By Amit Roy
Benazir Bhutto, the late Prime Minister of Pakistan, was famously a student at Oxford, as was her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
But then the Bhuttos belonged to a wealthy feudal dynasty and probably saw getting into Oxford as their birthright.
As an undergraduate in the late 1970s, Benazir became president of the Oxford Union, the first Asian woman to be elected to the post. She led a carefree life which included running around in a sports car which she used to take her to London for her favourite icecream.
But British-born Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who are mostly the grandchildren of first generation immigrants who came to work in the mills or as factory workers, are “under-represented” at Oxford.
To put this right and widen access to the university from as wide a cross-section of society as possible, some 90 children, mostly from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, were invited to spend a day at Oxford University earlier this month.
Dr Samina Khan, director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at Oxford University, explained: “Oxford wants to attract the most able students from all backgrounds. That’s why we run such a wide range of activities to encourage and support talented young people from backgrounds who are under-represented in higher education in general, and at Oxford in particular.”
“British students from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are among the groups under-represented at Oxford, so events like this are really important in showing the students the range of courses on offer and demonstrating that if they have the academic ability, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be aiming for a university like Oxford.,” she added.
The Year 9 students, from nine schools in Slough, High Wycombe and Oxford, met current students and took part in university-style academic workshops to get them thinking about higher education.
Since the event was aimed at attracting more applications from the brightest students from British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the university intends doing follow-up activities with them in Years 10 and 11.
The initial challenge is to light a spark and convince the children that Oxford is a goal that can be achieved.
The children were met, for example, by a “mentor” they could relate to – Ruha Akhtar, 19, from Milton Keynes, who is in her first year of reading history.
She said: “Events like this are incredibly significant for the students who attend. It allows them to see what they might be capable of.”
She remembered she had herself visited Oxford on a similar outing and had found that “actually being here and experiencing the university and the city made it much easier to visualise myself studying here”.
Ifra, a 13-year-old at Baylis Court School, Slough, said: “I’ve really enjoyed spending the day at Oxford. We’ve kind of been teaching ourselves, which is a bit different to what we usually do in school and means we’re learning things without really knowing it. I’ve been thinking about going to university – maybe one with good science and maths courses, as I’d like to be a computer scientist.”
Another pupil, Tanzina, 14, from Highcrest Academy, High Wycombe, agreed that the outing had been “really fun. We’ve been looking at different kinds of subjects that we don’t normally get to study in school. This has given me a better idea about going to university, and I think it’s something I would like to do.”
Last year, among UK-based undergraduate applicants of known ethnicity, Oxford made offers to 20 students of Bangladeshi background, of whom 13 took up their places, and 28 offers to students of Pakistani background, of whom 23 took up their places. All of these figures were the highest since comparable data began being recorded in 2007.
It is also a substantial increase on 2015, when Oxford made offers to six students of Bangladeshi background, of whom all six took up their places, and 16 offers to students of Pakistani background, of whom 13 took up their places.
Oxford cannot relax the top A level grades – invariably A or A* – it requires for entry. But more pupils get the top grades than there are places at Oxford. Individuals dons, who usually have autonomy over who is let in, can make a conscious decision to let in some Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who can then go on to act as role models.
Sarah Gosling, the deputy head of sixth form at Baylis Court School in Slough, said: “‘It’s really important for our students to have opportunities like this. Many of them will be the first in their family to attend university, and often don’t have the confidence to apply to universities like Oxford. It is fantastic that they have been given the chance to visit Oxford and learn more about university. I hope that this event has sown the seeds that will motivate them from now until they apply to university in a few years’ time.”
Indian-origin students are not reckoned to have a problem getting in. According to the Guardian, 65 Indian students comprised the largest minority among the 2,683 home students admitted in 2008, but that was 20 fewer than in 2007.