Five top grades at A-level were not enough to win a Somalian girl a place, as university admits she was ‘disadvantaged’ by their admissions process
Oxford University has admitted that it bungled when it failed to offer an interview to a bright black student from one of Britain’s most deprived areas.
Somalian-born Fatima Yusuf, 19, had applied to study medicine at Merton College after obtaining the highest possible grades in five A-level subjects and 11 A* grades in her GCSEs. She was penalised by the university because she took five of her GCSEs as a 13-year-old — an achievement that would normally have indicated academic strength.
However, as she gained the remainder of her GCSEs at a more normal age, the university’s admissions department disregarded her results because they had not been taken in a single sitting. It now recognises this was a mistake.
The university also marked her down because she went to an obscure college in east London and it could not find any results for the institution to compare Fatima with her fellow students.
Fatima was forced to appeal and the university conceded that she had been “disadvantaged” by its admissions process. As a result, she was given an interview but still failed to gain a place. Fatima, who lives in Edmonton, north London, said this weekend: “I didn’t want preferential treatment, but I wanted fair treatment and I don’t think I got it. ”
Fatima’s father, Bashir, said: “Fatima was a beacon of hope for the Somali community and an example of what you can achieve.
“The feeling in the community now is that Oxford is off limits because they’ve seen what happened to Fatima and they see what looks like an elitist institution where people from humble backgrounds are not welcome.”
Oxford’s rejection of Fatima has emerged after David Cameron said its admission rate for black students was “disgraceful”. The university hit back, accusing the prime minister of using misleading figures, and pointing out it had invested millions of pounds in trying to attract students from all backgrounds.
Fatima, the eldest of seven children, was a baby when her parents fled war-torn Somalia in 1992. They settled in Edmonton, where Bashir now works as a manager in a Somalian community centre.
It is a highly disadvantaged area. An Enfield council report in 2009 noted: “In Edmonton the indicators of multiple deprivation have shown that our population experiences low attainment in education, higher levels of crime, low income, poor health, housing problems and a poor quality environment.”
Gang violence is commonplace. Last Sunday, Negus McLean, 15, was stabbed to death there in a gang attack as he tried to protect his younger brother.
Fatima attended her local primary school and went to study at an Islamic boarding school in Nottingham. She was homesick and her family struggled to pay the fees, so she left after a year. With no immediate offer of a suitable state school place, she studied for months on her own despite the noise from her younger siblings in the family’s rented terraced home. “It was difficult because I didn’t have a school, but I went to libraries where it was quieter,” she said. “I enjoyed learning and I was motivated to get qualifications.”
She briefly attended a state school, Kingsmead in Enfield, but did not feel sufficiently challenged. She then went to a private tuition college and achieved five GCSE A*s by the time she was 13.
Fatima then studied for A-levels in the sixth form at Seven Kings high school, a comprehensive in Ilford, Essex. She obtained three A*s in A-levels on top of two A grade A-levels taken at her tuition college before the star system was introduced.
In September 2010, after taking a year out from her studies, she applied to study medicine, making Merton her first choice. She also applied for a place at University College London and King’s College London.
A trip to Somalia five years earlier had inspired her choice of career. She said: “I saw the impact of the civil war, the death and destruction, and people lying on the streets without medical care. It made me think that if I did become a doctor, I would be able to help.”
On November 30, she was told by Oxford that she was not being invited for interview, based on her GCSE results and her scores for a BioMedical Admission Test used to assess potential medical students.
She appealed and her father alerted David Lammy, the former universities minister who has highlighted the challenges faced by ethnic minorities applying for university. Oxford admitted in December that it had erred in not offering Fatima an interview.
It transpired that her GCSE results had not even been considered. An email from preclinical medicine admissions admitted that “the assessment of your application was conducted without reference to your GCSE performance” and explained that this was partly because her exams had not been taken at “a single sitting” and partly because the university had been unable to find any published results for her tuition college.
The email, seen by The Sunday Times, added: “The fact that your GCSEs have been achieved at a number of sittings is, in your case, an indication of academic strength rather than weakness and the results that you have achieved must be viewed as excellent in any context.”
Fatima’s GCSE results were in fact better than the average GCSE results of students who were offered a place to read medicine in 2010. According to Oxford’s own figures, the average candidate had 9-10 A* grades at GCSE, compared with Fatima’s 11.
It conceded that its approach “may have disadvantaged” Fatima and she was offered interviews. However, less than a week after the interviews she was told she was not being offered a place. Her experience is reminiscent of the case of Laura Spence, a state school student whose rejection for a place to study medicine at Oxford University in 2000 caused a political storm.
Paul Kelley, headmaster of Monkseaton high school on Tyneside, Spence’s former school, said: “I think the admissions system in many ways has not moved on in the last decade. In America, top universities hunt this kind of person down.”
Fatima’s case has emerged as Britain’s leading universities face a challenge over their record in encouraging ethnic minorities. When Fatima was in the midst of her application to Oxford, Lammy released figures which he said showed that 21 out of Oxbridge’s 69 colleges had admitted no black students in the previous year. Merton had not accepted a black student for the five years before 2010, he said.
Oxford said it had taken 27 black undergraduates and that 19% of its intake are from ethnic minorities — higher than the population as a whole. The university believes it is being unfairly criticised and is working to broaden its intake. Applications from state schools have risen by 80% over the past decade.
Despite some success stories, Oxford’s own analysis shows that a lower percentage of applicants from a number of ethnic minorities are accepted than white applicants. In 2010 black African applicants had an average success rate of 6.7%, while white applicants had a 24.1% success rate. The university argues that part of the problem is that many black applicants choose to apply to its most over-subscribed courses, where competition is fiercest. Nearly 30% of black applicants to Oxford University want to study medicine.
Oxford says attainment at school is the single biggest barrier. In 2009, 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford compared with 452 black students.
Fatima, who won a place to read medicine at UCL is not bitter but believes Oxford should scrutinise its admissions procedures to ensure its equality policies are properly implemented.
Oxford said in a statement: “We do not discriminate in favour of or against anyone on the basis of race or any other non-academic factor.
“Clearly, the candidate in question is academically excellent. However, there were 1,472 applicants this year for only 152 places to study medicine at Oxford, and in the academic judgment of six or more medical experts there were at least 152 other candidates who demonstrated even higher ability and potential through the selection process.”
Additional reporting: Francesca Angelini