As I ate breakfast on the morning of my Cambridge interview, I took in every detail of the room. It’s not every day you get to eat in a Harry Potter-style great hall. My eyes settled on the portraits that lined the walls. Each was a former college master who, without exception, was an old white man. I remember enjoying the irony that some of these men would have been mortified by my presence in their college.
That said, by accident rather than by design, Oxbridge remains a predominantly white environment: in 2015, nearly one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British A-level student. This is usually chalked up to the fact that black students simply don’t apply in great enough numbers. While this is undeniably true, it’s often discussed in an uncritical manner by people who are indifferent as to why this might be.
Last week, The Telegraph offered a new explanation. According to research commissioned by Cambridge, the third most commonly cited reason that young black people do not apply is that they’d struggle to get a decent haircut. For hairdressers to place so high up the list of concerns may be surprising, but the point of doing original research is to find out things you don’t already know.
The issue is more complex than the headline suggested, of course. The article never explicitly reveals the top two reasons, presumably because they are less quirky. But I was happy to see some acknowledgement of what any BAME student knows instinctively: that seemingly insignificant things such as the food they serve in hall, what music we can listen to on nights out and, yes, whether or not we can wear our hair a certain way, play a crucial role in shaping the university experience. All students choose their universities for a range of personal reasons that may not make sense to other people.
For the record, getting my haircut at university was a bit of a nightmare. I’d opt either to let it grow wild or keep it super-short (a simple number one seemed manageable for the more accommodating white barbers). However, neither option is acceptable to everyone, particularly black women who generally have to go to great expense and inconvenience to avoid being scrutinised by people who, frankly, would be better off minding their own business.
Cambridge is a small university (only 12,000 undergraduates compared to Manchester’s 27,895) in a fairly homogenous city, and this probably limits its appeal to certain demographic groups. Life in Cambridge is never going to be for everybody, but there are little changes that senior officials could make to ensure the university is both more attractive to prospective students and more accommodating when they arrive.
They could start by hiring more black academics, as well as doing more to highlight the contribution people of colour make to the intellectual life of the university. Moreover, the university should stop making misguided attempts to profit from the high profiles of controversial figures like David Starkey and Jordan Peterson who are notorious for saying incendiary things about people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Ultimately, a lack of afro hairdressers is merely a proxy for a general feeling of cultural detachment among black and minority ethnic students. This is neither baseless nor trivial. If we are serious about addressing the educational attainment gap, we have to first recognise that the little things do matter.
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