Last week, The Guardian published an article suggesting that white students have a 20% better chance of being accepted to study medicine at the University of Cambridge than ethnic minority students with equally good grades. 

The admissions data analyzed in the article, from academic years 2010 through 2012, were released by the University of Cambridge following a freedom of information request. They describe U.K. applicants who chose to reveal their ethnicity on their application forms. The data showed that 329 out of 586 white applicants (56%) who went on to earn three top grades (known as A*s) at A-level received an offer from Cambridge, but among ethnic minorities with three A*s, only 190 of 412 applicants (46%) received an offer, James Ball and Kurien Parel wrote in The Guardian article.

The Guardian did a similar exercise with data from the University of Oxford last month, showing that white students who went on to earn three A*s were 94% more likely to be given the opportunity to study medicine at Oxford than were their counterparts from ethnic minorities. Other competitive fields showed similar patterns.

"The gap has often been explained as being due in large part to the fact that students from ethnic minorities are more likely to apply for the most competitive courses, such as medicine," Ball and Parel wrote. The Guardian found that, indeed, ethnic minorities disproportionately apply for the most competitive subjects, which is likely to reduce their overall chances of success. "But the latest figures, which for the first time break down success rates by both ethnicity and grades for some of Oxford's most competitive subjects, cast significant doubt on these long-running explanations."

Both universities denied discrimination and called the data inconclusive. Applicants to both Cambridge and Oxford are selected before their A-level results are known, they argued, and admissions decisions also factor in the results of an aptitude test and an interview. An analysis that looks only at A-level grades "ignores a significant number of relevant variables" and is therefore "superficial," a Cambridge University spokesperson told The Guardian. The two universities reiterated their commitment to recruiting the best students, whatever their backgrounds.

Whatever the explanation, the admissions gap appears to be real. Putting grades aside, The Guardian found that a little more than a quarter of white applicants earned admittance to the University of Oxford; compare that to 17.2% for ethnic minorities. "Differences in success rates between ethnic groups are … something we are continuing to examine carefully for possible explanations," an Oxford spokesperson told The Guardian.

In companion testimony, former Oxford student Azita Chellappoo suggested that lower social class is one of the factors at play. "The Oxford interview process, by its very nature, favours those with the confidence and preparation that comes with going to a top private school," she wrote. She deplored a lack of awareness of racial issues among staff and students and an unwillingness to tackle the issue.

"The usual reactions to the problem of under-representation are to dismiss or ignore it," Chellappoo wrote. "If the goal is to recruit the best students and get the best out of them, hand-waving about policies of inclusion is not good enough. We have to push for the world we want to live in, and the first step is recognising that we have a problem."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300048