastions of diversity, many, including Labour MP David Lammy who recently outed enrollment demographics, have been taken aback by just how restrictive admissions are for ethnic minorities.

Most shocking is the fact that only one black student of Caribbean descent was admitted to Oxford last year. Twenty-one out of 69 colleges, the semi-autonomous bodies responsible for undergraduate admissions, did not take on a single black student in 2009.

This is the issue that is precisely most disconcerting to me: the way that prejudice is touted as prestige. Officials at either university have been quick to crunch numbers and claim that black students apply to the most oversubscribed subjects and the most competitive colleges, putting the blame on ambitious applicants for trying their luck instead of admitting that diversity has always been a way to dilute the elitism of Oxbridge.

Having spent a year at the University of Cambridge researching enrollment policies as they related to students from colonial India, what I learned is that the inclusive intake tendencies at England's top universities are more deliberate than many might care to admit--and have been so for centuries.

In 1907 the British government intervened in Oxbridge policies to mandate that no more than three Indian students be offered a place in any one college in an effort to impose assimilation and limit the flow of their ideas to the privileged lot of their peers. This was, after all, a time when the consideration of non-whites as "lesser races" offered ideological backing to the project of empire. While this idea all but vanished as former colonies asserted their independence, Oxbridge demographics reveal a continued hesitancy to take on people of color in large numbers, making one wonder if something of this former desire to prevent any integration that is not full assimilation might remain.

Great Britain has become immensely more diverse in the last century, and it's time for its top institutions to recognize -- and also reflect this. Although considerations of race and ethnicity at public institutions have recently come under fire in the United States with California and Michigan leading the way, most places of higher learning in this country recognize that there is a lot to learn from people with different backgrounds. Culture-rich university settings offer an excellent academic arena to engage in life lessons on diversity--especially since American schools are now more segregated than they were during the Civil Rights era.

Still, as is the case with anything that so much as hints to a debate about affirmative action, responses to a story the Guardian carried following Lammy's Open Comment piece have spanned pages -- 196 of them, as I found out when I foolishly tried to print the entire article.

Regardless of any verdict the comments might carry, there isn't much incentive to make the stubborn stone courtyards of Oxford and Cambridge colleges push towards the progressive. Both universities have been around for the better part of a thousand years. During this time, they have educated renowned politicians and revered poets. Making breakthroughs in science and technology in everything from the basic laws of motion to the cultivation of embryonic stem-cells, it's clear that Oxbridge alumni have changed the world as we know it.

Despite this, in a seeming disavowal of one Cambridge alumnus' theory of evolution, what Lammy's work points out is that Oxbridge is not all that willing to adapt to the environment rapidly changing around its ivory towers. Having managed to stay on top for so long, Oxford and Cambridge seem perfectly fine with accepting only a certain strain of applicants.