STUDENT LEADERS FROM around the University signed an open letter this week condemning Oxford University Chancellor Lord Patten’s comments concerning quotas for BME students hurting academic standards at the University.
All told, 74 JCR, MCR and OUSU oﬃcers signed the letter asking Patten to “give a full apology” and further calling for him to “demonstrate [his] commitment to seriously engaging with the issues… in a visible way.”
The letter follows comments made by Lord Patten two weeks ago, in which he said, “I don’t support quotas at universities. Nobody will explain to me how you can make a system of quotas work while retaining the highest admissions standards.”
The comments were ﬁrst picked up by the Telegraph, which misreported the story, claiming Patten had suggested universities “cannot accept more ethnic minority students without eroding standards,” when in fact he was referring to quotas eroding standards, not the presence of ethnic minorities doing so. After a complaint from the University, the story was changed.
However, many have still interpreted his comments to suggest that if Oxford were to accept more BME or economically disadvantaged students, it would lower the academic standards of the University.
Patten was quick to dispute this view, claiming the real issue was with the way his comments were reported. “I’m afraid you are attributing views and values to me which I simply do not hold,” he responded to the letter signatories. “Your concerns appear to be based on a misleading headline and news article in the Daily Telegraph.”
He went on to list a series of initiatives to increase the diversity of Oxford’s student body under his Chancellorship and claim the real issue is the secondary school system, which does not fairly train economically disadvantaged students, a comment the signatories of the open letter were quick to dispute by pointing out students from state schools outperformed their privately-educated peers who received the same grades at A-level.
Both Patten and Dr Samina Khan, director of undergraduate admissions and outreach, stressed that the University had increased its acceptance of BME students over the last several years. Both sources stressed “the proportion of oﬀicers going to UK state school candidates has just risen to more than 59 per cent.”
However, neither mentioned that 86 per cent of sixth-form students attend state schools nationwide.
For many of the signatories, the comments and the response were simply inadequate. Many held that his comments could push potential BME and state school applicants to not apply, which many recognise as a signiﬁcant issue at Oxford.
“My experience in engaging in outreach activities has led me to believe that the greatest issue here is one of perception; the fact that many state school students who are academically able enough for Oxford are discouraged from applying, often because they believe that their private school peers have an advantage over them even before the application process has begun needs to be addressed,” said Merton JCR access representative Bridget McNulty.
Indeed, many saw the comments as disqualifying the Chancellor, who has previously been a Conservative cabinet minister and a chairman of the BBC Trust, from the job. James Cain, the JCR Equality and Diversity Oﬃcer at St John’s told Cherwell, “‘Visible action’ – as far as I am concerned is a resignation. There’s no excuse for the continued racial insensitivity which is being promoted by the very top of this University. Change must happen – Patten must go.”
He added, “As a student body I believe we do so much to create an inclusive Oxford and we will continue to do so regardless of what Lord Patten believes,” pointing toward the liberation work done by the NUS, OUSU and CRAE.
Some Presidents, like Balliol JCR President Annie Williamson, were mandated to co-sign the letter by their student bodies. At least one college, however, saw a student protest their JCR president’s signature without consent of their JCRs.