Perhaps it is because of Britain’s Brexit monomania, and our resultant outrage overdose, but strange and significant stories are floating by at the moment with almost no comment. Yet some of them point to newly reopened fissures which should not be ignored.
In any usual week, you’ll read news stories that are annoying and some that are disagreeable. Occasionally you’ll come one that is outright reprehensible. At the end of January, one such piece sidled onto the BBC’s website, where it received far less attention than it would have done in any normal season. It was published on the front page of the BBC’s website under the headline: “I’m mixed race, is Cambridge university right for me?”
I had to read the headline a couple of times before it made any sense. My first thought was, “What the hell?” Then: “Why would it not be?” For a nano-second I wondered whether, since my last visit there, Cambridge had perhaps become some kind of infamous racist hellhole?
The piece itself was written by a young woman called Anoushka Mutanda Dougherty. She had been offered a place at the university and was using the article to weigh up the relative merits of the offer. It was, though, the framing, presentation and prominence given to the story by the BBC that I found most appalling.
Introducing the story, the BBC website stated:
“Anoushka Mutanda Dougherty has been offered a place at Cambridge University, but she’s mixed-race and from a state school – and only 3% of students who started at Cambridge in 2017 were black, or mixed-race with black heritage. So is it the best place for her? At this point, she’s not sure.”
It is, first of all, worth noting the casualness of that “but”: “…but she’s mixed race.” As though the latter fact (being mixed race) would negate or significantly throw into question the former (being offered a place at Cambridge). Deployed so provocatively –or carelessly – it undermines years of work by institutions, such as Cambridge University, to improve access to people of all backgrounds. It suggests to young people coming up that a set of such contradictory possibilities must indeed be carefully weighed up.
Only the relatively small proportion of the public who have seen these institutions first-hand will know how misleading this is. There were black and mixed race students at Cambridge, when I used to visit 20 years ago, just as there were at Oxford at the same time. Other than an ongoing push to increase access to people of all backgrounds, there was no problem about any of this. So what could possibly have changed?
Nothing negative, that is for certain. Over recent decades Oxbridge has spent considerable time and money attempting to ensure that its facilities and world-class tuition are available to the widest possible variety of people. It has significantly reduced the number of people getting into the university from private and public schools, and significantly increased the number of students attending Oxbridge from state schools.
Like every other publicly funded institution in the UK, Oxbridge pursues ‘diversity’ as an objective. More than a decade ago, an admissions tutor at Oxford explained how the top universities have attempted to ensure that students from minorities aren’t underrepresented. As Tom Kemp of St John’s said, there are only three options open to the universities to improve access: to wait for every school in the country to be as good as the top private schools; to have a government-enforced mandate which would mean that universities would have to seriously compromise on quality; or to do what universities like Oxford and Cambridge have been doing for decades now – which is to engage in “positive discrimination in favour of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
He continued: “I know of no subject tutor in my college, or in my subject university-wide, who would not give the benefit of the doubt to an applicant from an under-privileged background who appeared to have a spark that belied their modest achievements to date.”
There is no evidence that the country’s oldest universities are failing in this ambition. In fact, the percentage of black students at Cambridge University which the BBC piece presents as some outrageous example of under-representation (3%) is almost exactly in line with the number of British citizens who identified as black in the last census.
So does the BBC expect Cambridge to have an over-representation of people of one racial background? If so, then which racial groups would they wish to see under-represented? None of these mitigating facts is included in the piece and none of the follow-on implications is remotely contended with.
In her piece, Mutanda Dougherty did tell us her own back story. She explained that her mother is one of the Ugandan Asians forced by Idi Amin to flee Uganda in the 1970s; she claims that the story of her mother and fellow Ugandan Asians is “largely overlooked” and that there is “little understanding” of the struggles that they faced – and says this is one of the reasons why she would feel nervous attending Cambridge. While this may be true, this it is hard to prove. For while many may be ignorant of the history of Ugandan Asians, many others will not be. Besides which, most people are ignorant of most things, and all of us are ignorant of an awful lot. In the UK, 70% of young people have never heard of Chairman Mao. So perhaps ignorance about what went on in Uganda decades before they were born, while sad, may not be entirely out of the question.
Of course, one way for more people to become aware of what took place would be if a bright young student such as Mutanda Dougherty were to tell people about it – both in her circle of contemporaries and friends, and eventually, perhaps, to some wider audience. The alternative – seclusion only with people of precisely the same ethnic background and the identical hereditary experience – would be the best way to make sure such history were eventually forgotten.
To their credit, her parents encouraged Mutanda to apply to Cambridge, and it is their daughter who says that she is worried about being among “quite a high proportion of pupils from private schools” in a “majority white and majority posh (!) institution”.
This difference between the generations gets to the heart of why an argument like this, and a piece like it, are so disheartening. There are any number of ways to write about majority populations and minority access. It can be written about and contemplated in a spirit of imperfect progress, or it can be written about and contemplated in a spirit of ever-renewable grudge. The opportunity of going to a university such as Cambridge can be written about as something available to anyone who works, and applies themselves, and is then fortunate enough to win a place. Or it can be written about in the weaponised, racialised tone that is contaminating everything at present.
Mutanda Dougherty is not alone in adopting this tone. It has been deployed by a much older and more seasoned practitioner: Polly Toynbee. It is over a decade since Toynbee published her book (with David Walker) Unjust Rewards, in which she accompanied a group of black schoolchildren from Brent to see the colleges of Oxford. Were they there to inspire the students and instil in them the lesson that, with enough hard work and a little bit of luck they might get there too?
No such luck. Toynbee and her co-author took the children to Oxford to flaunt it before them, only to explain that it would never be for them (see Giles Coren’s memorable evisceration of this here. As Toynbee and Walker concluded, “The Brent students will likely find themselves in a rust-stained concrete polytechnic not far from home.”
Such a situation would only be ‘likely’ if students from disadvantaged backgrounds or from any minority group were presented with the idea that the top universities are loaded against them from the start. Toynbee and Walker chose to push that idea 10 years ago. But there can have been few higher profile or more damaging perpetuations of the same demoralising claim than the piece the BBC so prominently published last month. In any other season it would have caused outrage. It should summon a little in this season too.