Cambridge needs to support all working-class students, not just the white ones

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Originally published by Varsity on 24th Oct 2016

Pity the poor white lad born in Keighley, Roger Strachan tells us. He’s referring to the fact that northern, working-class, white boys are consistently the group least likely to attend university. And certainly, if there’s one thing Roger and I agree on, it’s that Cambridge and other universities need to do more to improve access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Despite the University’s attempts to improve applications from state school students or those on free school meals, its student body remains woefully under-representative of the country as a whole. State school pupils make up only 62 per cent of Cambridge students, compared with over 90 per cent nationwide, and students from London and the South East are much more likely to go to Cambridge than students from the North of England. Having lived in the North West all my life, I was all too conscious of this when I applied, and it’s certainly something I’d like to see change.

What Roger and I disagree on, however, is that this fact somehow negates the existence of white privilege. It’s true that Cambridge doesn’t admit many working-class white boys, and as Roger points out, that trend is a national one, with only 10 per cent of working-class white boys nationwide making it to higher education. That’s a problem, but it’s not as if, say, working-class black boys, or black students in general for that matter, have it much better.

Last year, Cambridge accepted just 38 black students, compared with over 2,000 white students. That’s 1.4 per cent of the student population, and certainly far lower than the proportion of students admitted from, for example, Yorkshire (4.5 per cent) or the North West (6.3 per cent).

And the picture isn’t much better at other elite universities. A 2014 study showed that Russell Group universities gave offers to 55 per cent of white applicants, but only 36 per cent of black and minority-ethnic (BME) ones. The fact is that white working-class boys are not the only group that suffers when it comes to being admitted to top universities, and if they’re being neglected, it certainly isn’t because they’re white.

White privilege also goes far beyond university admission statistics. White working-class students may be less likely to get into university than their BME counterparts, but once they leave, they’re more likely to get a job, to receive higher wages, to avoid mistreatment by the police, to be spared from hate crime and racist harassment, to be represented in the media…the list goes on and on.

Racial oppression does not begin and end in the educational sector – it permeates every area of life. It runs so deep that even an ‘ethnic’ name or hairstyle can significantly decrease your chances of getting accepted for a job. If increasing access to university is about helping to improve people’s life chances, then BME students are due just as much consideration as white working-class students.

What’s more, the reality is that Cambridge already does plenty of class-related outreach. For example, the University runs the HE+ programme, and CUSU runs the Shadowing Scheme, both of which are intended to improve state school intake. And just last year, Medicine students at Gonville & Caius introduced a new scheme to encourage more state school pupils to apply.

When I was applying for university I received countless assurances from teachers, students and outreach staff alike that Cambridge wasn’t really elitist and that state school pupils were just as welcome as those from wealthy, private school backgrounds. Starkly absent from those reassurances, however, was the idea that BME students were just as welcome as white students.

The University holds events year-round to try to improve state school intake, yet the equivalent for BME students is nowhere to be found. This is why the work of CUSU’s BME campaign is so important. By providing information and assurance that the University itself simply doesn’t offer, CUSU can make sure that BME students feel comfortable applying, and that they receive appropriate support when they arrive.

Roger Strachan suggests that CUSU could improve access by including a northern white working-class man in its committee, but I would argue that, by including black and Asian faces, CUSU can show people that BME students do, in fact, go to Cambridge, and that there is a place for them here.

It is also important to remember that the North is more than just white working-class people. Despite the stereotypical view of northerners as Lowry-esque industrial workers (who are, implicitly, white), northern cities are actually some of the most racially diverse in the country. Take a walk through my hometown of Manchester and you’ll see people from all races, all backgrounds. Not to mention, BME people are actually considerably more likely than white people to be poor, and many of the most deprived areas in the North are mostly populated by BME people.

Northern, white, working-class students are suffering – that’s indisputable – but chances are if they were black or Asian they’d be suffering even more. If Cambridge goes with Roger’s solution of focusing its outreach primarily on white northerners, then BME students in those same regions will only get left further behind.

Identity politics is a tricky business, and people telling you you’re privileged when you’ve grown up poor, or you’re from a deprived area, can be upsetting. But the reality is that privilege and oppression are complicated things, and being victimised by one system of oppression doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from another.

Northern, white, working-class boys are suffering, but ultimately their whiteness and maleness provide them with more benefits than detriments. Take pity on the white lad from Keighley, but take pity, too, on the black kid from Moss Side or the Asian girl from Rochdale – they don’t have anything to fall back on.

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