The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oxford University criticized for failing on diversity

The Courtyard of Christ Church College at Oxford University. (Mark Harmel/Alamy)

LONDON — Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, came under renewed attack Wednesday for not doing enough to diversify its student body.

Oxford is the alma mater of many in the British establishment: Indeed, it counts scores of prime ministers among its former students, including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Britain’s current leader, Theresa May.

But it has yet to shake off accusations that its student body is too dominated by privately educated white students from the southeast.

Its first annual admissions report, published Wednesday, revealed the composition of its undergraduate student body, including ethnic, school type and regional breakdowns.

Labour Party lawmaker David Lammy, who last year accused Oxford of “social apartheid” over its lack of diversity, said that not enough has changed. He tweeted that Oxford is “still a bastion of entrenched, wealthy, upper class, white, southern privilege. We need systemic change, not more spin and PR exercises.”

Oxford also came under fire after a Twitter controversy when it retweeted one of its students, who wrote that Lammy’s “constant bitter criticism of Oxford is bang out of order.”

Oxford's director of public affairs, Ceri Thomas, apologized for the retweet and said that Lammy’s criticism was not a sign of “bitterness” and that, while progress had been made, there is still “work to do.”

Last year, 3,270 new students — from an applicant pile of 19,938 — enrolled at Oxford University. Of those new students, only 1.9 percent identified as black Britons — up from 1.1 percent in 2013. Black Britons represent about 3 percent of the British population. Overall, 17.9 percent of its new students last year were from a black and minority ethnic background — up from 13.9 percent in 2013. According to the 2011 census, 14 percent of the British population identifies as black or ethnic minority.

Oxford’s student newspaper, Cherwell, said that according to its own analysis of the data, last year 49 students came from a single private school in central London called Westminster, where annual fees for those who board can top $50,000. The paper said that fewer black students — 48 — were admitted last year.

The new data also revealed big discrepancies across Oxford’s many colleges. For instance, eight out of 29 colleges — more than one in four — accepted fewer than three black applications between 2015 and 2017.

The figures also highlighted the relative dominance of students who go to fee-paying private schools, such as renowned Eton College. Even though fee-paying private schools educate only about 7 percent of the population, 42 percent of Oxford's new students went to a private school. The university said the number of students educated in the state system — 58 percent — was the highest figure since it began recording these statistics.

There were also big regional differences, with nearly half of all new students in the last three years coming from London and the southeast.

“Oxford reflects the inequalities — socio-economic, ethnic and regional — that exist in British society,” said Louise Richardson, the university’s vice chancellor, in the foreword to the 40-page report.

“The picture that emerges from the statistics is of a university which is changing; evolving fast for an institution of its age and standing, but perhaps too slowly to meet public expectations,” she wrote. “It is a picture of progress on a great many fronts, but with work remaining to be done.”