It's a painful time to be in the minority

November 16, 2001

Racism and discrimination against ethnic-minority staff infect academia. Helen Hague reports on initiatives to address the problem and speaks to some of its victims.

When black students see that black staff who teach them are not getting the breaks, the message gets through that in many institutions, black staff are seen as less valuable. Some can see that the people they could be looking at as role models are having an actively bad time. This sends a very negative message when they are forming ideas about who is seen as an appropriate trainer for professional people."

Gargi Bhattacharyya, a theology lecturer at Birmingham University, believes there is a correlation between the treatment of ethnic minority academics and encouraging ethnic-minority students - who now make up some 12.5 per cent of the student population, compared with 11.9 per cent two years ago - to enter academia. Students, says Bhattacharyya, who chairs the Association of University Teachers' equal opportunities committee and sits on its national executive, "soon pick up on which members of staff have real clout and are more valued, though it is not explicitly stated".

The Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit is investigating the participation of ethnic minorities in the labour market - and is very interested in how the experience of black staff in universities impacts on students. Anecdotal evidence abounds of students doing a third-year project being "nudged away" from the one ethnic minority staff member in the department, of students realising that, although they have a very good relationship with their black tutor, that tutor is perhaps not best placed to advance and protect their interests.

Bhattacharyya is heartened by the PIU's interest and believes its report, due out next year, will further spur the sector to deliver on equality. Unions are also using meetings with the fledgling Equality Challenge Unit this month to hammer home the need for transparency in appointments and promotions in the drive towards fairer treatment.

More pressure for change will come when the code of practice to the amended Race Relations Act comes on stream. A draft goes out to consultation in December. The act puts a general duty on public bodies to promote racial equality and good race relations - and take whatever steps necessary to ensure current practices do not disadvantage any racial groups. Higher education institutions that fall short will face investigation and non-compliance orders to get their house in order. If they fail to do so, they could find themselves in the county court.

This all sounds encouraging, as do recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures showing non-white academics now make up at least 4 per cent of the professariat and 5 per cent of senior lecturer grades, compared with 6 per cent of the general United Kingdom labour market. However, the figures are skewed because many of the ethnic minority academics included come from overseas and 10 per cent of academics decline to divulge their ethnicity.

Figures for British black and Asian academics in these grades would no doubt continue to disappoint, says Tariq Modood, a vociferous advocate of target-setting in academia. Heidi Mirza, professor of race equality at Middlesex University - and, uniquely, one of three black female professors in a single institution - says the figures tell little of black experience. "For most black academics, higher education is not a progressive place to work. It is a complex fragmented picture, with individuals facing isolation, and often unspoken pressures of operating in a white-dominated culture."

Ethnic minority staff frequently find themselves clustered at the bottom of pay scales and, though the culture of short-term contracts and hourly paid work is spreading through the sector, black and Asian staff are more likely than their white counterparts to find themselves without full-time jobs on the university payroll. For veteran black academic Stuart Hall, emeritus professor at the Open University, the problem creates a vicious circle since low pay, low status and the endemic contract culture are unlikely to attract young dynamic black talent. "You won't stop young people from ethnic minorities wanting to go to university because their aspirations are up. But I don't think a lot will stay around and teach in it because they think it's a mug's game.''

Hall contrasts the culture of growing workloads and short-term contracts with the stability of a full-time job that allowed him to write his groundbreaking books in the 1960s. The sector has become a far less congenial place to make a career. Bhattacharyya says her "dynamic black friends" in Birmingham, working in local government, the voluntary or private sector, are always trying to coax her away from academe. "They think I'm wasting myself, ask me why I put up with it all, and say I could get far more money, respect and autonomy outside. I'm sure they're right," she says.

Both the Bett inquiry and the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence case highlighted the need for cultural change to counter overt and more embedded racism, such as blocks on promotion as well as the small, unthinking exclusions from departmental decision-making and staff-room bonhomie. The THES has talked extensively to minority ethnic staff through black networks set up by lecturers' union Natfhe and the AUT, many of whom understandably prefer to remain anonymous.

One Asian man, who has worked in the same department for five years, and has yet to be promoted from junior lecturer, speaks of "blatantly racist" behaviour from a white colleague. While many colleagues have been supportive, he says his department head has refused to take his complaint seriously. He also feels that as the lone non-white staff member, he has to "fight twice as hard as others and justify myself all the time" when it comes to striving for a more equitable share of work responsibilities.

An Asian lecturer in an old university still feels that colleagues do not accept him as an equal even though he has worked there for nearly a decade. He has been overlooked for promotion three times, but does not feel confident enough to make a formal complaint. One black woman, the only non-white staff member in her department, is so fed up with feeling excluded and uncomfortable at work that she is thinking of leaving the sector.

Moreover, the flurry of initiatives, drives and reports to redress racial inequalities have provoked a backlash, not often talked about, from some white staff who feel threatened and excluded by all the talk of multiculturalism and inclusivity. One senior black British lecturer says he has been "frozen out" by white colleagues since being promoted last year. "There's been a palpable change - as if they don't think I deserve to be in the job when some of them are on short-term contracts. They try to undermine me by taking pops at political correctness. One said 'what about straight white men then' to another by the coffee machine in a pseudo-jokey way, making sure I could hear. It gets very wearing."

This backs up Bhattacharyya's contention that, in the midst of change, it is a "painful time to be a black academic". Doubly so for some. Since September 11, some Asian academics, particularly those working in Islamic studies, Middle Eastern politics or researching certain nationalist groups, have felt a heightened sense of vulnerability to Islamophobia, though there have been no reports of overt harassment. As one Asian academic put it: "If you are of a certain ethnicity, the pressure is on to speak in a certain way or not at all."

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