Blog confidential: Racist relations

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

March 25, 2010

This week: Racist relations

I work in a department that offers a large number of professional courses - part of the old New Labour initiative to develop standards in social care. The students have few academic qualifications, but have been given another chance to progress. Teaching is often carried out with a "consortium" made up of a number of council managers with access to the local authority budget - in total, a significant sum of money. My teaching helps the students to develop their understanding of the university's values and those of "service users".

I set assignments and mark them in conjunction with a colleague who has external "quality assurance" powers. I have to say that some of the students lack confidence and need a great deal of support: and in the spirit of full disclosure, I often speculate about the ability of some of them. Uptake for the course has been poor, despite the recession.

A few weeks ago, I marked one student's work and was shocked by what I read. It was racist, making derogatory comments about eastern European migrants. On a technical note, the work was poorly referenced, and at one point I wondered whether it was a set-up.

I refused to grade the paper and raised my concerns with my academic team leader, who on this occasion was the second marker. He suggested that he take the matter out of my hands and "relieve me of the possible stress attached to the process", despite the fact that I was willing to take things forward myself. Nevertheless, I deferred to his authority and agreed to stand aside.

However, I recently discovered that the student concerned not only passed the assignment, but also received an average grade. I emailed the academic team leader to protest, but he refused to write back. However, he called me on the phone and in no uncertain terms warned me to stay out of the controversy. I have since discovered that the student's partner is a manager on the consortium.

I know what I should do: I should put in a formal complaint to expose this malfeasance. What do you think?

In an ideal world, this corruption would be challenged and rooted out. However, as I have said in these pages before, those who blow the whistle must be aware of the potential consequences.

I agree that cronyism and corruption of this sort is despicable. The student's racism makes them wholly unsuitable to provide social care, and if anything the sense of deals being done behind closed doors makes matters worse.

But now for the caveats. If you act anonymously, the university is likely to find out it was you. If you go higher, it may rebound. I'd suggest that you take care: being a martyr to the cause may end your career. Perhaps you should register your complaint informally and explain that if it happens again, you will go public with what you know. Please tread carefully.

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