Feelgood is no good

March 31, 2000

Universities must set targets for promoting under-represented staff, says Gargi Bhattacharyya

The phone rings on a weary Friday afternoon: "Quotas - what do you think about quotas? Are you in favour of them?" I know immediately that the voice means quotas of ethnic minorities and women, for employment or some other ill-deserved benefit.

Black people know this is a dangerous question - one of those tricks to prove racism is just an excuse for sympathy and special treatment. So I take a breath as I anticipate all triggers. Special treatment? Reverse discrimination? Lowering standards? Letting people in the back door and allowing political correctness to walk all over fair play?

The question about quotas comes from national negotiations with lecturers' employers. One of the main areas of discussion is the widespread and systematic discrimination against women and ethnic minority staff in universities. The negotiations are about finding ways to rectify the situation.

Nothing scarier than that - just an agreement on how to avoid bad practice that has been proved to exist. In case we imagine that no one cares what happens in universities - because we are a world of our own, after all - education secretary David Blunkett has let the employers know that he has a special interest in progress in these areas.

Mr Blunkett wants to see some tangible progress towards equality - and to prove you have made progress, you have to be able to show where you started from and where you end up. Without some kind of measure, who knows what progress would mean?

But, and this is very important, none of this suggests quotas -because they are not legal and are not the best way to foster long-term equality.

What we do want to see is a plan for improvement - not just statements of feelgood intent that lead to no outcomes, but something that can make a difference. For this to happen, employers must make sure they know the gender and ethnicity of their staff at all levels - hardly a revolutionary suggestion. They must ensure their processes of employment and promotion are transparent and open to scrutiny. Most of all, they must accept that universities have to reflect the whole community if they are to remain credible institutions.

Reflect the whole community? I can hear the teeth gnashing. Universities work on merit. If some groups are not getting jobs or promotions, it can only be because their work is not up to scratch. If we start to be led by other considerations, the quality of scholarship will suffer.

Knowing these fears only too well, I want to suggest that a pro-active plan to achieve targeted improvements in the representation of women and ethnic minority staff at all levels of universities could lead to new, different and better scholarship. Rather than lowering standards, promoting equality allows us to make use of the whole range of human potential.

It is bad for British universities to have a reputation as hotbeds of unchallenged bigotry. Talented people, including lucrative overseas postgraduates, hear the rumours and decide to take their custom elsewhere. To change our reputation, we need to face the extent of the problem, make active plans for improvement and measure them in ways that appear honest to external eyes. Anything else leaves us stuck in Brideshead - good for a period-costume day-trip, but not up to participating in an internationalised higher education system.

So, back to the question: what do I think of quotas? Well, universities could do with a quota of people who understand that discrimination damages the quality of education. Maybe a small quota of people who recognise that publicly funded bodies have a responsibility to their locality. Perhaps another quota of people who can see that scholarship belongs to all kinds of body shapes and skin tones and that you cannot judge the quality of the thought by looking at the package.

Gargi Bhattacharyya, a lecturer in cultural studies at Birmingham University, is president of Birmingham Association of University Teachers and adviser to the AUT Equal Opportunities Working Party.

* Should universities set targets, raised annually, for recruiting and promoting women and ethnic-minority staff?

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