Professor Graham Virgolouis ashworth

The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo, has denied having claimed that black students are reluctant to apply to Cambridge because of a lack of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers in the city, telling Varsity that there was “no question at all about linking that to barriers” to applying.

Virgo was reported to have made these comments in last Thursday’s Telegraph coverage of a panel event held at King’s College in an article with the headline ‘Graham Virgo: Lack of appropriate hairdressers behind black students’ reluctance to apply to Cambridge’.

The Telegraph reported that Professor Virgo discussed the findings of research undertaken by the University regarding obstacles to applying to Cambridge, particularly concerning black students in London, and quoted him as having concluded that “number three on the list was hairdressers.” Professor Virgo has refuted having made this statement.

Speaking to Varsity, Professor Virgo said that a lack of hairdressers was not identified as a barrier by their research, but had arisen as a frequently asked question to Cambridge students from potential applicants at events led by the Cambridge African Caribbean Society (ACS).

In a post to Facebook concerning the Telegraph’s coverage, Cambridge ACS stated that: “Misleading headlines like this shift the focus away from the prevalent issues surrounding university access. They fuel an extremely damaging narrative that trivialises the plight of black students and places the blame on us for not having adequate access to traditionally white spaces.”

Analysis from Varsity in 2017 showed that acceptance rates for black undergraduate applicants between 2006 and 2016 amounted to less than half of the overall average rate. Last year it was revealed that six Cambridge colleges had admitted fewer than 10 black students between 2012 and 2016, with the University at the time stating that it couldn’t solve the issue “on its own”.

Professor Virgo noted that simply deciding whether or not to apply is not the only access issue facing black students. “It is absolutely the case that when you look at all the data there are students from underrepresented groups who are not achieving the [grades] that we require.”

“We are looking at bridging that gap where students have suffered what we’re calling ‘educational disadvantage’ for whatever reason.”

Earlier this year, the University announced that it would for the first time reconsider the applications of up to 100 disadvantaged students who did not receive an offer post Cambridge interview, but whose grades are higher than predicted on results day.


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The University also plans to introduce foundational courses by 2020, which would give educationally-disadvantaged students the opportunity to undertake a transition period prior to the first year of tripos. In addition to this, last year Cambridge quintupled its funding for Target Oxbridge, an access scheme aimed at black students.

Following the research, Cambridge will be launching a video campaign aimed specifically at year 12 students from underrepresented groups presented by Cambridge graduate, business-owner and YouTuber Courtney Daniella, with the first of these videos set to premier on 20th May.

While acknowledging that myth-busting is important, a spokesperson for ACS told Varsity that access for black students “must be a collaborative effort – we as students alone cannot dismantle structural and institutional barriers which prevent black entry into higher education.”

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