How many v-cs are black?

June 18, 1999

The answer is none, and as a black academic you are half as likely as a white colleague to become a professor. Helen Hague reports

Are British universities institutionally racist? There is a lot of statistical evidence to suggest that they are. At the top, there is the simple fact - not a single black or Asian vice-chancellor has ever been appointed, while overall, only 6.5 per cent of academic staff are non-white. Yet 15 per cent of students in universities and colleges come from ethnic minorities.

Now a new study adds to the incriminating evidence - and calls for a radical solution. Professor Tariq Modood and Dr Steve Fenton of Bristol University have produced a report for several leading agencies, including the Commission for Racial Equality and the higher education funding councils. The study not only highlights marked racial inequalities in the employment practices of universities but also suggests that they set targets for recruiting and promoting staff.

The analogy they draw is with women - the pair want to see race equality accorded the same priority as gender equality has enjoyed in universities in recent years. But they stop short of suggesting the quotas and affirmative action policies that have run into such trouble in the United States. Indeed, such quotas are unlawful in Britain.

"We want universities to set targets to achieve race equality," Modood says. "The University of Manchester in 1994 set a target of ensuring that 25 per cent of the members of its decision-making committees would be women by 1997. And the Commission on University Career Opportunity set a target of 15 per cent of women in top academic posts by 2002 and 25 per cent by 2007. Those are the kind of targets we have in mind."

For their report, published today, Modood and Fenton analysed statistical data, surveyed race equality policies and held in-depth discussion groups with ethnic minority staff and research students. What emerges is a picture of how unequal is British higher education in terms of race.

The growth of fixed-term contracts detailed by their report is especially telling. Forty-eight per cent of non-white British academic staff were found to be on fixed-term contracts, compared with 34 per cent of their white British counterparts. The figures for white non-British and non-white, non-British are 61 per cent and 68 per cent respectively.

When it comes to professorships, the gap between white and ethnic minority staff is glaringly apparent. Of those with nine or more years service, 16 per cent of white British staff have become professors - compared with only 9 per cent of ethnic minority British academics. Moreover, according to Modood and Fenton's report, 30 per cent of non-British academics said they felt they had been discriminated against in applying for jobs, and one in three universities does not have a race equality policy in place. One in five ethnic minority respondents said they had had to put up with racial harassment from staff or students.

In group discussions, ethnic minority staff felt the fact that there were so few non-white professors or heads of department sent a discouraging signal to black and Asian students who asked about a career in academia, making it hard to unreservedly recommend it as a career option.

The facts seem stark - but Modood and Fenton's suggestion that the solution is for universities to draw up timetables and targets for appointing and promoting ethnic minority staff may prove controversial - even among ethnic minority staff themselves. In group discussions organised by Modood and Fenton, ethnic minority staff felt that "however well-intentioned positive action or even positive discrimination might be it will always lead to accusations of tokenism, which makes the job harder".

But Modood is keen to draw a firm line between American-style quotas and affirmative action and British-style target-setting and positive action. He says the different approaches are often confused in people's minds. "With target-setting we say we are trying to achieve a certain target and will do what's necessary to help us get to the target, but we will not say that regardless of applicants' qualifications we have to take a fixed number of ethnic minority candidates. The candidates must reach a certain standard."

Anyway, he says, positive action is already taking place in Britain. He points to a 1997 CUCO survey that stated that 31 per cent of universities were using positive action - with nearly half of those providing women-only training and development programmes.

Target-setting focuses on achievable goals, he argues. In contrast, US-style affirmative action is "not sensitive to issues of fairness". Quotas based on ethnic or racial groups are "inefficient and inflexible."

One of the black community's leading figures, Stuart Hall, retired professor of cultural studies at the Open University, agrees. He argues that "quotas just harden the backlash" against ethnic minorities.

Like Modood and Fenton, Hall believes in tough monitoring, measuring performance over time, comparing performance year on year and rewarding those institutions that move forward. "Unless you have targets, you can't know what change is being achieved. Targets can help induce change," he says.

"The point is to apply consistent pressure so institutions are aware they are being systematically monitored. Since universities get public money and there is a public commitment to make Britain a more just and multicultural society; then they have to deliver. There must be penalties for those that make no attempt to reform."

One of the difficulties with quotas in the US is that the categorisation of ethnic groups is relatively crude. In genuinely multicultural societies intermarriage can make a nonsense of classifications such as "black" or "white other".

Hall points up the complexity of ethnic minorities in Britain too. "The truth is that the social differentiation of ethnic minorities in Britain is proceeding at a very rapid pace. We are more or less at the end of this notion that there is something homogeneous called minorities and something homogeneous called the majority way of life. The majority itself is differentiated, pluralising and fragmenting, and minorities are becoming much more internally differentiated."

Nonetheless, it is certainly true, Hall says, that there is a lot of complacency in universities - which like to think of themselves as liberal, free-thinking places - that needs to be dispelled. It is a view shared by Lola Young, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex university and one of a handful of black women professors. "People in universities like to think of themselves as tolerant, rigorous, demanding intellectuals, so how could they possibly be discriminating on the grounds of race or gender?" Young asks. But the evidence suggesting they are is building up.

* Ethnic Minority Staff in Higher Education

Ethnic Minority Staff in Higher Education was commissioned by a consortium of the Association of University Teachers, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Commission on University Career Opportunity, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and Natfhe. It is published today by the Policy Studies Institute.

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