Blackstone `appalled' by racism claim

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The Independent Online
A GOVERNMENT minister accused of racial discrimination by a senior academic said yesterday she was astonished and appalled by the allegations.

Baroness Blackstone, an education minister, said she utterly rejected allegations that she had discriminated against Chandra Sharma, a maths professor, on grounds of race.

She told an industrial tribunal yesterday: "Throughout my working life I have always been committed to the achievement of equal opportunities at work for all staff."

The allegations against Tessa Blackstone relate to her time as master of Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, a post she held between 1987 and 1997. The minister with special responsibility for higher education is accused by Professor Sharma of failing to award him performance- related pay because he was born in India.

Central to the allegations was the system used by the college to decide pay awards to senior academics. Since 1994 the college had used an independent pay-review panel to assess applications for performance-related pay.

The tribunal in London heard that Professor Sharma and other applicants had been asked to list their achievements relating to research, teaching, administrative duties and any other contribution they had made to the college.

In a statement to the tribunal, the minister said Professor Sharma's application had been based entirely on his work editing and writing for a mathematics publication, The Journal of Natural Geometry. Lady Blackstone said she made inquiries into the academic value of the journal, only to learn that senior mathematics academics had not heard of it. She could find copies only in the library at Oxford University.

"When I was asked to give the panel my initial advice I said that Professor Sharma's application did not draw attention to any significant achievements as required by the guidelines, and that therefore no additional payments could be made.

"On the issue of his pay generally, Professor Sharma's salary was within the middle range band, which we felt was appropriate. The panel decided in the light of the above considerations not to award Professor Sharma an increase. I agreed with this decision entirely."

She said that other applicants, who displayed more contribution to college life than had Professor Sharma, had also been refused pay awards.

Professor Sharma, 65, a member of Birkbeck College since 1962, was paid pounds 39,500 when he made his most recent pay application in 1997. The tribunal heard that when he left the university last month he received a lump sum of about pounds 300,000.

The Professor, from Ealing, west London, has accused both the college and Lady Blackstone of persistently overlooking pay increases based on merit. He previously told the inquiry: "My case is that it was Lady Blackstone who was hostile to me. There were people in the college who thought that they were doing her a service by being nasty to me."

The tribunal also heard from Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the college's governors, who also denied Professor Sharma's allegation that he had suffered because of his ethnic background.

Questioning Lady Blackstone, Professor Sharma referred to a meeting they had in 1996 to discuss the possibility of his early retirement. He said the baroness had been concerned that because he no longer taught or received additional research grants the professor's continuing career was to the college's financial disadvantage.

In one exchange Professor Sharma accused the minister of threatening him with compulsory redundancy. When she denied this he countered: "My Lady, you are under oath. Please look into my eyes and say you did not threaten me with compulsory redundancy."

She answered immediately: "No, can I say looking into Professor Sharma's eyes ... I neither threatened redundancy nor did I say I would cut his budget."

The professor also questioned the integrity of mathematics examinations within British academia. Explaining why he had decided not to sit on examination boards he said: "The examinations are rigged in India and they are becoming increasingly rigged [in Britain] and so I have been trying to keep out of that." He went on to say that one former academic at Birkbeck had leaked test questions to his students before examinations.

The tribunal continues.