Cameron and Caribbean students at Oxford

In the last few days there has been a lot of media coverage about David Cameron’s ‘gaffe‘ about the number of Black British students at Oxford University.  The Prime Minister claimed that Oxford had only recruited one Black British student in 2009.  The University have countered this by claiming that they actually recruited “at least 26” Black British students that year.

There is, of course, much that can and should be said about the failure of 15 years (plus) of widening participation initiatives to alter the unequal access to elite universities by students from certain ethnicities in the UK.  The fact that for so long there were more Black British students of Caribbean heritage enrolled at London Metropolitan University than all of the Russell Group institutions put together speaks volumes.  Similarly, there is the ghettoization within certain subject areas of those Black Caribbean students lucky enough to be admitted to these elite universities – for many years almost all of the Caribbean heritage students enrolled at Kings College London were studying nursing.

But my interest in this story lies elsewhere.  Why does David Cameron care so much about the number of Black Caribbean students admitted to Oxford.  It is possible, of course, that he is embarrassed and shamefaced by the admissions practices of his alma mater, but I think it is more than that.  I suggest that Cameron’s concern here has political motivation – it helps him to articulate and justify the Coalition Government’s favoured discourse of ‘fairness’ in education.  As last week’s Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers strategy document on social mobility states:

Fairness is a fundamental value of the Coalition Government.  A fair society is an open society. A society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise. Where birth is never destiny. (pg 3).

 The promotion of fairness by the Coalition allows them to distinguish their education policies from those of New Labour, whilst effectively pursuing more of the same (only more intensively).  Fifteen years of aspiration-raising interventions and outreach activities by universities have not increased the number of Black Caribbean students and a new round of aspiration-raising interventions sponsored by business will do no better.  These young people’s aspirations are not the problem – racist recruitment practices by universities and a school system that consistently fails Black Caribbean students, amongst others, are.

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