Sunday, 1 May 2011

Why Oxbridge Graduates Are Like Second Hand Cars

On Monday David Lammy, with the help of a few Freedom of Information requests, revealed the lack of black people studying and working at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. For example just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year, Merton College, Oxford has not admitted a black student in five years and at Robinson College, Cambridge, a white applicant is four times more likely to be successful than a black applicant.
While this is interesting you may well ask what this has to do with the TVCollective and diversity in the television industry.
A while ago I had a “friendly chat over a cup of coffee” with a prospective employer. We all know the scenario it used to be called “trial by sherry” but in these austerity cash strapped media industry times I think it would be more accurate to rename it “judgement over cappuccinos”. While we traded small talk you could tell the little probing questions that were testing my suitability for the position. The one question that stuck in my memory was “what university did you go to?” After telling him I went to Sussex I found myself justifying why Sussex was a good university. “Helen Boaden (Head of BBC News & Current Affairs) went to Sussex and Julian Bellamy (Head of Channel 4 Programming) went to Sussex”. I felt I was in the university equivalent of a VW Golf advertisement. “It sounds like a Golf… it looks like a Golf… it drives like a Golf”, but the message of the advert is “if the car you are buying isn’t actually a Golf why bother – just buy a Golf”. In my “judgement over cappuccinos” Oxbridge is the Golf everything else just “sounds like Oxbridge”.
A disproportionate number of television’s senior managers to went to Oxbridge, from Mark Thompson to Jay Hunt, as well as producers. I do not have the hard facts like David Lammy, but anecdotally I have lost count how many CVs I have seen with an Oxbridge College on them. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if black people are not getting into Oxbridge it will have a knock on effect to our progress in an industry which disproportionately favours Oxbridge graduates.
But why does TV seem to have this love affair with these two universities? To understand how Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominate you first have to understand the market for second-hand cars.
In 1970 George Akerlof wrote a seminal economics paper on why brand new cars lose their value the minute you drive them off the forecourt. It is all about the fact that when you buy a second hand car it is very difficult to tell if you are buying a car in good condition or a complete “lemon”. Buyers assume the worse and treat every car like a “lemon” and the price of all second-hand cars drop.
While Akerlof went on to win the Noble Prize for Economics we all know that some cars hold their value better than others. Often when you are buying a second-hand car you are not trying to buy the best car you are just trying to avoid buying a “lemon”. To go back to the Golf advert, Golfs are famous for keeping their price because their reputation is the vast majority of second hand Golfs are not “lemons”.
It is very difficult in a 40 minute interview for employers to tell if they are employing the best person for the job or a “lemon”. Like buying a second car often an employer is not trying to employ the best person for the job they are just trying to avoid employing a dud. In my experience Oxbridge graduates have the reputation of second-hand Golfs. They might not be the best people for the job but in employing the Oxbridge graduate you are stacking the odds in your favour that you are not getting a complete dud.
By taking this approach TV bosses keep on employing more and more white Oxbridge graduates. The irony is that while this risk averse strategy might help them avoid employing the duds it also means invariably they do not employ the best. There comes a point when just avoiding the lemons is just not good enough TV bosses should have loftier ambitions. Increasing diversity and looking beyond Oxbridge is not about companies being charitable or lowering their standards it is actually the reverse. Increasing the diversity of the work force is about daring to be excellent and reaching for the best.
In reality people are not second hand-cars and universities are not automobile factories. You won’t find a Ferrari coming off the Skoda assembly line but you will find an amazingly talented producer coming out of the University of ‘wherever’. And some of the best people never went to university. While David Lammy’s work in exposing the lack of black people at Oxbridge is excellent I don’t want to wait until those two universities change their entrance procedures for things to start changing in the media industry. TV bosses need to work harder now to identify the best researchers, assistant producers, producers and senior executives regardless of their colour or which university they went to.
(First published on on 10/12/2010)

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