Sunday, 31 January 2016

David Cameron's Confusion Over Statistics & Racism

David Cameron has launched a scathing attack on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge today for failing to recruit more BME (black minority ethnic) students, saying that racism in the UK’s leading institutions “should shame our nation”.

He is right that it's a shame that there are not more BME students in our leading universities, but he is quite wrong to lay the blame at the door of Oxford and Cambridge universities. The so-called fact of Oxford and Cambridge being under-represented by BME students is not to do with institutional racism at our top universities, it is to do with the fact that prospective BME candidates are far outnumbered by white British candidates, which has a lot of complex causes - but none of them are the fault of Oxford or Cambridge.

It is quite easy to be outraged at statistics if you don't understand them, and clearly David Cameron just doesn't get that there are simply not enough BME people in the country to fulfil his wish. A quick Google search reveals to me that if a top university accepted students in a way that precisely represented the UK demographic, then for every 100 people, there would be 87 whites, 7 Asians, 3 blacks and 3 others. Even on strict egalitarian grounds it is very difficult to justify a selection policy that doesn't see BME people outnumbered by whites.

But, of course, that's only part of the flaw in David Cameron's reasoning - the other thing wrong with his misunderstanding of statistics is that Oxford and Cambridge are not looking for a representation in terms of ethnicity or skin colour, they are looking for representation in terms of academic ability. That is to say, Cambridge and Oxford universities are the seat of academic excellence in the UK - and if the statistics show that only a small proportion of BME people get into Oxford or Cambridge, and a large majority of students are white, that does not show any institutional unfairness on the part of Oxford or Cambridge. It merely shows that if Oxford and Cambridge are trying to attract the most academically gifted students in the country, and if by far the greatest proportion of the most academically gifted students in the country are not in the BME demographic, then Cambridge and Oxford's admission policy is completely fair.

There is certainly a conversation to be had about all the ways that BME and under-privileged pupils in schools are disadvantaged or coming up against barriers to fulfilling their potential, but that's not an indictment against our two best universities - and David Cameron should know better - particularly as it's very likely the case that this phony 'outrage' is really just an attempt to court popularity amongst the BME demographic.