“Black students don’t apply to Oxbridge because of a deficit of hairdressers”

It's time to debunk popular myths about race and Oxbridge.

Trinity college, Cambridge. Source: Wikimedia

So, you’ve found yourself outraged by an intentionally provocative headline about race and Oxbridge. Welcome, friend. Join me in suckling at the nourishing teat of rage. Let it sustain you.

So, before we begin, the facts as they are: Professor Graham Virgo, Cambridge University Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, conducted interviews with Black Cambridge undergraduates and sixth-form students, so as to better understand the obstacles they faced in applying to Cambridge, and to inform the university’s approach to access work in the African and Caribbean communities. Number three on the list was the shortage of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers in Cambridge, after “not having enough money,” and “not fitting in.” Still with me? Good. Let’s unpack this.

The deliberate sensationalisation which seems always to accompany the discussion of race, of university students, and of academia more generally, is here coalesced into a perfect storm, cannon fodder for The Telegraph. The article is a calculated and cynical minimisation of the anxieties of current and potential Black university students, which bypasses the latest strike in the press’s war against “snowflake” students and identity politics, seeking to depict the very modest and reasonable expectation that my university town might have somewhere I could get a f**king haircut as ridiculous and entitled.

The dearth of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers in a university town signals to would-be students that the town just doesn’t have that many Black residents. A barometer of cultural inaccessibility and alienation for Black students, a lack of hairdressers is but one symptom of broader concerns regarding the need for a cultural infrastructure or community that can support Black students in the race-related issues they may (let’s be honest here, will) encounter during their studies.

Whatever it actually means, it is as reductive to discourses on access to dismiss the very valid concerns of those applying to university as it is lazy for Cambridge University to blame Black students for the failure of their own outreach efforts. The Telegraph elected to report at length on the apparent absurdity of choosing not to apply to Cambridge based on the proximity of a barbershop, rather than anxieties surrounding finances and fitting in as a Black student in an overwhelmingly white institution. In doing so, they threw away an opportunity to facilitate a meaningful and productive discussion of the structural and institutional obstacles which deter Black students from applying to the country’s top universities.

Full disclosure: I travel to Brixton to get my hair done. I’ve had one barber my entire life, and I don’t intend to change that. I also know several people, from a variety of ethnic groups, who at seventeen years old decided against applying to Oxford or Cambridge simply because it wasn’t a university environment which, in their eyes, reflected the demography of the multicultural and inclusive towns they’d grown up in. To pretend as if academic concerns are the only factors which influence university applications is absurd, as absurd as it is to paint Black students as unreasonable for having the temerity to consider non-academic concerns when making their application.

They might not be able to populate their respective towns with barbershops, but if Oxford and Cambridge want to prove themselves truly committed to diversifying their student populations, they need to come good on the promises to which they have publicly committed themselves, and start asking present and future Black students not just “where do we err?” but “how do we change?”

While I’m inclined to, for the time being at least, reserve all judgements, I must also ask of Oxford whether it is an institution that fundamentally wants to improve itself. I sometimes wonder whether Oxford doesn’t half revel in the illusions of mystique and grandeur it’s built up for itself over the last nine centuries, and whether the university is willing to cast off some of the myths and traditions that so often dissuade the uninitiated from applying.

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