Breaking Down Barriers and Diversifying Schools in Britain

Admission to Oxford and Cambridge have long been viewed as one of the important keys to upward mobility in Great Britain. Collectively known as the Oxbridge schools, Oxford and Cambridge are universally recognized as world-class elite universities. Matriculation at these universities ensures access to the upper echelons of British society for the elite and aspirants to the leadership classes in Great Britain. Internationally renowned and viewed as bastions of conservatism and elitism, the Oxbridge schools have struggled to diversify their applicants and thus provide a more inclusive experience. According to a recent report on Oxbridge admission rates, these schools have an abysmal record in recruiting diverse entry classes.

The report found some colleges at Cambridge admitted only one Black student between 2012 and 2016. Overall, the figures show that six of Cambridge’s 31 colleges admitted fewer than 10 Black or interracial students during the period in question. Oxford University fared no better in diversity efforts. The school’s admission data shows that in one in four of its colleges, the school admitted no Black students between 2015 and 2017. For instance, its more prestigious colleges including Balliol University and Magdalen University only admitted two Black British students during a three-year period. At Corpus Christi College only one Black British student was admitted during the same period, according to The Guardian.

Officials tried to deflect the disappointing news by pointing to the marked increase in admissions of Black students in 2017. The statistics for 2017 show 22% of the incoming class identifies as Black. Despite this encouraging statistic, officials admit more needs to be done, including an increased commitment to programs such as Target Oxbridge, which is designed to help high achieving Black students prepare applications for Oxbridge schools. Cambridge University made a direct appeal for the support of schools and parents to diversify the university.

David Lammy, a Labour MP for Tottenham, has led the charge in calling for Oxbridge schools to diversify. In order to accomplish this goal, Lammy has suggested elite universities as well as all other schools in the UK publish all access and admissions data every year, according to the Guardian.

In response to the dismal admission report and the direct appeals of Cambridge University, a British Grime Artist Stormzy stepped in to make a difference. He committed to funding admitted Black students at Oxbridge schools through the establishment of a scholarship.

The Stormzy Scholarship for Black UK Students provides tuition and fees and a maintenance grant for up to four years. The formal application for the award includes the following selection criteria: overall household income, higher education participation and potential, and a personal statement. The total award to each student amounts to 18,000 pounds. The scholarship funded two students in 2018 and another two in 2019 to matriculate at Cambridge University, according to BBC News.

Stormzy made the funding announcement at the Harris City Academy in south London on A-levels result day. Although not a college graduate, he did get six A’s, three A’s and three Bs at General Certificate of Secondary Education, according to the BBC News.

When asked why he decided to establish a scholarship for Black students at Cambridge, Stormzy replied: “In school and college I had the ability and was almost destined to go to one of the top universities. But that did not happen for myself... so hopefully there’s another young black student out there that can have that opportunity through my scholarship... I always said that there’s a whole bunch of academically brilliant, excellent students who also need an incentive,” according to the BBC News.

It appears the scholarship is making a difference. Cambridge has announced that Black undergraduates make up at least 3% of new undergraduates. This year the university admitted 91 Black students. This number reflects a 50% increase from the 61 Black students who were admitted in 2018.

Stormzy praised the progress: “This is amazing — there is no way that this is because of me alone.” He thanked the many organizations, especially Cambridge University and the University’s African Caribbean Society. Stormzy’s announcement and scholarship has led to an increase in the number of Black students who have inquired about courses. Moreover, several student societies have participated in proactive work to support diversity initiatives, according to the BBC News.

As of September 12th, across the United Kingdom, 33,760 Black students have been admitted to British universities and colleges. This means that Black students comprise 7.9% of acceptances across the country, according to the BBC News.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.