When Dinah Rose QC takes up her role as principal of Magdalen College, Oxford in September she will have more on her mind than the deer park. Tucked away on her list might be some scrutiny of why Magdalen, the alma mater of Lords Denning and Sumption, is one of the lowest-performing colleges at the university. Not in the Norrington Table, the ranking of academic performance by college, but in something rather more socially significant; the diversity of the student body.

Magdalen has the lowest proportion of BAME students in Oxford, with only 28 of its 232 admissions between 2016 and 2018 categorised as BAME. While Magdalen College is on the higher side of application from BAME candidates (294) it has the lowest proportion of BAME admissions (11 per cent).

Mansfield and Magdalen sit at opposite ends of the diversity league table

Like it or not, Oxford is a feeder for talent at the commercial Bar, which, by the way, is hardly burdened with a glut of female applicants – indeed with this in mind, a group of leading sets joined forces last year to publicise career options at the commercial Bar among Oxbridge students. But when it comes to BAME candidates, the pipeline problem is even more acute. The country’s most prestigious sets – Brick Court, Fountain Court, One Essex Court, Essex Court, Blackstone and 3VB – have between them 562 barristers of whom only 8 per cent are BAME. The industry average is nearer 13 per cent. There are only four barristers of black heritage at the Magic Circle bar – Brick Court’s Harry Matovu QC (Balliol, Oxford), Essex Court’s Daniel Oudkerk QC (Bristol), Fountain Court’s Natasha Bennett (Trinity, Cambridge) and 3VB’s Teniola Onabanjo (Merton, Oxford).

Oxford law students from 2016-2018 lack diversity

Across Oxford, BAME admissions to the law degree are eye-catchingly low. Of the 112 BAME law students at the university between 2016 and 2018, the large majority were either Asian or mixed heritage students. Only 12 black students were admitted to Oxford’s law school in three years.

Because Oxford does not operate a centralised admissions system, tackling the BAME issue therefore has to come from individual colleges. See Lady Margaret Hall’s groundbreaking pre-degree foundation year aimed at talented students from underrepresented backgrounds, or the astonishingly successful outreach efforts made by Mansfield College – whose principal Helen Mountfield QC was a contemporary of Dinah Rose as a history undergraduate at Magdalen and who has been an outspoken advocate of diversity in admissions. Indeed, Magdalen and Mansfield provide a neat illustration of the choices available for self-governing colleges – and, indeed, the class distinctions between them. Mansfield’s student body is 90 per cent state-school educated compared to 50 per cent at Magdalen.

Mountfield’s college, Mansfield, had one of the lowest rates of BAME applications (159) but it had the highest rate of BAME admission between 2016 and 2018 (23 per cent). 77 per cent of students taking a place at Mansfield College were white, while 89 per cent of admissions to Magdalen were white. Mansfield is impoverished in Oxford terms, with just a £14.5m endowment compared to £273.2m at Magdalen, but punches above its weight in academic success, coming fifth in the Norrington Table in 2019 – just one place behind Magdalen. A diverse student body has clearly not led to a diminution in standards at Mansfield, but if Rose wants to move the dial at Magdalen, then it will be a long haul.

Welcome to your new, early-morning intel, available exclusively to subscribers. Horizon aims at the long view, drawing on The Lawyer’s data and research to pinpoint emerging trends. It’s data-rich, strategic food for thought about competing in the business of law. Keep a look-out for the email at 6:47am daily