Equality unit staffs up to cope with raft of new laws

May 28, 2004

The unit that advises universities on equal opportunities is being tripled in size to cope with mounting legislation, writes Phil Baty.

The Equality Challenge Unit will expand from the four full-time staff it employed at its inception in 2001 to 12 after an independent consultant's report highlighted the growing need for guidance on new laws relating to equal opportunities.

The report - which has since been incorporated into the unit's business plan - says: "Recent and future equality legislation, together with demands from higher education institutions for improved standards of equality and diversity guidance, is placing, and will further place, increasing time demands upon the ECU's limited staff complement."

The ECU will have three key sections for different areas of equality law. A gender and sexual-orientation team has been appointed to cover existing sex discrimination laws and new legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The team is also producing guidance on legislation going through Parliament that is designed to protect transsexuals and those undergoing sex changes.

A race and religion team will cover the Race Relations Act and its 1999 amendment. Under the amendment, universities and other public bodies are obliged to promote good race relations and equal opportunities in all their activities.

This unit will also oversee moves to ensure that universities do not fall foul of new laws outlawing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. These laws could see universities prosecuted for requiring Jewish students to sit exams or attend lectures on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

An age and disability team has also been set up after a raft of requirements was introduced under the Disability Discrimination Act.

The act has applied to educational institutions since 2002 but will enforce requirements to make necessary adjustments to campuses from next year.

The ECU was established in August 2001 in response to the 1997 Dearing report and the 1999 Bett review of pay and conditions, both of which highlighted gender inequalities in the higher education sector.

The unit was originally awarded £2.5 million from its sponsoring bodies: Universities UK, the Standing Conference of Principals and the English, Scottish and Welsh funding councils.

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