Educational barriers after the pandemic mean there is no room for complacency in ensuring good representation of black students at Oxbridge, a leader in diversity and inclusion has warned.
Black Year 12 pupils have suffered increased levels of anxiety, having been disproportionately affected by the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, the founder of the Target Oxbridge programme said.
Naomi Kellman said there could be similar challenges for younger students hoping to attend the UK’s elite universities in coming years, having been through educational disruption and facing the knock-on effects.
The programme, which is celebrating 10 years in existence, said it is “pleased to have contributed to such a significant change” in levels of representation at the two universities.
When the scheme was launched, black African and Caribbean students made up around 1% of UK-based students attending Oxbridge, despite representing 5% of the A-level population, Target Oxbridge said.
As of 2021, the figure for UK-domiciled black students accepted to Oxbridge had risen to 4%, Target Oxbridge said, with almost a quarter (24%) of the black students accepted to the two universities being alumni of the programme.
The number of UK undergraduates with black African or black Caribbean heritage admitted to Oxford has increased from 1.9% in 2017 to 3.5% last year, while Cambridge admitted 128 UK black undergraduates last year, compared with 26 in 2011.
Ms Kellman welcomed the advancements but said efforts must continue, especially in the next few years as the pandemic after-effects are still being felt.
She said there had been 60 offers for Target Oxbridge participants this year, compared with 74 last year.
She told the PA news agency: “Black students are one of the hardest hit by the pandemic and we might see those effects coming out over the next two to three to four years in terms of what that’s going to mean for attainment, confidence, how many people feel able to put themselves forward for Oxbridge.
“And so as much as the result right now is really good and we’re really happy, we know that we can’t be complacent about that because recent circumstances mean that black students are going to be facing a lot of barriers with their education because of those pandemic effects which have been disproportionately affecting them.”
She said some students on the programme – which was launched in 2012 to help improve the representation of black students at the two universities – have expressed doubt in their abilities due to not having taken traditional GCSE exams and missing out on some learning when schools shut in lockdown.
“Students reporting more anxiety, more mental health concerns because they’ve come through such a challenging time and they’re needing to make these big life decisions and perform at a higher standard, having experienced this pandemic in their formative years, in a very difficult scenario.
“And so we’re very conscious of that. And I think that might be the challenge for the coming cohorts – the fact that they did do Year 9, Year 10, Year 11 in a pandemic. That’s lots of stress that they’re carrying and they’re bringing that now into their A-levels which are a stressful time. So we’re being quite mindful about that.”
She said that despite students performing well they have “added concern versus the cohort who didn’t go through a pandemic, so that’s something that I think anyone working with students would need to be mindful of over the next few years”.
Tom Levinson, head of widening participation at Cambridge, said the university’s work on improved representation is “far from over”, while Oxford said its efforts are “ongoing”.
Mr Levinson said: “Over the last 10 years we have seen a significant increase in the numbers of UK black students being admitted to Cambridge.
“The work we do with Target Oxbridge has been a major factor in this. The effort to make the university more representative of wider society is far from over, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with the programme.”
A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said: “Over the past five years the number of UK undergraduates with black African or black Caribbean heritage admitted to Oxford annually increased from 1.9% to 3.5%.
“The proportion of undergraduates identifying as black and minority ethnic also rose from 18% to 25%.
“This reflects our ongoing work to ensure that the most academically able pupils in the country aspire to study at Oxford and have a fair chance of admission.”