Exclusives 7 September 2019

Why Stormzy’s Scholarships are so Important

7 September 2019

Written by: Cameron Boyle

The term ‘Oxbridge’ still evokes thoughts of white privilege. It is not images of a multi-ethnic, diverse student population that such institutions elicit, but ideas of wealth and elitism. Regrettably, this is far from an ageing stereotype; these associations are grounded in fact. The BAME community continue to be closed off from Oxford and Cambridge in spite of the downright injustice involved.

The factors that conspire to prevent BAME students gaining a place are complex, ranging from socioeconomic background to biased admissions processes. It needs to change, and Stormzy is taking a stand. His scholarship programme provides the funding for talented black students to fulfil their academic potential, and it is hopefully an action that will trigger wider reform within higher education.

The raw numbers released by UCAS evidence the extent of racial disparity within Oxbridge. In 2016, there were only 35 black students admitted to Oxford, amidst 2180 white students. Cambridge’s admissions were similarly mono-ethnic, with only 45 black students gaining a place. Within these figures lies one of the central issues facing BAME students who desire to study at an elite university- the fear of not belonging. Being in the minority to such an extent means that it is somewhat natural for feelings of alienation and self-consciousness to take root.

Until the system is re-evaluated in order to give students of all backgrounds the opportunity to study at Oxbridge, the situation will not change. At present, why would a young black student want to study at an institution where they are the only person of colour on their course? It is for this reason that Stormzy’s scholarships are so important. The need for a top-down rethink of our elite universities’ admissions policies is clear. Yet until this occurs, he is using his profile and wealth to not only bring the issue to light, but kick down doors and give BAME students access to the education they deserve.

To make matters worse, there is also an immense level of mono-ethnicity within academic staff. This is an issue not just confined to the likes of Oxbridge, but all UK universities. A joint study by the NUS and UUK found that only 10% of professors are BAME, with only 0.6% of this number being black. The absence of academic role models been pinpointed as a key contributing factor behind BAME students’ feelings of isolation and ‘imposter syndrome’ when at university.

Not only this, but the impact it has upon self-belief acts as a deterrent from applying. An increase in the amount of BAME lecturers would instil a sense of belief in BAME students that they too can fulfil their academic potential, yet there are unjust barriers in place that prevent this from occurring. Stormzy himself displayed the academic ability needed for Oxbridge, receiving 6 A*s at GCSE. He is acutely aware of not only the obstacles faced by BAME young people, but the plethora of talent that is unable to flourish.

The feelings of alienation experienced by BAME students are described by Candice, a black, working-class student at Cambridge. She states that ‘you want to go to a good university but you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb’. Such words encapsulate the extent to which the fear of not belonging deters BAME students from applying. However, the level of hardship experienced by BAME students who do manage to gain a place at Oxbridge goes beyond feelings of alienation.

Lamentably, incidents of racial prejudice are all too commonplace. Cambridge student Timi Sotire told Business Insider about having her afro ‘petted’ by fellow students. Such stories serve to portray Oxbridge as incredibly hostile and unwelcoming to BAME youngsters, and the intolerance of anyone from outside of the majority group will not change until levels of diversity increase. Stormzy is doing his bit to change this, and in doing so spark wider change by amplifying the need for reform within elite education. 

There is a notable lack of BAME representation within the political sphere. As it stands, the number of BAME MPs is at a record high, yet they still only make up 8% of the House of Commons. Through providing the necessary funding for talented young people to study at our top universities, Stormzy’s scholarships are not only redressing the racial imbalance in such institutions, but facilitating the possibility for similar change within the corridors of power.

Bringing the issues faced by aspirational BAME students into the public discourse is hugely important. Whilst issues such as alienation and racism dissuade young people from applying, they do not tell the whole story behind Oxbridge’s skewed admissions. Research by the Runnymede Trust has found that offer rates from Russell Group universities are still considerably lower for BAME students even when A-Levels are the same. Black students have 7% less chance of receiving an offer than their white counterparts, despite being equally qualified.

Such statistics point the existence of institutionalised racism within university admissions processes. Given that UCAS forms display the candidate’s full name, it is plausible that racial profiling is indeed contributing to the staggering lack of BAME students. Brexit is set to intensify the plight of the BAME community further. EU students will soon need a Tier 4 Student Visa in the same way current international students do. This will lead to a reduction in EU applications, resulting in even lower levels of diversity within UK universities.

Stormzy’s actions come at the right time. He himself has stated that ‘if funding is one of the issues, then that is a barrier we can work towards breaking down’. 75% of the BAME community live in 88 of the UK’s most deprived areas, and the link between socioeconomic disadvantage and academic attainment cannot be overstated. One study into BAME students at Cambridge found that only 45% of those who undertook vacation work to fund their studies received high examination results. Similarly, only 45% of those who received no money from their parents performed well.

The UN’s special rapporteur also studied the impact of austerity measures on the BAME community, finding that black households have suffered an income loss double that of white households. The interplay between race and social class problematise earlier stages of education- Afro-Caribbean children are three times more likely to be excluded than white pupils.

Stormzy is taking action against the unjust ostracization of BAME students from elite education. The situation will continue until the universities themselves take responsibility for the ongoing struggle. But until then, he should continue fighting the good fight by bringing the issue to light.