One-third of Oxford colleges admitted no black British students in 2015. Oriel admitted one black British student over a five-year period. What explains these numbers? The Labour MP David Lammy believes that Oxford and Cambridge are engaging in social apartheid; others have blamed the admissions system, suggesting that the early application deadline and the interview process discourage many students from applying. Still others note that black and minority ethnic candidates tend to apply to newer universities in Britain’s big cities – a view that holds black British students responsible for their absence at Oxford and Cambridge.

What is missing here is the experience of the small number of BME students at Oxbridge. A few years ago I commissioned a team of researchers to interview 15 undergraduates at Oxford who were born in the UK to immigrant parents, and 52 of their white peers born to British parents. The results have led me to conclude that the massive under-representation of BME students at Oxford is related to a university culture that does not welcome them, and that BME students share their experiences with prospective undergraduates, which in turn discourages them from applying.

Many BME students the researchers spoke with felt ill-prepared for study at Oxford, despite a tutorial system that should have brought students from lower-performing comprehensives up to speed, as well as other resources, including funds to provide additional training to weaker students. Our interviewees often blamed themselves. Asked to explain the under-representation of black students on campus, one young woman said:

If black people are going to come here and feel left out, then maybe they shouldn’t come here … I personally don’t think I should have got in! Because I’ve had such a hard time. I probably would have been a lot happier in another university. I feel really left out.

Imagine what she’d have to say to a group of sixth-formers at her comprehensive about whether or not to apply to Oxford.

Formal complaints about racism at Oxford were rarely made. When they were, they usually fell on deaf ears. One interviewee explained that social life at Oxford made it impossible to accuse peers of racism:

If there is a group of friends and one of them is black and you pick on that person, and you specifically attack in racial terms as a joke, that’s still racism … You should immediately stop if any individual feels uncomfortable with it.

But it wasn’t straightforward. ‘Will people actually say that they feel uncomfortable,’ he asked, ‘if everyone else is having a laugh?’

Some of the white students we interviewed were adamant that there was no racism at Oxford. One told me complaints about racism were ‘crying wolf’:

And by that I mean doing what they do best, which is, you know, playing the race card, saying: ‘Is it because I’m black?’ That really annoys me, because it is so unfounded in England … You see racism so much in other countries, which we don’t have here.

She gave us that interview in a year in which a group of students attended a party at Oxford in blackface, and another party was themed ‘Bring a Fit Jew’; some of the guests arrived carrying moneybags.

How do you increase the number of black British students at Oxford and Cambridge? Not with blackface parties. An inclusive, welcoming culture – institutionally supported – is the key. But this can only happen with a quorum of ethnic minorities, including black British. Admissions staff need high sensitivity to racial bias, and possibly training, to attenuate the difficulties that minorities seem to experience as they go to interview. Bridge programmes, before the start of the academic year, would be welcome for students with a shakier training than many of their peers. Above all, institutional support for the wellbeing and academic success of minorities needs to be built out into university life. At the moment this commitment exists largely on paper. Only when Oxford and Cambridge succeed in including young Britons from all walks of life will they be what they say they are: world-class universities.