Black academics strive to smash 'ivory ceiling'

November 18, 2005

While universities have seen a rise in the number of ethnic minority workers, new figures reveal stark variations in employment practices across the sector

The number of senior academics from a black or other ethnic minority background varies dramatically from one university to another, the latest analysis of official staffing figures reveals.

In some institutions, such as Brunel University, almost one in five professors is black or from another ethnic minority. Yet, a few miles away, institutions such as Royal Holloway, University of London, and Birkbeck, University of London, have no ethnic minority staff in senior academic positions - at least according to official statistics.

The variations will fuel concerns that university managers are still not doing enough to ensure racial equality on the academic career ladder, despite a gradual improvement in participation of ethnic minorities in professorial and principal lecturer positions across the sector.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "There is a constant stream of evidence that black and minority ethnic people are either underrepresented or discriminated against. Yet nobody takes responsibility for improving the situation. At the very least, universities should ensure that their pay and promotion criteria are equality proofed."

Lecturers' union Natfhe welcomed the fact that the percentage of ethnic minorities in senior academic posts had risen from 3 per cent to 5 per cent over eight years. But Roger Kline, the head of Natfhe's universities department, said: "Progress is still far too slow, and black staff face an ivory ceiling."

He added that many universities were still just paying "lip service" to the positive duty to eliminate race discrimination, introduced in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act three years ago. "Best practice can be found in some universities, but there is a long tail of universities engaged in minimal compliance."

Mr Kline, who will be one of the speakers at a Universities UK conference on "Embedding race equality in further and higher education" next week, said: "The Commission for Racial Equality needs to be more proactive and to address universities engaged in minimal compliance. The Equality Challenge Unit, which has so far focused on best practice, needs to start naming and shaming.

A spokeswoman for the ECU said that while some universities could do more to meet legal obligations, a large number of institutions were working positively. "The ECU does not have enforcement powers," she said, "but we are taking steps to look at collaborative projects with institutions."

The analysis by the AUT for The Times Higher offers both promising and alarming messages for delegates meeting next week to discuss progress in the sector. The figures are drawn from returns to the Higher Education Statistics Agency and are based on job categories in the old national grading structure, which varied by type of university and did not include a category of professor for new universities.

Among old universities, Brunel tops the list with 19 per cent of its professors recorded as black or ethnic minority. Chris Jenks, pro vice-chancellor for research, said: "Brunel is a multicultural community.

Its academic appointments policy is based on the primacy of research excellence and competitive merit."

Stephen Court, AUT senior researcher, added: "Brunel has always had a strong science and technology base and these areas attract many ethnic minority candidates."

At the other end of the scale some institutions, such as Royal Holloway and Birkbeck, are shown as having no ethnic minority staff in senior positions.

But this could be because some academics, about 6.5 per cent, choose not to record their ethnicity, so they do not show in the statistics.

Mr Court said: "Data on the ethnicity of academic staff are hampered by the proportion of staff who either refused to give information, or for whom the information was unknown."

A spokesperson for Royal Holloway said that more up-to-date figures showed that the university had three professors from ethnic minorities as well as a number of senior academics. "Our multicultural community is drawn from over 120 countries, and everyone, staff and students alike, benefits from a stimulating environment which is created by such a diversity of background and cultures."

Essex tops the table for universities with locally determined pay scales, with 12 per cent of its professors from ethnic minorities.

A spokesperson said: "Essex has a history of actively seeking to recruit international students and staff to ensure cultural diversity. This means that we have been successful in recruiting and retaining some of the best academics in the world in terms of research and teaching, giving us considerable ethnic diversity."

Plymouth University comes bottom of this particular table, with 1.4 per cent of its senior staff recorded as black or minority ethnic. Roland Buckley, director of personnel and development, said: "Plymouth is in a travel to work area, where the total minority ethnic population is 1.% compared with the national figure of 7.9%. The university has a target in our human resources strategy to increase the percentage of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff in all grades appointed nationally to represent the national BME population within ten years."

He added that Plymouth's academic staff numbers for 2005 show a significantly higher percentage of 5.9 per cent BME staff.

Oxford falls in the bottom five of this table, with 97.5 per cent of its staff recorded as white. The figures support an earlier study by the university itself, which called for positive action to encourage more ethnic minority candidates to apply for senior posts.

Among the new universities, Middlesex comes top with 16 per cent of its principal lecturers classified as black or minority ethnic.

A spokesperson said: "Middlesex was the first UK university to have three black female professors, and we are pleased that we continue to maintain a good record of employing senior academic staff from ethnic minority backgrounds.

"There may be a few reasons for this. First, we promote academic staff up through the ranks. Second, we are a popular choice for international students. We are also located in multicultural north London, so our staff and student populations reflect this. Third, we are committed to being an equal opportunities employer." </a>









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