US civil rights leader the Rev Jesse Jackson, speaking at the launch in Oxford, England, of a programme aimed at increasing the number of black students in higher education, has challenged universities to reflect the diversity of society - writes Martin Revis.
"If a university is not diverse, it is out of step with God's plan. It cannot exist on an island and be credible," Jackson said at the 14 November launch of the ASPIRE initiative at Regent's Park College, a Baptist institution that is part of the University of Oxford, and one of the partners in the initiative.
ASPIRE will carry out research into the reasons behind the under-representation of black young people in higher education in Britain, and investigate and promote ways to improve their access to universities.
The programme's director, Suke Wolton, pointed out that black British people generally are underrepresented in higher education in the UK, and that this is particularly the case with black Caribbeans. She said that of the 10 000 applications from Britain to Oxford University in 2006, only 31 came from the country's Black Caribbean community.
In Britain, Wolton added, 123 universities have fewer than 1 percent of Black Caribbean students.
To help remedy the situation, ASPIRE is to organize day schools for black school students to encourage them to think about higher education. An "e-mentoring" scheme is to be launched on the Internet to enable black pupils to give one another support, and receive advice.
The other partners in ASPIRE are Canterbury Christ Church University and the racial justice team of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
At the launch of ASPIRE, and addressing an audience that included university staff and students, including a number of Oxford's black undergraduates, Jackson, a former US presidential candidate, called for a positive attitude by black students, the universities and future employers.
He said black students who did get to university had three obligations: to do well, not to look down on those who did not get in, and to help bring other black young people into higher education.
"Do not exhibit contempt for the common people and poison your real worth," the former US presidential candidate advised black students.
Referring to employers, Jackson urged a policy of what he called "positive inclusion" rather than positive discrimination. The latter amounted to reverse discrimination when a black person was chosen instead of a better-qualified white, he said.
Michael Isola, aged 19, a Londoner of Nigerian descent, and who is studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, said at the ASPIRE launch that he faced a steep learning curve both academically and socially on arriving at the university, but it was a challenge worth facing.
He believed that there were others like him who could benefit from an Oxford education but were put off because they thought it was for "posh white people from private schools."
Nadine Simpson, aged 21, who is about to graduate with an Oxford theology degree, said she came from an Afro-Caribbean community where no one went to university. She had wanted something different for herself and to be in a position where she could help others to improve their lives, so she determined that she would go to one of Britain's best universities.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]