Accusations of “institutional bias” against black and ethnic minority students have been firmly rejected by the University of Cambridge, following a report by the Guardian that suggested white applicants with the same A-level grades were more likely to gain places at Oxbridge.

The University has argued that the analysis is “flawed”, while responses to a Varsity survey have revealed how ethnicity impacts upon students’ experiences at Cambridge.

Application figures for 2010-11 show that 23.1 per cent of UK applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds were accepted by the University of Cambridge compared to 29.3 per cent of white applicants. 

The gap is significantly wider for black students: only 14.9 per cent of black applicants gained places, compared to a 60.9 per cent success rate nationally. Chinese students fared much better than black students when applying to Cambridge, with a success rate of 27.1 per cent. 

At the University of Oxford, figures reveal similar differences between white applicants and those from ethnic minorities. For 2010-2011, only 13.4 per cent of black candidates were successful compared to 25.7 per cent of white students. For those who went on to achieve three A* grades at A-level, more than half of white students gained a place compared to less than one in four black students.

It has been suggested that students from ethnic minority backgrounds tend to apply for the most competitive courses, meaning that fewer of these students gain places at the top universities.

Daniel Stone is the co-ordinator of Target Oxbridge, a programme aimed to help black students apply to Oxford and Cambridge. He said: “I’ve found that too often students choose degrees based on future career paths or the advice of parents and elders, rather than considering which subject matches their strengths, passions and interests.”

Although the University of Cambridge did not provide figures for 2010-11 by subject and grade on account of cost, older figures indicate there are discrepancies in the success rate of applicants from ethnic minorities for the most competitive subjects, even when applicants go on to achieve the same A-level grades.

However, it must be noted that this data is for applications made between 2007 and 2009, before the introduction of the A* grade in 2010. 

The data used for the Guardian article, seen in full by Varsity, shows that on average between 2007 and 2009, around one prospective medical student was accepted for every six black applicants that went on to achieve three As or higher at A-level. In comparison, one white student was accepted for every three candidates with the same grades.

A spokesman for the University said: “Admissions decisions are based on students’ ability, commitment and potential to achieve. The data [provided to the Guardian following an FOI request] relates to all students obtaining AAA or better, and thus does not take into account our actual entry requirements, the subject mix offered by applicants, or the distribution of applications across subjects, all of which affect success rates.

“The standard offer for admission to Cambridge is A*AA, and the majority of our successful applicants achieve two or more A* grades. Other academic selection criteria taken into consideration by admissions tutors include performance in the medicine [and] veterinary medicine admissions tests (BMAT) and, for mathematics and some other subjects, achievement in the STEP examination.

“Our commitment to improving access to the University is longstanding and unwavering…We aim to ensure that anyone with the ability, passion and commitment to apply to Cambridge receives all the support necessary for them to best demonstrate their potential.”

Varsity has conducted a survey on attitudes towards students from ethnic
minorities at Cambridge. The comments have not revealed any experiences of discrimination during the admissions process, but some students feel they have been treated differently in both academic and non-academic spheres due to their ethnicity.

One student at Fitzwilliam commented: “When you’re one of only three other black students in your year group, or five in the entire undergraduate intake for your college, it’s difficult not to notice a difference in the way you’re treated.”

“The scariest thing for me was when I arrived in Cambridge I didn’t really think of my race as a thing.”

The student recalls that during a Japanese translation class, when one of the sentences concerned slavery, “the class leader skipped a few heads and got me to translate this. It could have been nothing, but at the same time, it made me feel really uncomfortable, and it was pretty weird that the only black kid in the class was asked to read this, despite it not being her turn.”

Another student at Magdalene said: “On a few occasions, I've been singled out by supervisors and asked whether I speak English, whether I understand certain simple words in questions and on one occasion I’ve been told that I’ll be fine with the workload, since I’m used to pressure…coming from a war-torn country.”

When questioned specifically on the interview process, a Trinity student responded: “At every stage of my application I have been given the impression that the minority of my ethnicity is about as relevant as my shoe size. All interest seemed to be directed at my academic achievement and capabilities.

“However, it is worth bearing in mind that applicants are hardly in a position to best view the internal workings of the institution. I never once felt marginalised.”

Despite not noticing bias during the admission process, a medical student noted that “the ridiculously low number of BME[black and minority ethnic] students here says something.”

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