Student helper showing prospective undergraduates around her college on an Open Day. Credit: Rob Judges Photography.

Openness, admissions and a black Prime Minister

On Sunday November 13th, BBC2 broadcast ‘Will Britain Ever Have A Black Prime Minister?’. The programme was critical of Oxford, and portrayed the university as dismissive of the importance of black and minority ethnic representation. Here’s what happened:

Oxford is deeply committed to fairness, equality and access, and we always recognised that ‘Will Britain Ever Have A Black Prime Minister?’ was an important project which could generate awareness of the barriers facing black Britons in achieving positions of power and influence.

How, then, did we end up portrayed in the programme through this apparently high-handed ‘official’ statement: “We do not think the premise of your programme is strong enough to merit an institutional response”?

Our argument with the programme-makers was over statistics. We gave them a great deal of help with information, and with access to events at Oxford where they wanted to film, but we made clear throughout our dealings with the producers that we were concerned that their statistical approach was problematic and potentially misleading. That concern was shared by other parties, and echoed in the response to the programme when it was broadcast.

It was this hesitancy about the statistical premise behind the programme — rather than the broader aims of the programme itself — that the quote aired during the programme referred to. It was contained in correspondence between the university and the film-makers, of which there was a great deal.

It is disappointing that a sentence that was never intended as a statement of the university’s official position was taken out of context to present a picture of an Oxford that doesn’t care about the experience of black applicants, and doesn’t take seriously its duty to treat all applicants fairly and equitably. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we are acutely aware of the perception that Oxford has a particular case to answer when it comes to attracting and supporting black and ethnic minority applicants.

Nobody in the university thinks that simply closing our doors is an appropriate response to being scrutinised on our commitment and track record when it comes to BME access — and our willingness to cooperate with the vast majority of the requests for assistance from the producers of ‘Will Britain Ever Have A Black Prime Minister?’ reflected that.


Encouraging and supporting ethnic minority candidates is an important area of work where Oxford has extended its activities. These include an annual summer conference for black students in state schools jointly led by the African-Caribbean Society, and a programme with the organisation Target Oxbridge of outreach to students of African and Caribbean heritage focused on familiarising them with Oxford and preparing for the application process.

All this work is undertaken in collaboration and consultation with our student union, and the University works closely with Target Oxbridge and Future Leaders, two organisations which inspire, support and champion students from BME communities, in particular those from African and Caribbean backgrounds.

The latest figures — from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), among others — show that Oxford is making progress: in the last five years the success rates of black students winning offers to Oxford has risen to 20.1 percent, and those students are now getting more offers than would be expected based on their predicted grades and subject choice.

Colleges of the university such as Lady Margaret Hall, are also delivering innovative programmes which aim to support these objectives. Such initiatives have earned cross-party political support, including from MPs such as David Lammy and the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson. There is more work to do, but recent figures demonstrate that our outreach efforts are showing results.

As the programme did make clear, Oxford is not alone when it comes to the under-representation of black and ethnic minority students. The UCAS data underscored the extent to which BME students are under-represented, or show lower success rates upon application, at many universities, but also concluded that there does not appear to be systematic bias in university admissions.

Related article:

Inside the Oxford interview