Behind the Headlines: Why Cambridge’s dire diversity needed tackling by a music icon


Monday 20th August

The ‘Stormzy Scholarship’ has brought concerns around the lack of diversity inside Britain’s most prestigious universities back under the spotlight. Our Senior Consultant, Kate Begg, looks at how Cambridge University can use this recent crisis as a springboard to elicit real change.

What happened?

Renowned grime artist Stormzy added an extra layer of excitement to A-level results day by announcing that he will fund two black British students to study at the University of Cambridge. The Stormzy Scholarship, which will pay for tuition fees and provide a maintenance grant for up to four years of an undergraduate course, has grabbed the attention of the masses and offered an alternative story to the usual annual headlines depicting academic success.

Speaking at his former school in Croydon, South London, Stormzy, who is becoming increasingly known for his efforts to speak out against social injustices, said, “If you’re academically brilliant don’t think because you come from a certain community that studying at one of the highest education institutions in the world isn’t possible.”

Why is this important?

Despite the obvious benefits this opportunity will provide the scholarship’s recipients, the gesture has brought back to the fore the increasing concerns around the lack of diversity at the prestigious Oxbridge universities.

Figures published this Spring showed that some Cambridge University colleges have admitted no black students or have accepted as few as one a year between 2012 and 2016 whilst Oxford faced heavy criticism after it was revealed that more than one in four of its colleges failed to admit a single black British student between 2015 and 2017.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have made progress in increasing diversity amongst their student body and this must be acknowledged. However, questions still need to be asked as to why this inequality remains and why progress has been so slow.

What’s the reaction been?

Unsurprisingly, the response to the new Scholarship has been largely positive with thousands taking to social media to praise the star and politicians on all sides welcoming the musician’s intervention.

Despite the negative impact this has once again had on Cambridge University, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, also welcomed the announcement, praising Stormzy’s engagement on social issues. He said, “The studentships are a beacon for black students who might otherwise have felt they could not come to Cambridge. Last year, 58 new black students arrived to take up their courses at Cambridge, the largest number ever but not nearly as many as we would like. We know we need to work harder to ensure that black students do not only apply to study at the university, but that they feel at home here and achieve their full potential.”

What’s next?

Stormzy’s intervention into this ongoing debate has rightly shone a brighter light on the lack of representation of young black students at the top universities in this country. For Cambridge University, this isn’t just another PR crisis. Instead of considering it “job done”, they should use this spotlight as an opportunity to build on their efforts.

While it can’t be the sole responsibility of the universities to tackle the root causes of why this inequality exists, the vice-chancellor’s statement, perhaps unintentionally, implies that that they now need to shift the narrative of how they portray themselves to those they are seeking to attract. This can’t just be about increasing the statistics for the next FOI request or weighing up applications vs acceptances, nor should it be about wavering in their commitment to academic excellence. Cambridge – and other higher education establishments – needs to instil a sense of empowerment in the students of tomorrow, whatever their background, and shift the perceptions of their colleges to one that inspires every person with the academic ability to want to attend and feel welcomed when they do.

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