A prospective BME student in one of Reay's works said Cambridge's architecture was intimidatingEd Brambley

A Cambridge professor has branded Oxbridge's admissions process as "institutionally racist" and called for "radical action" to tackle the problem.

Making her comments in a report for the Runnymede Trust, a race-relations think-tank, Diane Reay, Professor in the Faculty of Education, branded Oxford and Cambridge "the equivalent of 'a finishing school' for the private school system", accusing them of being guilty of "polishing, refining and accentuating the elitism and sense of superiority acquired in earlier schooling". 

In her contribution, titled 'Time to Change: Bringing Oxbridge into the 21st Century', Professor Reay argues that elite universities appear "alien" to BME students, who are significantly disadvantaged by a "class and ethnic distance", reflecting "a deep and widening class and racial stratification" in the UK higher education sector.

Her conclusions are based on a comparison of admissions statistics at elite institutions with those of the UK higher education system as a whole. Indeed, as Dr Vikki Boliver of Durham University notes in the same collection of reports, British ethnic minorities are more likely than their White British counterparts to go on to higher education across the system, but the inverse is true of "the UK's most selective institutions". This means that under-representation is a problem at elite universities rather than in the system as a whole.

Reay argues that a consequence of this is that black and white working class students are "relegated" to the universities "that the more privileged do not want to attend". She cites the experience of a student she calls Candice who, in Reay's 2009 work 'Strangers in Paradise', said: "I’ve sort of avoided all the universities with lots of Black students because they’re all the universities which aren’t seen as so good."

Reay highlights four factors of the Oxbridge admissions system as standing behind this discrepancy, arguing that the system is ill-equipped to deal with students with "alternative qualification routes"; that part-time first-degree students are poorly catered for; that the admissions system assumes the vast majority of applicants are 18 year-old students with "very high" A-level results; and that students are not allowed to work in term time to fund their studies. These, she argues, rule out "the majority of BME working class university applicants".

Oxbridge's admissions are frequently the target of this kind of criticism. Oxford's 57.4% intake of state-school-educated pupils in 2014 was the lowest in the country, excluding specialist and private institutions, with Cambridge's 63% rate also one of the worst nationally.

Reay brands the two universities "institutionally racist" because "[d]isparities in rates of admission remain substantial for White and BME applicants, even after entry qualifications have been taken into account," citing Dr Boliver's earlier work on access.

Reay also argues that those BME students who are admitted still face "substantial hurdles" not experienced by their white counterparts, citing research from 2006 that argued household income was also a significant factor. Focusing on British Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students, the report found that only 45 per cent of those students who received no money from their parents got a 1st or a 2:1 compared to 73 per cent of those who did.

As Candice also said in 'Strangers in Paradise': "I think in a funny sort of way it’s more difficult if you’re Black too… [b]ecause you want to go to a good university but you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb."

In a statement to Varsity, Reay said that policies to counter this situation at other Russell Group institutions like Bristol, where admissions are known for "factoring in the school's achievement level" when making offers, do not go far enough. Instead, Reay advocates policies similar to those found across the pond.

"Universities like Harvard have better ethnic representation than our elite universities - over 12% African American and over 12% Latino," she told Varsity. "I understand the university actually writes personally to every high achieving African American student encouraging them to apply."

She also cited Pell grants, which are means-tested grants provided by the U.S. federal government for undergraduate students, as an example of how African American students are placed "in a much more favourable situation economically than low income ethnic minority students in England", because over 50% of them receive such support.

"I would argue that the elite universities in the US are better at giving out a strong message that they want and welcome BME students than elite universities here. I think the same applies to white working class students in the two countries," she told us.

A spokesperson for the Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign at Cambridge University told Varsity: "The BME Campaign will always support diversity at the University of Cambridge.

"There is certainly room for improvement with regard to ethnic representation. We have launched multiple campaigns to raise awareness of this. Working alongside the university, we hope to continue moving forward."

A spokesman for the University disputed Reay's conclusions, however, arguing: "Data shows that ethnic minority admissions to Cambridge reflect national trends once prior school attainment has been factored in.

"Our commitment to improving access to the university is longstanding and unwavering."