Do elite educational institutions serve as conduits for discrimination and elitism? This question has not become irrelevant in societies around the world even though access to education is being perceived as a right and not a privilege. The worry that global centres of higher learning - renowned universities, for instance - may not be representative enough has been augmented after the publication of the first-ever report on undergraduate admissions to Oxford University. The data are quite disturbing. They reveal that the total percentage of the university's application offer rate to black students was a meagre 18 per cent between 2015-17. The figure is a marginal improvement: in 2013, the share of admission for black and 'minority ethnic' students was 13.9 per cent. Contrastingly, out of every 100 applicants who are white, 27 per cent - in other words, over a quarter - received admission offers during the period that was surveyed. The division on ethnic lines is palpable; but that is not the only problem. The doors of the university are, evidently, more open to applicants from privileged backgrounds. It has been reported that the top 12 independent schools - private schools that charge exorbitant fees - send more wards to Oxford than all the State comprehensive schools put together.
Of course, Oxford University is not the only institution beset with exclusion. It seems that it merely sets standards for other universities to emulate. Some years ago, an all-India survey had found that Muslims and scheduled tribes had pitiful enrolment rates in higher education in the country. The trend suggests that educational institutions continue to mirror the persisting social cleavages. The irony cannot be greater. For one of the founding principles of centres of higher learning is, ostensibly, to make education a truly public resource. What is shocking is the inertia among elite universities to meet this goal. Lack of funds is not the issue here. Several colleges in Oxford and Cambridge are flush with endowments. Yet, Oxford University has ruled out the setting up of new colleges to address the paucity in diversity. The resistance points to another discomfiting inference. As an idea, the universities are ordained to be inclusive. But as institutions, their policies are crafted in such a manner so as to preserve entrenched differentiations along the lines of class and community. The shadow thus falls between the idea and the reality.