Breaking the class ceiling at Oxbridge universities

Race, class, and culture: The struggle to excellence at Oxbridge universities for non-white ethnic minority students and their journey into professional careers

Wednesday 21st August 2019 07:41 EDT
Neetu Singh at the Pembroke Ball, Oxford University

“I am always plagued with the imposter syndrome where I constantly ask myself if I belonged at Oxford because everyone else appeared smarter in comparison. This feeling of not belonging at University often stems from the fact that people often came from certain privileged backgrounds where they were mostly educated at either private or grammar schools,” said Neetu Singh, a second-year English Language and Literature undergraduate at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

As of today, twenty-eight British prime ministers including Boris Johnson have been educated at Oxford. But the question around who attends these elite universities has been thrust into the spotlight. Research showed four-fifths of students from England and Wales accepted at Oxbridge between 2010 and 2015 came from entitled backgrounds where parents had top professional and managerial jobs.

The former Labour higher education minister David Lammy had called for a systemic change at Oxford. He had pinned the university as “bastion of entrenched wealthy, upper-class, white, southern privilege” in 2017.

According to a recent report from the National Education Opportunities Network, there are only 3% of white students from deprived backgrounds at the University of Oxford. However, there is no clear data that represents the intersectionality between class and ethnicity or race. Last year, Samina Khan, Oxford University’s director of undergraduate admissions, acknowledged that white British students were twice as likely to be admitted as black British students, but had said that the university was working hard to change the system.

Today, as the President of the Oxford South Asian Arts Society and as member of the Oxford Sikh Committee Neetu has made a conscious effort to build and strengthen South Asian spaces in a pre-dominantly white environment. Originally from Hackney, the East London YouTuber shares her experiences online in an attempt to start discussions around mental health, coping with academic stress and navigating the “Oxford culture”.

YouTubers break barriers of institutionalised prejudices

“I can't speak for everyone and I don't tend to generalise but my understanding of independence is different from that of some other young people at Oxford. I don't believe in drinking or engaging in multiple relationships. My idea of being independent is being responsible and giving back to my parents for all their sacrifices when I get a stable job.

“This tends to hinder in the process of integration with my classmates even when they are very accommodating in respecting my cultural beliefs. “The important thing that can help students like us, is to remember that they are our classmates and we do support one another but inevitably people from similar backgrounds become our closest friends.”,” she says.

Neetu is one of the many South Asian students who has come forward to address the difficulties that students from ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds have faced. The number of UK-domiciled BAME undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, stood at 17.8 percent and 22.1 percent respectively in 2017.

Ibrahim Mohammed, a Cambridge University graduate in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences and has campaigned for diversity on his YouTube channel. Despite feeling “isolated” at university initially, he excelled in launching a charity 'BYTS Ltd' where he is embarking on a tour of 100 state schools to help inspire young students across the UK, to apply to Cambridge.

“We broke barriers, we beat expectations and we inspired a generation along the way. I am so proud of myself and I am so thankful for everyone who has supported me. We did it,” he wrote.

BAME students less likely to receive a first

But lack of inclusivity is not the only controversy surrounding higher education at universities. There were reports stating that students from BAME backgrounds were less likely to achieve similar grades as compared to their white counterparts. According to data compiled by Equality Challenge Unit, almost 78% of white students received a first or a 2:1 in 2015/16, compared to 66% of Asian students. Lower proportions of Black or Asian students that achieved the same A-Level results as their white peers go on to achieve a first or 2:1 at all grade boundaries, the data suggests. However, some students say that anonymity around the 'marking system' at Oxford University does not allow for this to happen.

In the meantime, BBC journalist Amol Rajan's latest documentary How to Break into the Elite follows graduates from state schools as they embark on a journey to start their professional lives. It effectively sheds light into the conclusion that those not hailing from elite white background with Etonian accents may face challenges around finding positions at top firms.

“It is worrying that there are institutionalised prejudices in place acting as barriers that will affect you no matter what you do and how much you achieve. But the myriad of positive discrimination schemes in place, especially at big firms, has helped in breaking through the class barrier and be recognised for merit instead,” she said.

“In my time at Oxford, I have learned to unapologetically be myself. I don't have to over-compensate for my brown-ness. I also think creating my YouTube channel was born out of a desire to create a safe space outside of the white spaces that belonged to me only,” said Neetu.

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