Politicians are never more dangerous than when they think they know more about something than those who are experts at it. Enter Prime Minister David Cameron.
This week, Mr Cameron – a Prime Minister who should know better – picked up on an (incorrect) statistic that only one black person got into Oxford last year. Then at one of his “PM Direct” meetings, he drew attention to this “statistic” and described Oxford University’s behaviour as “disgraceful.” Uh-oh.
The first problem with Mr Cameron’s argument is that it isn’t true. The figure in question referred to the fact that only one black Caribbean person was accepted into Oxford University last year. In 2009-10 nearly 17,000 Oxford students disclosed their ethnic identity, and it was discovered that almost a quarter were from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 1.5% of students were black. Considering the Census of 2001 revealed that black people make up 2% of the population, the number is a little low, but not as far off as the Prime Minister would have his audience believe.
Yet that is beside the point. It is not the job of Oxford University to pick candidates that make the University representative of the population at large. Neither is it Oxford’s responsibility to have an equal number of the sexes, a set number from state and private schools, a correct percentage of students from the north rather than south, nor whatever it is that a politician has decided it will be politically expedient to be outraged by.
It is the job of Oxford University to be the best university it can be, and to attract the best students that it can. It appears to do this well – it does not gain the exceptional reputation that it has by being poorly run, or by picking average candidates over good ones. Although Oxford has vague guidelines, such as high demands for A-levels and a general correlation between excellence and acceptance, its success comes from being able to spot a good candidate from the crowd, one who will be able to thrive in the unique atmosphere that Oxford has, and one who will ultimately go on to be a testimony to the Oxford education he/she received, and therefore attract prestige (and donations) to the university.
So, when Oxford decides to take on fewer from a specified group, whether it be people of a particular race, economic background or type of schooling, we can safely say that it is not because Oxford selection is stupid or snobby or racist. If this were the case, the quality of entrants would decrease, and Oxford would no longer be one of the best in the world.
Instead, what Mr Cameron should be asking is why the standard of excellence is not being met by those groups. If politicians want to know why fewer people from state schools are being accepted, then perhaps they should look at the wretched state of so many of those schools, instead of running off to the nearest microphone to accuse Oxford of snobbery and elitism. This applies also to the issue of race. If Mr Cameron wants to describe something as “disgraceful”, then instead of moaning about Oxford, perhaps he should note that in 2009 29,000 white students got the requisite grades (AAA excluding general studies) for Oxford, compared to just 452 black students. To what extent this can be blamed on schools, ghettoisation, various cultural influences etc is a debate for another time, but what is clear is that it is not the fault of Oxford University.
Politicians are not entirely wrong to point out the fact that the lower numbers of ethnic minorities and people from state schools going to Oxford is “disgraceful.” Yet this is the fault of our over-politicised schools, our growing left-wing culture of encouraging mediocrity and snorting at success, the bigotry of low expectations aimed at children from ethnic minorities, and a whole host of other problems too exhaustive to list.
Mr Cameron has identified a problem, but by blaming Oxford, all he has done is to attempt to treat the symptoms, not the cause. As a result, he might get a smattering of applause from surprised trendy lefties, but he won’t be solving the problem he has identified – in fact, he might even be making it worse.