A YEAR ago, I appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze.
The subject under discussion, Elite Universities, had been triggered by publicity surrounding statistics relating to the recruitment of students from what are termed “disadvantaged” backgrounds.
This data is invariably based, in part, on postcodes and in part on those deemed to come from “BME” backgrounds. As such, the statistics — and the arguments on which they are based — are, of course, open to criticism.
Coming from an area of relative economic poverty is not necessarily an intellectual disadvantage.
I grew up in Jewish Hackney in the 1940s and 1950s, but in a family which, though severely cash-limited, was rich in terms of its appreciation of learning in the widest possible sense.
Nor did that family suffer from the worst form of poverty, namely poverty of aspiration.
The definition of “BME” is fundamentally flawed, because it typically excludes Jews.
“BME” stands for “Black or Minority Ethnic”. According to the Oxford English dictionary, the term “BME” is “used to refer to members of non-white communities in the UK”.
As such, it’s a product of extreme intellectual laziness. It might include some Sephardi Jews. Or it might not. It certainly won’t include non-Sephardi Jews, for the simple reason that although we British Jews — all of us — legally constitute an ethnic minority, it doesn’t suit the politics behind BME to regard us as such.
In 2016, the proportion of British BME undergraduate students at Oxford was 14 per cent. By 2018, the British BME proportion had climbed to just under 18 per cent.
But if you include Jews in this calculation (and nobody I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly how many identifying Jewish students there are at Oxford), then the proportion is certainly higher.
And it’s worth adding that the BME percentage among 17-24 year olds in England and Wales is currently around 18.3 per cent.
So from the perspective of proportionality, my alma mater is doing quite well. But I have to admit that within the Russell Group of 24 elite research-intensive universities, the picture is not so rosy.
According to the latest statistics, Russell Group institutions have, on average, much smaller proportions of black students than other universities — less than four per cent compared with the UK average of twice that figure. And a report published last month by the Royal Historical Society gives further cause for alarm.
Founded in 1868, the RHistS — of which I’m an emeritus fellow — used to enjoy the reputation of a stuffy club. Not any more.
It’s taking seriously its commitment to equality in the researching and teaching of history, and has recognised (in the words of its current president, Professor Margot Finn) that “to make any broad commitment to equality both manifest and effective”, the society “needs to ask itself hard questions about our own place in systems of racial and ethnic privilege”.
It was in this spirit that the society set in motion an inquiry into Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History, and it’s to the report of that inquiry that I now draw your attention.
The report makes grim reading.
The racial and ethnic profile of students and staff in UK university history departments, the report concludes, has remained overwhelmingly white. In UK universities . . . BME students and staff in history have disproportionately negative experiences of teaching, training and employment.
I need to point out that the RHistS has not made the mistake of excluding Jews from its own BME working definition.
Indeed some of the most shocking examples of prejudice suffered by BME history staff come from evidence gathered from Jewish participants in its inquiry.
A number of respondents reported incidents of antisemitic remarks about — and to — colleagues and students. A Jewish respondent commented that the issue was widespread enough that “one does not want to appear too Jewish”, while another reported that incidents of antisemitism were “brushed over”.
In my forthcoming autobiography, I draw attention to incidents in my own career in which I suffered from being an identifiable skullcap-wearing Jew. It was at Oxford that I experienced the casual but very spiteful genteel antisemitism of the upper-classes.
I once failed to be shortlisted for a lectureship because the head of department did not want “Zionists” on his staff.
I don’t need to be told that some Jewish academics have reached the highest offices in our seats of learning.
So they have. But that does not mean that a problem does not exist.
It did — and it still does.
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