David Cameron branded Oxford University “disgraceful” after claiming that the institution admitted only one black student in the last academic year.
On a visit to the north of England, the Prime Minister singled out Oxford for criticism when he accused elite institutions of having a “terrible record” of enrolling teenagers from state schools.
Senior officials at the university described the figure as “highly misleading” as it related only to British students who described themselves as black Caribbean. They said Oxford admitted another 27 students who described themselves as black African and another 14 who were mixed race.
The university also said that only 452 black students across the country had even achieved the A-level results demanded by Oxford to meet its minimum entry requirements for the 2009-10 academic year.
Leading academics and MPs said Mr Cameron risked undermining the ancient institution with his “ignorant”, “absurd” and “mind boggling” comments. It followed controversy last week over Mr Cameron’s claim that Britain was responsible for many of the world’s historic problems, including the conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
The latest fallout will add to growing controversy that the Coalition is attempting to “socially engineer” university admissions by asking top institutions to set targets for recruiting students from state schools, poor backgrounds and ethnic minorities.
Norman Stone, a former Oxford professor now at Bilkent University in Ankara, said Mr Cameron was “quite wrong” to be criticising Oxford over its admissions. “It’s absurd for the Prime Minister to be starting this row,” he said. “This is none of David Cameron’s business. I don’t think any sensible person would come up with lines like this.”
Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the Commons education select committee, suggested that the Government’s approach was wrong. “The problem we have with various minority groups in this country who don’t get into the best universities is that they don’t receive a sufficiently good education in the first place,” he said.
“You don’t solve that by forcing institutions with high standards to lower their intakes, you deal with it by improving the standards of state education for all. That’s the betrayal and the scandal here–we don’t provide good enough education in our schools.
“We let down the poorest and those from ethnic minorities and that’s what we have got to put right, not blame Oxford for the situation we’ve got ourselves into.”
Anthony Smith was president of Magdalen College during the case of Laura Spence 11 years ago, when Gordon Brown called it a “scandal” that Oxford had not admitted the high-achieving state-educated pupil. “It does seem to me that these politicians don’t know anything about the country they are governing,” he said. “The mind boggles. Do they not know what the condition of schools is like in areas where many black Caribbean children are brought up?
“Do they not read the newspapers and see what goes on there, how difficult it is for a child from one of these communities to get into any university?
Speaking at a PM Direct event in Harrogate, Mr Cameron was asked about tuition fees and the effect they might have on deterring students from poorer backgrounds.
He said universities had to adhere to strict rules if they wanted to charge the maximum fee and he said the country’s top institutions needed to attract students from poorer backgrounds.
“I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year,” he added. “I think that is disgraceful. We have got to do better than that.”
The Prime Minister, who studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, said leading universities did not have a good record when it came to admitting state school pupils, claiming the numbers had gone down in the past 20 years. “That is a terrible record,” he said.
An Oxford spokesman said the university was “fully committed” to admitting the most able students regardless of background. “The fact remains that there is a real issue around attainment in schools,” she said.
But No 10 refused to back down, saying that the university’s record on admitting ethnic minorities was “not that impressive”. A source said the only words Mr Cameron omitted in his answer were “British and Caribbean”.
A Downing Street spokesman said the Prime Minister was trying to make a “wider point” that it was “not acceptable for universities such as Oxford to have so few students coming from black and minority ethnic groups”.
Some 16,591 students at Oxford disclosed their ethnicity as they started the 2009-10 academic year. Of those, 12,671 were white, 1,477 were Asian, 1,098 were Chinese, 838 were of mixed race and 254 of other ethnicity. Black students accounted for only 253 undergraduates and postgraduates.
It meant that almost a quarter of students were from ethnic minority backgrounds but just 1.5 per cent were black. According to the 2001 census, two per cent of the country was black.