Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 16:16 UK

Drive to get ethnic minorities to Oxbridge

By Catrin Nye
BBC Asian Network

Krishna Darji
Krishna Darji says she will probably look at the London universities

The country's top universities are still not attracting enough students from an ethnic minority background.

Oxford and Cambridge have told the BBC there are still far too many people who feel they simply would not fit in.

The National Union of Students says it's because the universities are not doing enough to shift their major image problem, and are still seen as exclusive and white middle-class.

Between them the universities spend more than £4 million a year trying to attract a wider range of students.

Applications from ethnic minority students to Oxford went down last year - there was a 13% drop from British Indian students.

Working with community groups, parents' networks is something we need to work on
Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions, Cambridge

Cambridge will release their statistics for this year at the beginning of April.

Those in charge of admissions say despite a slight increase, the university is still far from where it wants to be in attracting these students.

"I think when you imagine what Oxbridge is like, you imagine a place filled with stuffy, white, privately educated boys and you don't imagine there being many black or Asian faces around," says Wes Streeting, NUS President.

He argues that there is little excuse, considering the progress other universities have made in widening participation.

"It's a travesty that some of the modern universities have more black and Asian students at their institutions than the whole Russell Group of elite universities combined - it's a real concern and they need to work harder and faster."

Outdated prejudice

The Cambridge figures for UK applications will show that 35 black Caribbeans applied in 2008, 50 Bangladeshis, 104 Pakistanis and 155 black Africans. The highest group was Indians at 427.

Out of a total of 11,998 applications, both the university and the NUS are in agreement that perceptions of Oxbridge are still causing a problem.

Nikhil Gomes
Nikhil Gomes tries to encourage ethnic minority applications

This year is the 20th anniversary of Geema (Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications) at Cambridge University.

Those in charge say they're still fighting outdated prejudice.

"Internationally it's the reputation of Cambridge that makes people apply, but within the UK there is slightly different reputation," says Nikhil Gomes, former Geema co-ordinator at Cambridge.

"People are scared, people have got outdated notions of ivory towers and old fashioned white people from public schools. It's not really like that when you're at Cambridge.

"All the hard work that goes on can be undermined. I wouldn't necessarily say that Cambridge is the right place for everyone but if it has the right course, we want to try and make sure everyone who can apply, does apply"

It seems some prejudices will take a long time to shift. At an outreach event at Leicester's Walker's Stadium, university representatives try to convince those that may not consider Oxford or Cambridge to do just that.

17-year-old Krishna Darji from Leicester is predicted all A's but told us city-based universities like University College London or Manchester are more likely to tempt her.

"I've been put off Cambridge and Oxford. I went there on a trip and because there's loads of Asian background people from our school, when we went there and is was loads of, well, non-Asians , we were like oh ok, we don't really fit in here. It's so medieval and like just, like…..old".

Culture shock

Shreena Sonecha feels the same. The 16-year-old student told the BBC that the culture shock would just be too great.

"Going to university, you're becoming independent for the first time and you don't want it to be too much of a change. Coming from Leicester especially, where you're just surrounded by Indians!"

But for some second generation Asians it is time to change old perceptions.

Veerja Adatiya, 17, is at college and putting every effort into getting the grades for Oxbridge.

"I've been brought up in a quite a stereo-typical Asian family. Mum is from India and she did a course which was obviously all Asians. My dad - he thinks there is some discrimination against the Asian community. Hopefully if I apply and get in I can correct that stereo-type."

Both universities say they want the best students from whatever background they come - and that they have made significant increases in students from ethnic minority backgrounds with their outreach projects.

"There are areas where we can work with communities to make it clear that even if their children are going away to university, they are still going to be in very supportive and caring environment," says Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions, Cambridge.

"Working with community groups, parents' networks, etc, is something we need to work on."

Oxford and Cambridge told the BBC that they are committed to making their universities represent the UK and that they will get there - eventually.

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