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'After a recent impact assessment of academic staff recruitment, our head of department has informed us that, because of underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic staff, our department will engage in positive action in its future recruitment. As a senior lecturer who has been in this department for a number of years, I worry that this might dilute academic standards and could prevent the best person being selected for the job on merit. Does what the institution is proposing to do amount to discrimination, and is it illegal?'
n A spokesman for the University and College Union says: "Contrary to what some staff believe, there is an important difference between positive action and positive discrimination. The latter, which you seem to be concerned about, is prohibited in the area of race equality as outlined by your concern.
"Positive action, on the other hand, is not only entirely legal but it arguably lies at the heart of the equality duties with positive benefits for higher education as a whole. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act requires an institution to develop a proactive approach to promoting race equality. Positive action to deal with the situation outlined may more helpfully be viewed as a means by which the institution may meet the obligations set out in the aforementioned act.
"Actions that might be taken could include widening the scope and breadth of future recruitment to include specialist black and minority ethnic press; outreach activities to black and minority ethnic communities including open days; encouragement to employees from underrepresented groups to apply for promotion or transfer opportunities; and specific statements in job adverts welcoming applications from groups currently underrepresented.
"Far from preventing the best person applying for the job you would effectively widen the pool of talent from which to draw."
n A spokeswoman for the Equality Challenge Unit says: "Provisions in the Race Relations Act 1976 allow employers to take positive action in order to give people from a particular racial group the opportunity to compete for jobs where they have previously been underrepresented.
"Where an employer has found (through monitoring information) under representation of a racial group during the previous 12 months the law allows for some measures to be undertaken, such as offering particular types of training to people of that group, or encouraging people from that group to apply for positions.
"Positive action is not about setting recruitment quotas regardless of which candidates have the required qualifications, skills and experience. The aim of positive action here is to give people from underrepresented racial groups the opportunity to compete for work and to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities.
"Positive action may not have been properly explained to you by your head of department. The Commission for Racial Equality Statutory Code of Practice for Employment recommends that employers inform staff, trade unions and other workplace representatives about proposed positive action initiatives.
"In view of this, you may want to discuss the university's positive action work with your head of department in further detail.
n Gillian Evans, project leader of Improving Dispute Resolution (www. staffs.ac.uk/idr), says: "It would be as unlawful to discriminate in favour of a category of applicant as to discriminate against that category.
"It may be sensible to make sure the appointing panel has representation from ethnic minorities but there is no hard evidence that that in itself guarantees unprejudiced choice."
This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org