by Joyce Adjekum and Aisha Phoenix

Joyce Adjekum
Joyce Adjekum

All that glitters

I never thought that I would get into Cambridge University. Only a few of the brightest people at my college had applied to Oxbridge. Although my teachers helped me through the application and access scheme process, they never let me forget how slim the chances were of any of their students getting a place at either of the most prestigious universities in the world. Still, I enjoyed what I saw and who I met when I visited the Cambridge college I’d applied to, but I never allowed myself to dream. The only person who had any real expectations was my mother. Finally, what looked to be some sort of fulfillment of her African Dream, despite the heavy odds stacked against her daughter. The delicious possibility was never spoken of at home, as if it tempted, not fate, but the impossible. Miraculously the impossible happened.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the University because I had never been in a privileged environment apart from three weeks I once spent in Ghana, staying with a wealthy family that had employed my mother as a nanny. The culture shock was only lessened by my friends, who took the charming but fake world around them with a pinch of salt. I tried to enjoy my time amongst great minds, yet, apart from those close friendships and the few non-university activities I engaged in, I was rarely genuinely happy.

The disappointment I felt wasn’t simply due to the commonly-discussed lack of ethnic or socio-economic diversity, though it was and is a problem (from 2010 to 2011 17.2% of students from ethnic minorities gained admission to Oxford University compared with 25.7% of white applicants. Cambridge was better: 23.1 per cent of UK applicants from minority backgrounds compared with 29.3 per cent of white applicants. The national average of minority applicants was 21.2%). It had more to do with people’s mindsets.

For example, the English literature syllabus I was taught, felt like it hadn’t had a major revision since the 1960s. The only paper that really engaged me was Commonwealth Literature, which was optionally taught like an afterthought. It took me a few years to understand why my teacher grumbled about the University’s insistence on calling it ‘Commonwealth’ as opposed to anything which didn’t pay homage to our colonial past. I never really observed anything that made me believe that Cambridge was challenging its students to ‘think outside the box’.

After I graduated and moved to London, I found it difficult to settle back into a world that had been kept at arm’s length for three years. I felt acutely ‘real-world’ deficient; the people around me had embraced themselves: their identities, their histories, their cultures, other cultures and important causes.  I had to accept that I was just another black person with a degree, saddled with thousands of pounds of debt and a respectable but low-paying job. At least I had a job. By 2008, the year the economic crisis took its toll and a few months after I left Cambridge, 22% of Londoners aged 16-24 were unemployed and nationally, a quarter of working-age people from ethnic minorities were out of work. Things haven’t gotten much better since.

I realise that I sound bitter about my Cambridge experience. There were perks (like an all-expenses paid study trip to Malaysia), however, the rigidity and homogeneity that I encountered permeates my memories of my time at university. So, whilst I would never discourage anyone from applying to Oxbridge, I now appreciate that there is no teaching better than at the University of Life.

Aisha Phoenix
Aisha Phoenix

The benefits far outweigh the challenges

When I was six years old I told a family friend that I was going to study at Oxford University and twelve years later I realised that dream. I was so focused on getting into Oxford that I did not stop to consider what it would be like. My first week was a shock. I was unprepared for the ignorance and arrogance that I encountered. I will always remember the fresher who said,

“you can’t call yourself black, it’s offensive to coloured people.”

As the year stretched on, my simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility as an African Caribbean student was repeatedly highlighted. At my college I was routinely called the name of the only other black young woman in my year, despite the fact that we looked totally different, while the porters in certain colleges followed me and fellow black students around. This did not happen to our white friends.

Being academic had always been a key part of my identity at state school, but at Oxford, surrounded by people who excelled academically and exuded confidence, my sense of self was shaken. Not only was I unexceptional, it was hard for some of my peers even to accept that I had as much right to be at Oxford as they did. Outside college I was often asked where I studied and when I said ‘Oxford’ the reply was always ‘Brookes?’ The assumption being that I must be studying at the new university. There were many times when I felt like leaving in my first year.

From these experiences, it might seem that I would recommend that black state school students avoid studying at Oxford, but far from it. There is much to be gained from an Oxbridge education. For me things improved when I spent my second year living in Damascus as part of my degree in Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. My experiences in Syria helped put Oxford in perspective and I returned with renewed confidence. This made it easier to contribute to university life. I wrote features for student newspapers and magazines and worked with the Oxford Access Scheme. I also set up an African Caribbean Society with friends and joined a poetry collective that included a young woman who was recently named one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Writers.

There are many reasons why the Oxbridge experience is worth striving for despite the ignorance and snobbery that students from non-traditional backgrounds may initially face. Not only is the inspiration that comes from being among great minds invaluable, but Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominate certain prestigious professions, which makes it crucial that students of all ethnicities and backgrounds are well represented. Unfortunately state school pupils are not always encouraged to apply to Oxbridge  and there are few black students from the UK

Alexander Crummell, Cambridge University's first black student to graduate in the 19th century.
Cambridge University’s first black student to graduate in the 19th century.

Black student admissions to Oxford and Cambridge are surprisingly low given that black students went to Oxbridge even before women were admitted. As early as the 1700s there was a black student at Cambridge and the university’s first black graduate was admitted in 1848, decades before the first women’s residential higher education college was opened in 1869 and one hundred years before women were admitted to Cambridge. Oxford’s first black student matriculated in 1873 (see Pamela Roberts’ Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars), but women were not admitted to membership of the university until 1920.

Given that history, Oxbridge should be more ethnically diverse. Fortunately there are schemes working to achieve this. For example, Target Oxbridge provides a mentoring programme for talented Year 11 and 12 pupils of African and African Caribbean descent and Cambridge has a scheme for talented black, Asian and minority ethnic state school students. For high achievers from low-income families there is the Social Mobility Foundation, which helps increase access to the top universities and professions.
It is almost a decade since I graduated from Oxford. While I doubt that the ignorance and prejudice I encountered have disappeared, increasing the numbers of black students at Oxbridge will inevitably change some attitudes. Studying at Oxbridge is a wonderful opportunity and I would encourage high achieving black students and those from non-traditional backgrounds to apply.

Joyce Adjekum is an educational editor and writer currently based in London, whose interests include African and Middle Eastern social issues and non-western music. She has just finished co-writing and editing a play about the intertwining lives of Africans and Arabs in London and hopes to find more time soon to write critically about issues that make her tick! Find some of her essays at A Voice. Tweet her @JoyceA321 

Aisha Phoenix writes about colourism, racism, gender, belonging, diversity, occupation and justice. She is completing a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London on Palestinian students negotiating life under occupation. She has worked as a media reporter at Bloomberg News and has written for Open Democracy, the Voice, The Royal Television Society’s Television Magazine and The British Council. She also writes for academic journals. She has a postgraduate diploma in Newspaper Journalism from City University, a BA in Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies and Masters in Social Research and Social Anthropology of Development. Twitter: @firebirdN4

7 thoughts on “What a Privilege? Oxford vs Cambridge

  1. For what it’s worth, the ‘Commonwealth’ paper at Cambridge is now called ‘Post-Colonial and Related Literatures.’ Can’t say whether the content’s changed much as I didn’t take it, but the overall course structure remains as rigid as it ever was – literature exclusively from the British Isles from 1300 to the present day in your first two years. Definitely lends itself to a ‘great white male’ canon being taught.

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  2. Personally I wouldn’t say this is just an experience felt by those who go to Oxbridge. Going away to university is difficult, and then for those who are high achievers especially from a state school background you find yourself mixing/living/studying with a group you may have had little integration with. In a system that’s pretty male, white and slightly pompous because their very learned.

    Can universities do more to tackle the issues – yes; but my day to day work life is pretty much like this. So maybe its good preparation for the real world?! I would also suggest that more support pre university could be provided by mentors like the contributors, on what its like, how to make the most of it etc.

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  3. Agree overall with your comments Ornette. Having an Oxbridge or Russell Group degree can open doors for its graduates (though I don’t think their degrees are as influential as they used to be). Who you know still goes a long way and if POC students can network well and do well during their time at Uni, I’m sure they can go far (though not to be negative, but we still face issues with the glass ceiling effect).

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    1. Yes, the dreaded glass ceiling!!! Unfortunately we have to think of this ceiling as a dam and our work as the water. The higher the pressure, the more likely the dam will burst. Not easy but unfortunately it seems to be the only way at the moment….I am very interested to hear that you think the influence of Oxbridge degrees is waning. Do you have any hunches as to why this is the case?

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  4. Great insights. Despite the obvious challenges people from ethnic minorities will face in such environments it is important that if they are gifted they should strive to study in these institutions. Oxbridge and more widely the Russell group universities (and the HE sector as a whole) are still where the next public figures and people of influence will be studying (despite what people say about the devalued currency of degrees). It is important that gifted students from ethnic minorities have these opportunities to forge those contacts which could pay off professionally for life. In reality, as has been described, there will be the inevitable “Outsiders on the Inside” experiences to navigate but unfortunately we always have lived in an age of “who you know not what you know”. So making contacts and joining influential networks cannot be a bad thing to do whilst studying at these institutions, especially if they can successfully navigate the “Outsider on the Inside” challenges!

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  5. Thanks for your comment, Akwesi! I wish I’d been given more insight into everyday life at Cambridge before I went. There had funnily enough been a series on life in Oxbridge for ethnic minority students the year I went (don’t know if anyone recalls that series on the BBC?) But I had either not paid enough attention or was hopelessly naive about University, or both! It was a great experience but I guess some disillusionment has set in now about how poorly my time prepared me for life in the real world (as opposed to the Oxbridge bubble), which is what I assumed University was supposed to help me with.

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  6. Great article. Gaining entry to either University on merit is an achievement in itself, so it’s refreshing to hear your honest admissions of feeling somewhat alienated by such a coveted experience. Reading this makes me wonder whether young black students who apply for Oxbridge each year have any means to hear firsthand what awaits them.

    For me, this is probably the first time I’ve read an account from black students of either institute. I do know a few people who have studied there, but I’ve never really pried into how comfortable they felt as working class black students at the most prestigious Universities in the world. This was an insightful read.

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