25 May 2011

Michelle Obama and school pupils visit Oxford

Michelle Obama takes school pupils to Oxford University to encourage them to aim high. But only just over 1 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates are of black British origin, Channel 4 News learns.

US First Lady Michelle Obama takes school pupils to Oxford (Reuters)

The First Lady first visited the all-girl Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) School in north London in 2009 (pictured), and has kept in touch with the school since.

Now, as part of her trip to the UK with the President, she visited Oxford University with around 35 of the school’s pupils. In 2009, Mrs Obama encouraged the pupils to “be the best that you can be”, and the trip to the university is expected to encourage the students – the majority of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds – to think about studying for a degree.

The trip was designed as a day-long “immersion experience” at Oxford, including campus tours and mentoring sessions. The First Lady, who has a modest family background but attended Princeton and Harvard, also answered questions from the students, after telling them she was “thrilled to be back”.

We passionately believe that you have the talent within you to succeed. Michelle Obama

She said: “I remember back at a young age trying to decide what schools to apply to and how well-meaning but misguided people questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university. When I was accepted I had all kinds of worries and doubts, I wouldn’t be as well prepared as students from privileged families and I wouldn’t fit in.

“But after a few months away from home I realised I was just as capable and I had just as much to offer [as] any of my classmates. We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, the experience to succeed at Oxford and universities just like it across the country and the world.”

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She gave all the girls a hug at the end of the visit, telling them to make sure their partners never held them back.

She added: “The same things I tell my girls are the things I tell you. Don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to take risks, ask questions, ask stupid questions, don’t be afraid to trip, fall and don’t be afraid to get back up.”

Fairer access?

Around nine in 10 of EGA’s pupils are from ethnic minority backgrounds, with 55 languages spoken by the pupils. Around 60 per cent of the students speak English as an additional language.

One of the pupils, Sobren Amin, 14, said: “She’s such a great inspiration. She represents that you can actually achieve what you want.”

But Channel 4 News has learned that in 2009, only 41 students of black British origin began studying at Oxford – less than 2 per cent of the entire intake. In 2010, 39 students of black British origin began studying. The national average across British universities is 6.5 per cent.

Prime Minister David Cameron caused a storm earlier this year when he said – incorrectly – just one black student was accepted in 2009.

In total, there are around 150 black British students studying at Oxford out of 11,000 undergraduates. This represents around 1.4 per cent of the student body – below the national average of 6 per cent. The university says it does not break down these figures for other ethnic minorities.

This is not just a story about Oxford but a wider one that starts with school attainment and even earlier. We are committed to widening access to Oxford. University spokesman

A university spokesman told Channel 4 News that 19 per cent of its 21,000 students, including undergraduates and postgraduates, are black or of an ethnic minority. This figure includes overseas students but only includes those who chose to declare their ethnicity – so the numbers could be higher, the spokesman said.

He added: “This is not just a story about Oxford but a wider one that starts with school attainment and even earlier. We are committed to widening access to Oxford from currently under-represented groups, and in fact our world-leading reputation depends upon us being able to attract and admit the most able students regardless of background.

“We want talented black students to know that they are welcome at Oxford and that, whilst not as ethnically diverse as many universities, one in five students are non-white as are many academics and admissions tutors.”

Michelle Obama visits Oxford University's dreaming spires (Getty)

Narrow pool

Elite universities have argued in the past that poor attainment at school narrows the pool from which they can draw ethnic minority candidates – for example in 2009 over 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford, compared to just 452 black students.

Oxford has also said that black students tend to apply disproportionately for its most oversubscribed subjects, making it harder for them to get a place.

The college Michelle Obama is visiting, Christ Church, is one of the largest and wealthiest colleges at Oxford. But its record for access for black students is not so illustrious.

A Freedom of Information request made by MP David Lammy in 2010 showed that the college only admitted six students of black British origin over the entire decade, from 1999-2009, placing it in the bottom five of Oxford colleges. The university said this was not statistically significant and referred to its acceptance figures across the institution.