Is AJ Tracey’s Oxford University fund what Black students need?

18 October 2022

British rapper AJ Tracey launched his fund yesterday, with a view to address the ‘historic underrepresentation’ of Black students at Oxford University.[1] Though the criteria are vague, it involves a £40,000 per year donation in partnership with St Peter’s college, which has had Black undergraduates since its foundation (1929).


Despite good intentions, AJ Tracey’s expectations of backlash were met. The objections can be roughly grouped into: the belief the fund is a PR stunt for both the University and rapper and the belief that the funds are misdirected. While these claims are credible, the discussion is far more nuanced and should be approached with caution as it runs the risk of obscuring what is ultimately a positive endeavor.


Some Black commentators argued that students who stand a chance of attending Oxbridge already have social capital that will place them in good stead for life, and that there are far more young people for whom this goal was never attainable, and have a greater need for the support. Cambridge alumni Jason Okundaye, for instance, argues that Oxbridge representation is ‘not even top 10 of educational issues facing black kids in this country’. With limited funds we find ourselves in a problematic ‘either’ ‘or’ situation: money can be given to those on their Oxbridge journeys OR those who slip through the net at a younger age. Unfortunately, it seems these are mutually exclusive at the moment. Also, it is false to assume that Black Oxbridge students’ social capital negates them from needing further assistance. The financial burden on these students, who are strongly advised not to balance employment with their academic studies, could undermine the benefits such a prestigious education affords. AJ Tracey’s fund seeks to address this.


From a PR perspective, the guaranteed success stories of funds such as AJ Tracey’s are easier for people to associate oneself with than the unknown territory of earlier education. Engaging with younger students who lack educational, social and cultural capital may hold greater value for the wider Black population. Having said that, we cannot ignore the fact that Oxbridge graduates ‘have always compromised between 30 and 40% of the people in Who’s who’ list, which demonstrates these Universities’ ability to propel students into elite positions of power and influence.[2] Bolstering the chances of Black talent to reach such positions is therefore very important. Nevertheless, the hope that their success will lead to further Black achievement, rests on a belief in the trickle-down effect, which many are skeptical about. However, fellow rapper Stormzy created a similar scholarship with Cambridge University in 2018, which successfully attracted more applications from the traditionally underrepresented group in what’s known as ‘The Stormzy Effect’. The numbers of Black British admissions rose from a mere 58 in 2017 to 137 in 2020.[3]


Clearly, these opportunities do encourage Black talent to enter traditionally White spaces and set new precedents. But do these only affirm the elitism of Oxbridge, rather than challenge the status quo? Journalist and author Symeon Brown, described the fund as ‘elitism in the name of equality’, calling for focus to be placed on the typically less prestigious Universities which Black working-class students disproportionately attend, such as Bradford and Aston. Again, this overlooks the influential destinations many Oxbridge graduates reach, and given the institutional barriers which do exist, isn’t it worth operating within these parameters and breaking them down internally?


There was even criticism that focusing on any University privileges one notion of success. While there are other indicators of achievement, a degree’s impact on life opportunities and social mobility cannot be underestimated. Graduates earn an average of £7000 more per year than their non-graduate counterparts, resulting in a lifetime earnings gap of £321,000.[4] Therefore, it does make sense to support students on paths which lead to higher earnings, particularly if they are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, which 1/3 of Black children are.[5]


While Oxbridge do have the money to create change themselves, and earlier intervention at secondary school level would certainly be transformative for Black students, AJ Tracey’s fund will attract Black students to apply to the elite institution and help them feel supported in their journey. The nuances are complex, but in a world where Black men face criticism from all angles, shouldn’t we celebrate this endeavor to improve the life chances of Black youth? Rather than question why AJ Tracey focused his efforts on Oxford, we should question why it takes two London rappers to raise the opportunities for Black people, rather than the institutions themselves… Even the conversation this has sparked regarding the educational opportunities and barriers met by Black students is a positive outcome and will hopefully lead to larger structural changes.


Millie Finch






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