Isn’t It Time to Deal with White Privilege in UK Universities?

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Students at University College Oxford (File)

“If universities are serious about addressing inequalities, they must implement transparent policies where all students, regardless of their ethnic background, can benefit from their experiences.”


Professor Kalwant Bhopal writes for the Social Sciences Birmingham Forum:


Oxford University has yet again failed to address issues of diversity and inclusion in terms of its student intake. The Guardian reports that one in four Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British student each year between 2015 and 2017. White British applicants were twice as likely to be admitted on to undergraduate courses compared to their black British peers (24% compared to 12%)

None of this is new, and a plethora of evidence suggests that racism and racist practices continue to exist in the UK’s higher education institutions. Black and minority ethnic students remain disadvantaged in higher education. They are less likely to attend elite and Russell Group universities, less likely to gain a 2:1 or first class degree, and they are more likely to drop out of university than their peers, with many citing racism from classmates and from staff.

On the one hand, universities position themselves as bastions of equality and diversity, liberal in their outlook and at the forefront of instigating change in their contributions to knowledge and the experiences of students. Yet on the other, they fail to represent the communities they serve and are dominated by those from white, middle-class backgrounds. BME staff are under-represented in the highest contract levels and over-represented in the lowest, making up only 1.6% of heads of UK institutions and only 2.9% working as senior managers and directors. There are only 80 black professors, compared to 13,295 who are white.

In White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, I suggest that radical change is needed in higher education to support black and minority ethnic students. The UK government should develop a specific policy that addresses inequalities in the process by introducing name-blind applications for universities. Introducing these applications would address implicit bias, given evidence that job applicants with non-Eurocentric names are disadvantaged in securing interviews.

In a more radical measure, if universities — especially Oxbridge — are to address racism and white privilege, they must introduce a quota system to admit a percentage of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds each year. They must develop specific outreach programmes which target those from poorer postcodes and under-performing schools, identifying and supporting the brightest students to ensure they are able to make successful applications. The most successful students should be awarded bursaries and scholarships to enable them to attend.

Too many institutions invest heavily in delivering narratives of their commitment to social justice rather than addressing actual problems. If universities are serious about addressing inequalities, they must implement transparent policies where all students, regardless of their ethnic background, can benefit from their experiences.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I think the students should be selected entirely on proven intellectual merit.

    It’s no good saying: “We will reject this extremely good applicant and admit this mediocre one because she might have done better had she gone to a different school or come from an educated family”.

    The question is, is she a first class applicant now ?

    That said, I’m not at all sure that A level results are a good measure of ability. They can favour the studious over the innovative.

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