Colleges to be held liable for prejudice

December 1, 2000

Universities and colleges can be held liable for the racist and sexist behaviour of their students, a tribunal has ruled.

Wigan and Leigh College discriminated against a lecturer when it failed to protect her properly from the abusive behaviour of three 16-year-old students, the Manchester employment tribunal decided this week.

But while lecturers' leaders have hailed the decision as a landmark, the college has warned that the judgment could seriously hamper national widening access initiatives by encouraging colleges to exclude "disengaged and disaffected" students.

The tribunal ordered the college to pay £1,000 compensation for race and sex discrimination against Mubina Bhimji, a lecturer in computer technology at the college for 14 years. She complained she had been variously called a "bitch", a "black bitch" and a "wench" by the students. She said the university had inadequate procedures to prevent the abuse and failed to act decisively.

The tribunal heard that an internal disciplinary hearing had excused the students' behaviour as "horseplay". They were warned verbally, although Ms Bhimji was told they had been given a written warning. Ms Bhimji was told to change her teaching commitments to avoid contact with them, suggesting that the college "saw her as the problem".

The tribunal said that the college's responsibilities must include "eliminating covert and overt discriminatory acts and conduct including language of a racist or sexist nature".

Wigan and Leigh should have made it clear to its students that racist and sexist behaviour was not acceptable, and its student handbook and student charter were "severely deficient in relation to the college's demonstrated attitude towards sex and race discrimination".

Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, said the "stunning victory" sent a clear message. "This ruling makes it absolutely clear that colleges are liable for their students' racist or sexist conduct. We hope it will give institutions the push they need to move beyond lip-service in dealing with equality at work." But the college said that the judgment could hamper widening access initiatives.

Brian Dean, the college's marketing manager, said the tribunal would have "national impact on all colleges, who, like Wigan and Leigh, wholeheartedly embrace the government's agenda on social inclusion and widening participation."

Ms Bhimji said she was delighted with the outcome.

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