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Why Lord Patten is wrong about quotas for Oxford University admissions

On 16th May 2016, Lord Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University said: “Nobody will explain to me how you can make a system of quotas work while retaining the highest admissions standards”. Fortunately we are here to help.

Dear Lord Patten,

Here are two really important things that we think will advance your thinking as you grapple with the really important issue that is the huge lack of diversity at Oxford. We think we can make a system of quotas work while retaining the highest admissions standards. We’d be happy to help if you’d like us to. Enjoy.

1. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. And White middle-class men are the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action programme in the history of the world. It is called “the history of the world”.

This is bold, and you might find this uncomfortable, but the fact that our institutions from government through to the police, and on to education and business are dominated at the top by white middle-class men is not because white, middle class men are just super awesome and the rest of us are somehow less effective, lazier humans, with fewer ideas and “up and ‘at ‘em” attitudes. Au contraire. Our society has been created by and for white men, actively excluding other voices, perspectives and experiences through history; and you surely wouldn’t disagree. And it continues to this day. We are bringing this up when not strictly related to the question of certain groups’ attendance at your university to highlight that the world isn’t an equal playing field. Anywhere. Our working assumption is that there is inequality and unequal power relations everywhere. Much like gravity.


And these inequalities inform the very structures of Oxford and Cambridge and the minds of those within them. If this is not the case, can you explain why a black student applying to Oxford is half as like to get in as a white student? We know much of this data is supplied by out of date FOIs, so if it is no longer the case that white students with the same grades are ‘more than twice as likely to receive an offer to study medicine as those from ethnic minorities’ then PLEASE do let us know! And so we invite you to re-jig how you think about the inequality conundrum we face, acknowledging that our current social system is one that disproportionately benefits white, middle class people. You know, like an invisible quota. An invisible quota that supports the 7% of privately educated kids in the UK getting 44% of places at Oxford in 2014. And you allegedly don’t like quotas so you must be pretty angry about the status quo and its unmeritocratic nature, eh?


2. When you say quotas lessen standards, what you’re actually saying is that the reason young people of colour and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds aren’t attending is actually because they aren’t smart enough

And in so doing you are erasing a whole host of, frankly, really important reasons. Such as young people from these groups not believing that institutions like Oxbridge (though upon reading your comments you can see why) actually want people “like them” attending. That they won’t fit in because they don’t know anything about Malbec wine; don’t speak with the right accent; have nothing in common with people that history has shown us go to these universities; won’t be able to study a broad enough range of literatures or cultures; won’t be taught by people like them either and are more likely to drop out (p. 103). If, Lord Patten, you can hold in your thoughts the possibility that there are young people out there who are academically excellent AND who may (rightly) feel that Oxbridge does not really want them there, then quotas enable you to actively pursue this talent.


Quotas would actually enhance your ambition of being truly meritocratic which I know is what you care about. If, however, you don’t think the quality of applicant is out there… well, that’s quite serious, and we need to have an entirely different conversation.

That’s all for now! We haven’t here touched on a deconstruction of the unequal nature of knowledge production or how we ascribe cultural value to some things over others – all of which feed into this cycle of inequality. But, hopefully, these two points will give you something to mull over. Speak soon!

Hanna and Rachael, Fearless Futures

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