Oxford’s Diversity Challenge

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My alma mater, Wadham College, welcomed 4 black students between 2015 – 18. In the same period the university accepted only 6 black undergraduates onto the course which I read and enjoyed, English Literature and Language. At Wadham I was one of 3 black students – one a mature student from an American university. Strange times indeed for an East London girl. However, I’d come from an independent school, and was already used to not seeing many people around who looked like me. What I wasn’t ready for was the lack of what would at the time be described as ‘other’, that I’d taken for granted in my home town. At Wadham I made friends with just one person with visible disabilities, and didn’t meet any others; I met just one other person from a lower socioeconomic background. The lesbian and gay scene was open, friendly, and accessible: the BTQI+ scene was … invisible if it existed at all.

I’m not a fan of holding too much of history to retrospective censure. It’s when it creeps into the current that we have to pay close attention. Oxford, Cambridge and other universities deserve credit for the active steps they are taking to redress imbalances of access – and not just around ethnicity. Organisations like The Bridge Group are working closely with universities and producing compelling data and research around issues affecting social mobility. Class, gender, ethnicity, culture, perceived ability – all have significant impact on not just whether you get in, but also how you get on at university, and what you do beyond the years of study. But what would really make a difference would be a system which allowed for, and recognised, alternative ways of demonstrating scholarship, academic rigour, or aptitude for study.

I worked on the BBC’s marketing, recruitment and launch of what would become BBC Radio 1Xtra. My challenge was to find the talent, amongst a community of music fans who were not interested in BBC output. In response to a lack of mainstream content that served their tastes and interests, this talent had successfully created its own rules for success, validated by others who shared their values. Sourcing this talent for Radio 1Xtra involved looking at design portfolios, visiting nightclubs, and researching cultural influencers amongst the dance music scene. The point was: even if they didn’t have radio production experience, many creatives working outside the mainstream had the right ingredients to become national broadcasters and programme makers, and were demonstrating their aptitude daily in different ways. It was our job to find them, connect with them, and use much wider parameters to measure their talents.

I look forward to a future where Oxford, and other universities assess fitness for study, not just on exam results, but on additional means of evidencing ability. This can be achieved without compromising on excellence – the answer is not a lowering of expectations but a broadening of metrics. What potential students are doing online, in life, beyond the school gates can demonstrate potential for academic excellence as well as, if not more than, the vagaries of performance in an exam hall.