University may have failed duty over closures that unfairly hit ethnic minorities. Phil Baty reports
The Commission for Racial Equality has warned Birmingham University that it risks legal action under race equality laws after complaints that plans for course closures would unfairly affect ethnic minority staff and students.
The Times Higher exclusively revealed last November that Birmingham's School of Education planned to drop courses in community play and youth studies. In what is understood to be an unprecedented move, the Commission for Racial Equality has warned the university that it is likely to have breached its duties under the law by failing to consult staff properly over the cuts, which would have a disproportionately negative impact on minority ethnic staff and students. It had also failed to properly consider how to avoid this impact, the CRE said.
In a letter to the university earlier this month, leaked to The Times Higher , the CRE said Birmingham had accepted that it had not formally consulted staff over the closures. The CRE said the law required public bodies to assess the race equality impact of proposed policies and to consider alternative plans if these were shown to cause problems. It said that despite evidence showing that the course closure "was going to have a disproportionate impact" on black and minority ethnic staff, "the university decided to go ahead with it".
If Birmingham implements plans knowing that they would adversely affect black and minority ethnic staff it would have to prove in court they were "necessary to allow you to carry out your functions" and that "you were unable to find another way of achieving the policy's aims that had a less discriminatory effect".
"In short, the university has failed to fulfil this element of the duty, potentially making your policy not fully compliant (with the Race Relations Amendment Act)," the CRE said.
It raised wider concerns about Birmingham's race equality policy. "The policy itself is very sparse, lacking in detail and devoid of serious quantitative and qualitative data and analysis to provide credence to some of the assertions made."
The CRE said it sought to avoid litigation and to adopt a constructive approach, and has asked the university for assurances, including addressing the plan's "deficiencies" before implementing it, and revising its policy.
Birmingham said it took its responsibilities very seriously and was confident it would be able to satisfy the CRE's concerns. It said it had "consulted widely with staff and students" about its phased withdrawal from the programmes, had undertaken a formal impact assessment and had "done everything possible successfully to mitigate the impact of these changes on the staff and students".
A spokesman said: "The university actively promotes racial and religious tolerance. We have a robust race equality policy, but recognise that we should respond to changes in the law and best practice. For this reason we keep this policy under review by our equality and diversity committee."