Is Oxford University biased against ethnic minorities?

27 February 2013

"Oxford University has been accused of "institutional bias" against black and minority ethnic students after figures revealed that white applicants to some of the most competitive courses are up to twice as likely to get a place as others, even when they get the same A-level grades."

The Guardian, February 27, 2013

Thanks to data obtained via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, the Guardian revealed today that only 17.2 percent of ethnic minority applicants were admitted to Oxford University, compared to 25.7 per cent of white applicants.

Course-specific admission rates showed that the gap between white and black and minority ethic applicants (BMEs) widens in traditionally oversubscribed courses such as Medicine and Economics and Management.

Oxford University's alleged racial bias is by no means a new concern. For one, we reported on it in 2010 when the Prime Minister claimed that only one black person went to Oxford in 2009. That year Oxford actually admitted 41 UK undergraduates with black backgrounds, one of whom was of black Caribbean descent. Our sister-site Straight Statistics also inspected Oxford's admission rates as unearthed by David Lammy MP in 2010.

A number of questions arise from today's news: is the racial gap widening? Are 'whites' more likely to receive an offer than all other ethnic groups? Is this exclusively an Oxford problem?

The evidence suggests the racial gap is narrowing. The Oxford University website has made available figures on admission rates for the subsequent academic year, which show that the admission rate for 'white' applicants has gone down from 25.7% in 2010/11 to 24% in 2011/12.

This table also shows an interesting point: certain ethnic minorities - such as mixed race individuals and 'other black' applicants - perform better than 'whites', and indeed above the mean success rate: 22.6%.

As the Guardian notes, the University has explained this gap in the past by noting than BME applicants were more likely than whites to apply for Oxford's three most oversubscribed large courses - Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics. In fact, 44% of all Black applicants — compared to just 17% of all white applicants - applied for these courses.

This is part of a trend among black Oxford applicants. The University also flagged this in 2009:

"28.8% of all Black applicants for 2009 entry applied for Medicine, compared to just 7% of all white applicants. 10.4% of all Black applicants for 2009 entry applied for Economics & Management, compared to just 3.6% of all white applicants."

However according to the Guardian this explanation no longer holds given that the data on success rates show that:

"White students were more than twice as likely to receive an offer to study medicine as those from ethnic minorities. The disparity persisted for the most able students: 43% of white students who went on to receive three or more A* grades at A-level got offers, compared with 22.1% of minority students. For economics and management, the university's most competitive course, 19.1% of white applicants received offers, compared with 9.3% for ethnic minorities. Among the most able, these success rates rose to 44.4% and 29.5% respectively."

The trend at least doesn't apply to Oxford's law school, which does not present statistically significant differences between white and non-white applicants.   

How does this compare to the national average?

Another point worthy of consideration is whether the racial gap is exclusively an issue within elite universities like Oxford, or whether it's an issue across the board. To find out we looked at UCAS data on applicant and admission rates by ethnic origin. Though there's data available for the current academic year, for comparative purpose we selected data for 2011/12.

We found that at a nation-wide level, 74.5% of white home applicants were admitted to a university, as opposed to an average success rate for BMEs of 68.9%.

We graphed the success rates by ethnic group below:

Application success rate of UK undergraduate students by ethnic origin, 2011 entry | Infographics

Once again, certain ethnic minorities like Chinese Asians and mixed race (white and Asians) seem to fare better than white applicants. Furthermore, the mean success rate for all applicants is 73.1%, slightly lower than the success rate for white applicants (74.5%).

Oxford University presented a similar gap; the mean success rate is 22.6%, while 24% of white applicants for the academic year 2011/12 were successful.

Given these considerations, it is perhaps unfair to describe this gap as an 'institutional bias'. It may instead be more correct to define it as a nation-wide bias.


Flickr image courtesy of Ross James Parker

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