Fatima Zahra Yusuf writes the first instalment of her column, Fatima's Fieldnotes, on navigating Cambridge as a black working-class womanLouis Ashworth with permission for varsity

Two months ago the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Professor James Tooley, told the Times that “Cambridge is absolutely being discriminatory against the privately educated, particularly privately educated white males”. The rhetoric employed in this discourse seems intentionally polarising. The idea that privately educated boys are now the latest marginalised group and thus need protection from the state is not just baseless but pathetic. 

As a Black working-class woman, I’ve navigated the challenges of attending an underfunded state school and growing up in a deprived area. The prospect of Cambridge University seemed distant, until a pivotal residential experience in Year 12. Thus, the recent allegations levelled against Cambridge, and students like me resonate deeply. Tooley’s assertion that Cambridge discriminates against rich white boys is not merely insulting; it’s a slap in the face to the hard work put in by individuals from underrepresented backgrounds.

Where was this outrage in 2009 when 21 of the 69 Oxbridge colleges failed to admit Black students? Systematic failure to acknowledge this statistic demonstrates his ability to ignore any evidence that doesn’t support his absurd hypothesis – something that is symptomatic of him and his fellow elites. Whether we are considering systemic disadvantages or blatant discrimination – it isn’t white privately educated boys we need to be worried about.

“There is a sense of entitlement deeply ingrained in British society, and perpetrators like Tooley fuel the fire”

This whole discourse reduces Cambridge’s commitment to diversity to inane box-ticking. The idea that people of colour, or those from marginalised communities are accepted for the sake of ‘diversity’ is racist, classist, and elitist. This notion ludicrously implies that only a few people are deemed worthy of being at Cambridge, and anyone else is simply here on a free pass… it seems there is a sense of entitlement deeply ingrained in British society, and that have the platforms to take part in this discourse are only fuelling the fire.

People who hold this view need to recognise the historically exclusive background of institutions such as Oxbridge. The rise in admissions of ethnic minority students isn’t some conspiracy; it is a long-overdue recognition of the systemic barriers and inequalities that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have faced. Cambridge’s efforts to diversify its student body aren’t about tokenism; they’re about dismantling the structures of oppression that have perpetuated inequality for generations. Cambridge is far less of a cultural melting pot than it is at times suggested to be; there is still a lot more work to do. The proportion of British students coming from economically disadvantaged areas is still considerably low, at 21% as well as those coming from BAME backgrounds at 29%. Don’t worry James, you’re far from going extinct.

“My presence at Cambridge is not about taking someone else’s spot”

This drive to push for a more representative university has never been about exclusion and should stop being seen as a war on the elite. Frankly, there is something very inspiring about making your own success from a marginalised background without the additional resources that others are promised. It’s a testament to sheer determination.

From my personal experience, having limited access to opportunities and growing up without financial stability makes such a difference as the path to higher education (HE) is considerably more difficult, and this is not recognised by such dismissive comments. The reality is that my presence at Cambridge is not about taking someone else’s spot; that would falsely suggest that the space was already predetermined. I needn’t spell out for you how problematic that would be.

A damning Parliament report revealed that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were five times less likely to hear about A levels than their privileged peers. In addition, disadvantaged young people have lower rates of progression to HE than their peers. The progression rate for FSM pupils by age 19 was 26.6% while independent school students were at 56.7%. Sally Dicketts CBE, CEO of Activate Learning highlighted that “if we are not careful, university becomes the finishing school for the middle classes.” With such shocking inequalities laid bare, why do academics like Tooley continue to promote this dangerous rhetoric?

A look at the Telegraph shows that this sentiment is shared by others, with 12-year-old articles obsessing over discrimination, neglecting to include how much of a head start a private education provides. Conversations with privately schooled friends revealed stark contrasts in our educational experiences, ranging from extracurricular activities and smaller class sizes to instilled academic confidence. We cannot disregard these inherent advantages and privileges. The discomfort experienced by some serves as a poignant reminder of the necessity of these schemes at Cambridge.


Mountain View

Cambridge is right to scrap its state school target

The reality is that systemic inequalities have long favoured certain segments of society, perpetuating a cycle of advantage for the privileged, while marginalising those from underrepresented backgrounds.

It’s no surprise that people like Tooley are upset about progress - the system serves them well. Black students have to work exceptionally hard to be here, any suggestion otherwise speaks volumes about British society’s struggle with racism. Cambridge still has a long way to go, and whether a former imperial institution will ever be truly anti-racist is another topic. 

To those who make these assertions, I ask: what’s this ‘academic freedom’ you preach? It seems to justify bigotry, a fancy way of saying you want to maintain the status quo and perpetuate policies that disadvantage state schools and people of colour.