The colour blindspot

March 5, 1999

Are British universities immersed in a culture of racism? Jennifer Wallace reports

In Britain, racism is absolutely endemic in a lot of different forms," says Lola Young, black professor of English at Middlesex University. "It goes from the violence of racially motivated murder all the way to white women who move their handbags when I stand close to them."

In the wake of the Macpherson report on the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder, attention is turning from race relations within the police force towards other British institutions, including universities. Are they too guilty of institutional racism? The answer this week would seem to be yes.

"Sometimes it is overt, sometimes it is subtle," Young says, "such as when you are standing in an office and a student comes in and assumes that you are the secretary, rather than the white woman at the desk."

The problem does not stem from academics who are consciously racist, although, according to Stuart Hall, retired black professor of cultural studies at the Open University, there are some people in higher education who think "more means worse and more blacks means very much worse". It is based rather on the collective practices of universities, their failure to address the issue of under-representation of ethnic minorities. This is what "institutional racism" means.

Simon Holdaway, professor of sociology at Sheffield University, whose report for the Commission for Racial Equality submitted to the Lawrence inquiry proved influential in establishing the definition of institutional racism, explains: "When the police officers who were directly at the scene of the murder were on the witness stand, Michael Mansfield ended his questioning with, 'Are you a racist?' The answer he got was 'no'. When I discussed this with the CRE, I said: 'Don't ask that. Ask about the ordinary way in which they went about doing their job. Then ask, could it have been done differently? By that, you expose a lack of attention to race.'" Holdaway has been studying racism in the police since the early 1970s, when he was a police sergeant and kept a covert diary about the discrimination he witnessed daily. He argues that institutional racism works in a similar way in universities. "Those who walk into a university every day have assumptions about what the institution's work is, how you treat students, what are the important research topics. That is what we mean by institutionalised. In universities, there is an unwitting racism."

Hall agrees: "It is in the culture of the institution: these practices are transmitted from one generation to another, often working against the conscious intentions of people. They probably think they are looking to recruit the best black students, yet (the result is) a higher education system that is not as open to ethnic minority students as it should be after 25 years of migration."

On the face of it the numbers are reasonable. Ethnic minority young people are twice as likely as their white counterparts to enter university and are most represented in two of the most oversubscribed subjects - law and medicine. But the picture is more complicated within different groups. Pakistani men are twice as likely to enter university as white men, but the two most under-represented groups in British universities are black men and Bangladeshi women. Ethnic minority students are also more likely to go to the less prestigious new universities.

Statistics for academic staff are more depressing. There are no black vice-chancellors in Britain, no black registrars. According to Tariq Modood of Bristol University, who is preparing a report on ethnic minority staff in universities to be published in June, only 6 per cent of academic staff in British universities are not white. Half of them are from overseas, mostly post-doctoral, short-term contract researchers. His statistics are based on data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The picture that emerges is predictable. Black academics are concentrated in the lower grades, though again, only in tiny numbers. Four per cent of junior researchers are black, 3.5 per cent of lecturers, 2.3 per cent of senior lecturers and 1.22 per cent of professors - that is 120 black professors compared with 8,478 white.

Lecturers rarely complain about racial prejudices in the appointment or promotion of staff, but of the five cases of racial discrimination in higher education that have been taken to industrial tribunal in the past three years, three were upheld.

Some extreme cases of institutional racism have been widely publicised. A CRE report on St George's Hospital medical school in 1987 revealed that Asian and black applicants were systematically discriminated against in admissions procedures. More recently, Manchester University medical school was found to be failing a disproportionate number of Asian students. While there was no difference in the marks for their final papers, discrepancies lay in the clinical assessment, based on subjective criteria. The doctors examining were all white.

Beyond these cases, racism is evident in the day-to-day experiences of students and staff. It is this kind of "qualitative data", according to Holdaway, that is missing at the moment. And this lack of knowledge about the way in which race is affecting on universities is symptomatic of the institutionalised racism it might expose. Universities are too complacent. According to Young: "each institution thinks of itself as being tolerant about race. And universities in particular have this view of themselves as being particularly liberal, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty, this is simply not the case."

Holdaway thinks the older universities are the worst: "Their culture contains the it-couldn't-happen-here-type toleration. That is less embedded in the new universities."

So how can universities turn this deep-seated racism around? Hall is pessimistic that anything radical can be achieved. He recalls the difficulties he experienced in the 1960s when the cultural studies department at Birmingham University, which he led, was attacked for being too anglocentric by black student Paul Gilroy. Although Hall responded, he quickly learnt how difficult it was to shake up an institution.

Holdaway is more optimistic. "I hope the Lawrence case will help the thinking about all institutions, including universities. It should not be seen as a threat but an opportunity."

The first task, he says, is to demand administrative support for a badly needed survey of the collective experience of ethnic minority students and academics in universities. The second is to check whether the recommendations of the Lawrence report about dealing with institutionalised racism are being followed. "I want the Home Office to set up a monitoring team -and I think there is a role for academics here - whereby social science research is undertaken to see the extent to which these proposals have been put in place," Holdaway says.

The third task, according to Bhikhu Parekh, professor of political theory at Hull University and chairman of the Runnymede commission on multicultural Britain, is to set up working parties to look at admissions and promotion policies and consider whether regulations are necessary.

The fourth, Modood says, is recruitment training. "We need to get the staff trained in interviewing techniques and, above all, to reflect on their assumptions." It is vital, he says, that this training is undertaken by senior people too. "Vice-chancellors should set an example by undertaking the training."

But primarily the task is to jolt universities out of their complacency and alert them to their failure to recognise the multiracial dimension of Britain. As Hall says: "Institutions must examine their day-to-day practice and see the degree to which the thing works collectively to produce a result that is systematically discriminating against people of ethnic minorities."


Bishop Grosseteste College

Central School of Speech and Drama

Dartington College of Arts

Edinburgh College of Art

Falmouth College of Arts

Glasgow School of Art

Kent Institute of Art and Design

Norwich School of Art and Design

Queen Margaret College

Rose Bruford College

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

School of Pharmacy, London

Scottish College of Textiles

Trinity College, Carmarthen

Welsh College of Music and Drama

Wimbledon School of Art

Writtle College

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

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