David Lammy grabbed the headlines, which was fair enough. There was a slightly combative moment near the end of our widening participation symposium at LMH on Friday when the former high education minister clashed briefly but a bit heatedly with a few members of the audience. You'd have been a dozy old reporter not to lead off on that.
But journalism - as I think I recognised even when I worked in it - is a distorting lens as well as a magnifying glass or prism. The Tottenham MP was passionate and forthright in questioning Oxford's progress on diversity. But the verbal fisticuffs took up a couple of minutes right at the end of a two hour meeting which was full of positive things about a variety of things currently happening in Oxford and beyond.
The symposium was designed to compare a number of approaches - in Oxford, Harvard and Trinity College Dublin - to the problem great universities have of being elite (a good thing) without being elitist (a bad thing if it's taken to mean a place more easily accessible to a group of people who have the most power, influence, money or privilege in society)
No-one produced a silver bullet: if nothing else, the session showed that this is a complex, not a simple, problem to begin to solve. But there was plenty of evidence from these three universities that there's no shortage of engaged and imaginative people thinking and acting to change both perceptions and realities.
That included the (not so) new Oxford Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, who opened the gathering in the Simpkins Lee Theatre at LMH. She said she wanted a diverse Oxford, not because it met a regulator's target but out of self-interest. LMH itself, she said, was evidence of a crucial form of diversity - the first college to encourage women to come to Oxford. She often wondered what diseases had not been cured, what problems left unsolved because Oxford and other universities had denied access to so many of the smartest students over so many years.
She praised the UNIQ programme, which attracts low-income young people to Oxford for summer schools; and she relished the diversity of a collegiate university in which, as the evening showed, there were a number of different experiments and approaches. But she also said (acknowledging that this could set cat amongst pigeons) that devolved structures could also lead to duplication and be a block to meaningful change unless properly coordinated.
That was a nice way of teeing up the Provost of Oriel, Moira Wallace, who is leading a university-wide review of Oxford's targets for students from low-income or under-represented backgrounds. Moira's review has not yet been published, but one of the things that clearly frustrated her was the data that show Oxford loses people too early: why were there so many young people from these backgrounds who simply didn't apply, even though they had perfectly good enough grades?
Another head of house, Ken Macdonald, Warden of Wadham and a former DPP, talked about his own college's approach to "grade forgiveness". This was not about lowering standards, but about being prepared occasionally to prioritise potential over past performance. Any system which was dependent on the individual decisions of hundreds of admissions tutors would always be slow to change. He took a side swipe at the Norrington Table - the annual college-by-college rankings of final degree performance as "one of the main barriers to access because people are so frightened of slipping down the table."
This session - moderated by the University's head of admissions, Samina Khan, heard about three other college initiatives.
Andrew Bell talked about University College's scheme to offer 10 additional undergraduate places to young people from under-represented backgrounds who narrowly missed a place – but only on condition that they attended a month-long bridging course before their time at Oxford began. The initiative was brand new, but had already led to a marked increase in low-income ("flagged") students applying to Univ, he said. The college's own thinking had been changed internally as well as externally by the project.
Peter Claus, access fellow at Pembroke, spoke of a different approach aimed at getting at school pupils earlier: his college’s network of hubs and linked schools that had begun to create a region-wide ripple effect. "Are we a global university? Certainly," he said. "Are we a national university? Not so sure."
And, from LMH, there was Jo Begbie, director of our pilot Foundation Year course, which has picked 10 students from households with an average income of £13k - right at the heart of the demographic Oxford has agreed with the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) to target - and give them a three term course to ready them for life as Oxford undergraduates.
Next up was Bill Fitzsimmons, the veteran Dean of Admissions from Harvard who, like Louise, spoke of his university’s realisation of the latent talent they had been missing out on through being relatively undiverse. He went further, talking of the danger to the overall social contract in societies today – and of the responsibilities of universities to play their part in countering that potential disintegration.
Cliona Hannon, who was the launch director of the TAP programme at TCD on which the LMH course is modelled, talked of the 2,000 student who had now passed through their courses which have modified entry for low income candidates. Each student becomes an agent of change in their own communities. TCD is now trying something even more ambitious in trying to embed different types of pedagogy in schools. But, like David Barrett from OFFA and Rick Dalton from College for Every Student USA, she thought there was still a long way to go.
In between these panels the true stars of the day were four students from TCD and LMH. AnnMarie Collins, Kenny Olanyi, Michael Clark and Varaidzo Kativhu spoke from the heart. They came from a variety of backgrounds in Dublin, Liverpool, Zimbabwe and from the Irish travellers’ community. None had ever imagined they could be destined for an elite education of the sort offered by TCD or Oxford. And all spoke eloquently of what they had learned – not least about themselves – on the access courses on which they had stumbled.
And so to David Lammy. He was blunt: he thought progress at Oxford, Cambridge and a “whole raft of Russell Group universities” had been slow. He acknowledged that he had been critical of Oxbridge in the past after being Higher Education minister “and knew where the bodies were buried.” His view was also coloured by his own experience at Harvard, easily the most diverse educational institution he’d attended.
He wanted to pose what he called ‘the hardest question”: Harvard, Berkeley, Yale and other US universities had centralised admissions processes and were thus able to corporately flex their muscles on issues of diversity. He was not sure Oxbridge, other Russell Group universities, had yet cracked that corporately. He thought there was a huge variance in effort across different Oxbridge colleges and felt a profound sense of colleges not being willing to judge candidates on merit – “It’s almost as if we’re being generous in letting you in.”
“In Harlem as you walk out of the train station you’ll see a poster saying ‘we want you to come to Harvard.’ It’s that which we haven’t cracked as an institution. Individual colleges are certainly doing a lot, but across 38 colleges, hand on heart, I don’t think so. There’s a lot more to do.”
We were now into the final five minutes of the evening. It had been good to have an external critic to correct any tendency to complacency (though in fact all speakers to date had acknowledged there was a long way to go). And then, as thoughts began to turn to the drinks waiting in the next room, the temperature was raised a little in an exchange between David Lammy and Peter Claus – both members of the same political party and both, in their own way, passionate about diversity in education.
It happened like this: in response to a question from the audience David Lammy turned to the subjectivity of the interview process in Oxford and how we all tend to recruit in our own image.
He asked what unconscious bias training was undertaken by admissions tutors “You’ve got academics here writing about it yet I suspect the training is not actually happening across the system. It’s about that young Somali girl …
He was interrupted by murmurs of disagreement from some members of the audience. Heads shaking: “Absolutely not….nonsense” etc
Lammy: “Are you saying there’s no unconscious bias?”
Claus: “Well there’s unconscious bias everywhere, of course. But interview is only one part…”
Lammy: “Is there any training?”
Many voices: “Yes!”
Lammy: “How extensive? For how long?”
Claus: “The interview is but one part. A lot of people in this room spend hours - 80 person hours - on the interviewing and admissions process..”
Lammy: “All I can say is, as a black politician serving the most diverse constituency in the country, I find it worrying that there’s a roar of ‘Oh we can’t possibly be racist’ [cries of No!] … When I speak to my constituents, and they come into an institution like this, and they’re coming for an interview with an academic and they’re coming from a tower block called Broadwater Farm on the 15th floor as a Somali girl… I’m sorry but the burden is on this institution to demonstrate there’s no unconscious bias and I’m concerned you don’t believe that.”
Claus: “I believe that, it’s just that you were just misrepresenting the admissions process. that’s all.”
Lammy (smiling): “Well let’s end on that” (laughter)
Moderator: “Let’s all got for a drink.”
Hence the headlines “Oxford University accused of failing to deal with admissions racism..”…”acrimonious debate.”…etc
Well, yes, up to a point Lord Copper. There was this brief exchange at the end – partly people speaking at cross purposes about the nature of unconscious bias training at Oxford. Some people think it’s quite good: others think it doesn’t amount to much. Not many people in the room would quarrel with Lammy that the university has still got room for improvement.
But the overall session – packed out with students, admissions tutors, outreach officers, other heads of colleges and academics – showed that the university is not short of ideas, commitment and experimentation. I haven’t even mentioned two heads of colleges in the audience who are similarly working hard to open Oxford up – Mark Damazer at St Peters and Maggie Snowling, President of St Johns, who has been heading up another group thinking about broader diversity issues.
At the end David Lammy had an amiable drink with Louise Richardson and Peter Claus. The conversation with the speakers continued over food and drink. And then more drink in a local pub. There may even have been an Anglo-Irish rendering of Gilbert and Sullivan in the early hours: the memory is foggy.
Important PS: Applications are now open for the second year of the LMH Foundation course. We have 12 places for young students from under-represented backgrounds starting next September. It’s completely free – but don’t delay applying.