The question of race in the staffroom

Ethnic minority lecturers find it hard to get the better jobs because they don't belong to the right networks.
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The Independent Online
In the dock for their treatment of women, universities are now coming under pressure to tackle the disadvantage faced by ethnic minorities. Last week, Education Secretary David Blunkett said he was "deeply concerned" about equal opportunities in higher education and called on the higher education funding council to ensure that all institutions have equal opportunities policy statements. He made specific reference to "progress on race equality for staff".

Following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, trade unions and race equality watchdogs are calling on universities to set targets for the recruitment, retention and promotion of ethnic minorities, broken down by department, and to monitor that progress is being made. "My feeling is there is too much complacency about," says Paul Mackney, the general secretary of the lecturers' union, NATFHE. "The critical issue is targets. If the police force, the army and the senior civil service can do it, so can the universities."

David Triesman, the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), agrees, arguing that the targets should be open and the monitoring externally verifiable. And he wants to see ethnic minorities promoted to the highest levels. "It is vital that we start seeing black vice-chancellors," he says. "Unless it becomes obvious that people can make it to the top of the institution, it will always look like too steep a hill to climb."

At present there are no black vice-chancellors in the United Kingdom, though there have been a couple in the past. There are two ethnic minority principals of further education colleges. Blacks suffer from a lack of promotion opportunities and from being employed on fixed-term contracts. They feel excluded from a world in which jobs are won through informal networks.

The unions met university employers on Monday to press for change in the first meeting of a new working party on equal opportunities. Last week, NATFHE held a conference on the issue. And the week before, the AUT took a look at its own practices.

A report, Ethnicity and Employment in Higher Education, published by the Policy Studies Institute, found that one in four ethnic minority academics complained of discrimination. Fifteen per cent said the same about promotion and almost one in five reported racial harassment by staff or students. The report also found:

n Ethnic minorities with nine or more years of service were half as likely as their white peers to be professors.

n Ethnic minorities form more than 6 per cent of academic staff but are concentrated in fixed-term posts.

n Nearly half of ethnic minorities are on fixed-term contracts compared to a third of their white peers.

Universities and higher education colleges were found to be doing little about this state of affairs. One-third did not have a racial equality policy. Four out of 10 of these did not cover recruitment, half did not cover career progression and six out of 10 did not cover contract status.

Earlier this month the unions met the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), the Standing Conference of Principals and the Commission on University Career Opportunity to look at what could be done. As a result of that meeting, the vice-chancellors and unions have agreed to organise discussions in every institution in the country so that universities and colleges can draw up their own equality programme.

It is thought that universities are uneasy about target-setting and monitoring because it would enable league tables to be drawn up comparing one institution with another.

Joe Charlesworth, senior policy officer with the Commission for Racial Equality, understands universities' concerns about league tables, but believes it is useful to compare one institution with another. "They certainly ought to be publishing data," he says. "And they should make statements about targets."

But he also thinks the vice-chancellors' committee could do more. The CVCP has the opportunity to take the initiative on target-setting and monitoring, he argues. "They should look regularly at how the sector is performing. The employment profile as shown from one year to the next ought to be one thing on their agenda."

The governing boards of individual universities should also have equal opportunities on their agendas, and be looking regularly at how the university is performing on a number of indicators. "This whole issue has been on the back-burner for too long," he says.


The Extra Hurdles that Cost Aziz Two Jobs

AZIZ (NOT his real name) had been teaching in higher education for 13 years. His experience covered first-degree to doctorate work and he was an active researcher. His publications included chapters in five books, 37 papers, 17 reports and 10 abstracts - all in refereed journals.

He applied for a senior lecturer/ reader job at the university in the North West where he was working. His departmental head replied in writing that he would not be considered because he needed to be in his current post for 12 months in order to qualify. Aziz supplied the proof and during this exchange a white colleague was promoted to the post.

Later, another senior lecturer/ reader job came up. Aziz applied again and was rejected. It was said there were reservations about his publications. The head of department said that he should substantiate his list of publications by attaching a copy of each one. Aziz asked if this was departmental policy. He was told it was not.

Third time round, a white man, in the running for the job which Aziz sought, blew the whistle. The Commission for Racial Equality got involved and Aziz got the job.