Grime artist Stormzy has been supporting Black students at Cambridge university. He’s making an impact, and it’s part of a wider change at elite British universities.
Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo and this is Sensemaker.
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Today, the quiet revolution taking place at the country’s top universities.
[Clip of Stormzy introducing himself]
Most people know Stormzy for his grime music, or maybe the time he wore a Banksy stab vest at Glastonbury, or the moment he called Theresa May out at the Brit awards asking where the money for Grenfell was.
But there’s one thing about him that’s less well known.
“What’s interesting is Stormzy himself, not his real name by the way, actually did very well at his school, he had six A-stars, three As, and three B’s at GCSE…”TalkRadio
He wasn’t the first high-achieving school kid to have his sights set on Cambridge University.
But then things went a bit off the rails. Stormzy got involved in an innocent prank at college, he got kicked out and any plans to make it to a top university were scuppered.
So, freestyle rap on YouTube was the way to go. But at the same time, he didn’t forget how important his academic ambitions had been. So in 2018, Stormzy announced he was launching a scholarship to help fund two black students to go to Cambridge University every academic year.
“When we first launched the scholarship I always said I wanted it to serve as a reminder that the opportunity is there… in the most simple form… that the opportunity is there.”Stormzy speaking to BBC News
And last week Stormzy made an even bigger announcement. He was upping the number of scholarship places for black students to 30. That’s 10 students for the next three years… each of them will get £20,000 a year to cover tuition fees – (fees are are just over £9000, remember) – and living costs.
It’s all funded through his charity the Merky Foundation and the bank HSBC. And because of his scholarship programme, more and more black students are applying to Oxford and Cambridge than ever before.
It’s called the “Stormzy Effect”.
So the question is, is there a shift happening at elite universities? And how big a part of it is a grime artist from south London?
“Now it’s probably no surprise that many students at Oxford and Cambridge universities are white and from privileged backgrounds in the south of England…”Sky News
Back under prime minister Gordon Brown, the Labour MP David Lammy was an education minister.
He knew progress was being made, getting more black students into universities – but not the top-ranking ones.
“And so I started to focus on fair access. And I guess I knew where the bodies were buried, and so I did think it was important to challenge Oxford and Cambridge about who gets to go on issues of race, of class…”David Lammy speaking at the Times Higher Education Summit in 2019
David Lammy asked for data from Oxford and Cambridge about the ethnic backgrounds of their students and the results were well, depressing.
Oxford and Cambridge are made up of dozens of little colleges. One in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British student in 2015 and when the data from the two universities were combined, just 1.5 percent of all offers went to black British candidates.
That’s despite three percent of the UK’s population being black.
Oxford and Cambridge – or Oxbridge as people call the two universities when they’re talking about them together – were failing to reflect the population and David Lammy accused Oxford of “social apartheid”.
It was clear that something needed to change. So, what’s happening now?
“An incredible 41 students from a school in one of Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods have secured places at two of our most prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge, despite two thirds of the sixth form speaking English as their second language.”Good Morning Britain
Until a few years ago, it wasn’t only Black students who looked under-represented at Oxbridge. State school students generally were in the same boat. But recently more and more state school students have been applying to Oxbridge and getting in.
Last year, Cambridge offered 70 percent of its UK undergraduate places to students who went to state schools. And Oxford was just behind at 68 percent.
That still means that about thirty percent of students at both those universities came from private schools. Which is a higher proportion than the percentage of children in the UK who go to private schools – (so paying for your education still seems to give you an advantage) – but it’s a huge shift from just a decade ago.
It’s hard to know all the reasons behind why that’s happening, but here are a couple that people think are important.
The first is that some schools in the state system are beginning to match the kind of exam results that private schools have been delivering for years. Not all schools, and not enough outside London and the south of England. But the fact is that getting high grades is always going to matter to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. And now, more state school students are in with a shout.
The second reason is where Stormzy comes in – and not just because of the money he’s invested. It’s about social pressure to become more diverse – pressure from Stormzy and people like David Lammy.
British taxpayers pay a lot of money to Oxford and Cambridge. It’s not unreasonable for them to expect that both universities should look as much as they possibly can like the country that pays for them. And that message seems to be getting through.
There’s still a long way to go but the “Stormzy effect” is getting bigger and bigger.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.