Why you should care
Because this British Labour MP wants affirmative action in education to help the marginalized.
Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary educated at Eton and Oxford, is not a person many would consider a likely recipient of affirmative action. But his name is invoked by David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham in North London as he rails against the system of privilege and unconscious bias that, he says, allows people like Johnson to rise to the top.
Lammy is animated and impassioned about what he describes as “social apartheid” in the UK.
“You have to redress the balance,” he says, sitting in a sunlit room at Portcullis House, overlooking the Houses of Parliament. “When I mention affirmative action, people tend to say to me, ‘Oh, no, no. We can’t preference Black people over white people.’ What I’m saying is I have met middle-class white men like Boris Johnson who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action every single day of their lives, and they’re not even aware of it.”
Lammy does not want to address race alone. He wants to build an education system that encourages all those who get “pushed to the side,” including the socially and economically disadvantaged, “particularly in the north of England, in the seaside towns and in some ethnic minority groups.”
The MP stirred debate in October with his criticism of the admissions records of Oxford and Cambridge universities. His freedom of information request produced data showing divides in admissions along race, class and geographical lines. Oxbridge is worth scrutinizing, he says, because the two universities attract so much public funding and are feeders for so many of the top jobs in Britain — though he concedes that the same criticisms could be leveled at other top universities.
Why aren’t the universities themselves publishing this data, being upfront about the data, challenging themselves?
David Lammy, Labour MP
One Oxford college — Oriel — had offered just one place to a British domiciled Black student in six years, and 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not accept a Black A-level applicant from Britain in 2015. At Cambridge, six colleges did not admit any such students in 2015.
Some local authorities sent barely any students to Oxbridge. No students from Blaenau Gwent (Wales), Knowsley (Merseyside), Rochdale (Greater Manchester) and Sandwell (West Midlands) were accepted at Cambridge between 2010 and 2015.
Lammy’s interest in university admissions data was aroused when, as minister for higher education from 2009 to 2010, he made another FOI request. The Labour government had then been focused on “widening participation” at universities, he says. “I was concerned to discover that one former polytechnic in London had more Black students than the whole of the rest of the university system combined.”
He is frustrated by the lack of transparency. “Why does it take a backbench MP to do this exercise?” he asks. “Why aren’t the universities themselves publishing this data, being upfront about the data, challenging themselves?”
A spokesperson for Oxford admits that there is much “work to do to address regional and social disparities among Oxford’s student body and to increase our diversity.” For its part, Cambridge notes that geographical distance has an impact on applications, as does the number of young people taking A-levels.
Yet both insist that they are making progress on increasing access and say they run checks to overcome unconscious bias in the admissions process. Foundation year programs, like the one piloted by Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall, which target students from under-represented regions of the country or disadvantaged backgrounds, aim to attract students who would not usually consider Oxbridge.
Lammy was born into a working-class family and raised by a single mother in Tottenham. After attending a local primary school, he won a scholarship to be a cathedral chorister at one of the only state-run choral schools in the country, the King’s School in Peterborough. It was his “Billy Elliot moment,” he says, and he went on to become head boy at the school. Yet the opportunity had its problems: “I was the only Black kid in the school for a significant period of those seven years, and there were examples of genuine racism.”
After studying law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, he went to Harvard Law School in the US. It stood out, he says, as being “as diverse as my primary school back in Tottenham” in terms of “class, ethnicity and geography.” In contrast with top British universities, Harvard and Yale “make it their business to recruit from every state across America,” Lammy adds.
“They send professionals out to find those students. They don’t insist on the student in Harlem getting the same grades as the student on the Upper West Side of New York. All of the academic evidence makes it clear that if you get three As [in your A-level examinations] and you’re [living] on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower, you are brighter than the child that gets two A+s and an A and has gone to Eton.” In the US, he adds, top universities are “using contextual data,” not just at the point of interview but at the point of offer.
Just before we meet, Lammy has attended the launch of the newest London Academy of Excellence. The first, in East London’s Stratford area, opened in 2012 and was nicknamed the “Eton of the East End,” because of its strong results and close relationship with Eton. The latest is in Lammy’s constituency and will be sponsored by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and Highgate School, a top private school on the other side — metaphorically and literally — of the borough of Haringey. It teaches only the A-level subjects most favored by leading universities, and he hopes it will follow its sister school in sending students to Oxbridge and other high-ranking universities.
While more young people from Tottenham are going on to higher education, some of the more prestigious universities still do not take “significant” numbers of students from the area, he says.
He recalls a conversation with a teacher from the town of Gateshead near Newcastle, who told him it cost a fortune to bring 20 students to Oxford or Cambridge even for a visit to see what they are like.
“That broke my heart,” Lammy says, “because … if you’re in my constituency, you can get to Cambridge relatively easily, but that’s quite hard from the northeast.”
He is tempted to put in another FOI request, he says, this time to find out how much Oxford spends on the port that it serves at its colleges’ formal dinners.
“I’ve got a feeling,” he says, “it’s more than the travel for those kids to come from Gateshead.”
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