UN chief Annan in Oxford racism row

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Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, arrives at Oxford University this week to collect an honorary degree ­ a personal coup and a much welcomed honour for the UN and its humanitarian work. But the event will be marred by angry protests from students who are accusing Oxford of racism ­ and Mr Annan of siding with the university, writes Robert Verkaik.

Five of the university's biggest ethnic minority societies have written to Mr Annan asking him to postpone his visit until a time when the university has changed some of its "unacceptable practices which diminish human dignity".

They are angry at the treatment of fellow student Nadeem Ahmed who claims he was a victim of racial discrimination when he was asked to leave Oxford University's Oriental Institute after being made to sit "flawed" exams.

The case has become a cause célèbre, supported by the Irish poet and Oxford don Tom Paulin, and the founders of the Institute of Race Relations, Sir Michael and Lady Dummett.

Later this year the university will find itself in court, accused by Mr Ahmed of being institutionally racist. The protesters, who are planning to picket the degree ceremony, say the case will be the first to test the university's procedures for dealing with racial issues.

But so far the Secretary-General has refused to postpone his visit. He has angered the students by telling them in a letter that he is confident Oxford will find an "appropriate way of ensuring that its procedures are not contaminated by racism". In reply to Mr Annan's letter, the Oxford societies, representing Africans, Asians and Arabs, said they were "surprised" by his remarks.

They said: "While it is reasonable for the university to defend itself in the court, it is not entirely clear why the UN would want to issue a statement indicating that the university 'will find an appropriate way of ensuring that its procedures are not contaminated by racial discrimination'." The students say that it is clear that the university has failed in this respect.

Mr Ahmed joined Hertford College, Oxford, to take a MPhil course in medieval Arabic in October 1998. But in June 1999 he was asked to take informal tests in Arabic, which Mr Ahmed said he was told would have no impact on his academic career. Of the three students asked to sit these exams, a white student passed and Mr Ahmed and another Asian student failed. Mr Ahmed was told he must sit another test, which the university said he had again failed.

Earlier this year Thames Valley Police were called into investigate claims by Mr Ahmed that he had been sent racist emails from fellow students after he began his legal action.

Yesterday an Oxford spokesman said: "The university not only values the presence of, and contribution from, the very wide range of nationalities and cultural backgrounds from which its members are drawn, but also regards that diversity as essential to its well-being and development."