how the 'stormzy effect' is changing the narrative around elite university access

In acknowledging the tireless hard work of Cambridge's African and Caribbean Society, Stormzy has spotlighted the Black students reforming access systems and governance from within.

by Jason Okundaye
31 October 2019, 8:00am

Image via University of Cambridge

This year, 91 Black British students have been admitted to the University of Cambridge, an increase of nearly 50% on the 61 admitted in 2018. From the year I was admitted, 2015, being one of just 38 Black students across the university, that’s a 139% increase.

Historically, every time the topic of Black students admission to Oxbridge hit the news cycle, there was a collective feeling of exhaustion from my friends and I. Because it was always the same thing. A certain politician (no names necessary) sends in an FOI request on the number of Black students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge in a given year. A breakout story, probably in The Guardian. Lots of outrage about how “nothing” is being done to address this underrepresentation. Maybe some committee members of the African and Caribbean Society (ACS) are requested by media outlets to comment on how terrible it all is. No attention paid to the actual initiatives championed by Black students at Cambridge themselves. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I felt profoundly different about this when the most recent news cycle highlighted the increased intake of Black students to Cambridge following the launch of the Stormzy Scholarship. When Stormzy learned of this increase and that it had been dubbed “the Stormzy effect”, his first action was to tweet “there’s no way that this is because of me alone” and instantly credited the efforts of Cambridge’s ACS, commenting that they have played “a massive part” in this.

James Simkins, Access Officer of Cambridge ACS, was especially appreciative of this shout-out. “It’s actually really humbling having been acknowledged and supported by Stormzy, and his work has definitely boosted our access efforts,” he tells me. As James details, Cambridge’s Black student population has always led the way with organising to reform Cambridge admissions. “While Stormzy has been a massive help, we can’t forget the efforts of last year’s committee who completed the access conference, mentorship scheme, and the first ever offer-holders day to really open Cambridge up to African and Caribbean students. A huge number of the 91 Black freshers would have been involved in one or more of those schemes.”

To Stormzy’s credit, the praise he has given these students feels so unlike previous coverage, which has largely framed the issue of Black access to elite universities as the conquest of singular political crusades (again, no names necessary). Rather than “the Stormzy effect” festering as a narrative that eclipses the tireless work of Black students to reform the access systems and internal governance of the institutions they attend, the artist has placed the narrative directly in students’ own hands.

"Rather than the 'Stormzy effect' festering as a narrative that eclipses the tireless work of Black students to reform the access systems and internal governance of the institutions they attend, the artist has placed the narrative directly in students’ own hands."

A large problem with media and public interest in Black student access to elite universities is that it so often paints Black students who attend these universities as exceptions to the rule. The media, after all, loves to fetishise ideas about Black success. When John Boyega scored his breakthrough performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens back in 2015, the media was quick to profile him as someone who rose from the ashes of Peckham’s destitution and gang violence. The problem with exceptionalism is that by placing those “successes” at the centre of our social and political analyses of Black communities, we obscure the realities of those most marginalised by the system of racism and define them as unsuccessful for not meeting a rigid criteria of excellent Blackness. We adopt a neoliberal mentality which claims that the structural and social issues which disproportionately affect Black people in this country will be overcome through individual ‘excellence’, often aligning with academic and corporate success.

We can see these conversations about individual Black exceptionalism everywhere. When the east London state comprehensive school, Brampton Manor, announced securing 41 Oxbridge offers, a number of Black and brown students from the school were paraded on Good Morning Britain back in January. Piers Morgan remarked to the students how, in a year when young people are inundated by “crime stories, ravaging the cities and so on”, they were instead “a brilliant illustration of what young people can achieve when they put their minds to it”. Not only does this reduce problems plaguing Black youth of the capital -- such as poverty and knife crime -- down to individual failings of character, as opposed to a failure of state welfare, but it assumes that simply “putting your mind to it” is the recipe for defeating the institutional barriers Black students face from the earliest stages of education. Akintunde Ahmad, a Black alumnus of Ivy League universities Yale and Columbia -- whose brother was incarcerated -- wrote in The Atlantic of how he resents being positioned against his sibling as the “exceptional” one. “There is nothing positive about classifying me as an exception,” he writes. “When a person is exceptional for doing what I have done, the whole system is cruel to its core.”

Stormzy himself has openly spoken about how his educational development was curtailed by the unforgiving punity of school governance which repeatedly gives up on Black students. Recalling on The Jonathan Ross Show last year that he was kicked out of his college for playing a prank on another student, he reflected that he could have achieved greater academic success had the system placed more faith in him. As a guerilla campaign #EducationNotExclusion on London’s underground service documented last year, punitive measures against disadvantaged school children such as detention and exclusion, and a deficit of empathy and support, can negatively affect life outcomes many years down the line. We’ve known for a long time that school exclusions disproportionately affect Black students. Government data from 2016/17 notes that across the broad ethnic groups, Black and Mixed ethnicity pupils face the highest rates of both temporary and permanent exclusions, with Black Caribbean students being permanently excluded at nearly three times the rate of White British students. By aligning himself with narratives like this, as well as supporting students to reach Cambridge, he affirms the message that the difference between Black students who reach ‘academic success’ and those who don’t is often more to do with structural failure, than individual failure.

"The public are often obsessed with hearing fantastical tales of Black students reading their textbooks under the table whilst bullets ricocheted above them. Tales of personal endurance do nothing to encourage dismantling those structures which make education an inequitable institution for Black students."

The Stormzy Scholarship, which covers full tuition fees and provides a maintenance grant to two Black students every year to attend Cambridge, does not name the recipients of the grant so as to protect their privacy. Not only does this allow the two students to enjoy relief from financial burden without hypervisibility and journalists turning up at their doorstep, but it also avoids the problem of voyeurism, where people turn the lives of Black students into human interest stories. The public are often obsessed with hearing fantastical tales of those Black students who were failed by their teachers, or reading their textbooks under the table whilst bullets ricocheted above them. Tales of personal endurance may move you emotionally, but they do nothing to encourage dismantling those structures which make education an inequitable institution for Black students.

In commissioning the book Taking Up Space, by Black Cambridge alumni Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, through the #MerkyBooks publishing imprint, Stormzy has also allowed Black students to avoid framing the conversation of institutional access and educational disparities beyond ideas of individual success or failure, but through real engagement of the systems which constrain and prevent Black students from accessing certain pathways. As the book details -- the university environment presents unique difficulties for Black women and girls. Stormzy has enabled Black students to be honest about their experiences of elite universities, so as to not falsely portray these institutions as some blessed promised land that Black people may find refuge from the plague of social ills.

Current President of Cambridge’s ACS, Wanipa Ndhlovu, also explains how Stormzy has ensured that students are involved in the process at every single stage. “I think from the start he’s always wanted to get involved with students. I think it shows in the fact that when he launched the scholarship, he chose to take a picture with students,” she says. “He came to the Motherland (African and Caribbean heritage) conference last year.” Wanipa, who was on the selection panel for this year’s Stormzy Scholarship, describes it as a process “very much led by Stormzy” but informed by Black students as well. “I think he has that conscious awareness that he, and other people who have tried to do access work, won’t fully grasp the issues at hand without working with us and hearing us out.”

Black students themselves taking ownership of the conversation around access to elite institutions is an important move. 91 Black students have been admitted to Cambridge this year not because there’s specific magic within the Stormzy “effect” but because the rapper’s involvement has ensured that Black students are actively involved in educational strategy, and supported the pre-existing efforts of these students which are too often ignored. After all, you can’t continue to have these conversations about us, without us.

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