Figure it out

April 7, 1995

The position of non-Caucasians in higher education remains uneasy, discovers Pat Younge, despite the seemingly encouraging application statistics that have recently become available.

In 1986 the Commission For Racial Equality published Words or deeds a review of equal opportunities policies in higher education. The authors found most institutions had or were introducing equal opportunities, but they also found "a lack of understanding and progress to date. A tone of moral superiority or complacency plus ignorance of the issues and available evidence was pervasive". How much has changed in the last nine years?

Until 1990 no one knew just how many black and Asian students there were in our universities and colleges. Five years ago, at the request of the CRE, the Universities Central Council on Admissions and the Polytechnics and Colleges Admissions Service started to monitor all home applicants by race. The figures released this year by the University and Colleges Admissions Service are interesting, and in many ways surprising. Blacks and Asians account for more than 11 per cent of all home applicants, and more than 9 per cent of all home applicants accepted to universities in 1994. Given that, according to the 1991 Census, blacks and Asians account for only 5 per cent of the population, this means they are twice as likely to start a university education as their white counterparts.

The age structure is also different. Nearly 42 per cent of black applicants (black-Caribbean, black-African, black-other) are aged over 25 whereas only 13 per cent of white applicants and 8 per cent of Asians are in the same age band.

CRE surveys of graduates show that many black students are motivated towards higher education because of a belief that better qualifications could give them the edge over labour market discrimination. But in no small part the relative over-representation of blacks and Asians is due to demographics; while the white population is ageing in relative terms, more than half of the the black and Asian communities are under 25. This, combined with aggressive expansionist policies encouraging access for non-traditional entrants in the former polytechnics, probably provides a better explanation.

But is the fact that black and Asian students are represented disproportionately in our universities proof that there is no discrimination in admissions? Not judging by the CRE's investigation into St George's medical school admissions procedures in 1988. On the face of it St George's had no problem: black and Asian students seemed to be well represented among all years of their student body. But the CRE investigation found that a college computer program used to shortlist applicants had a built-in bias that downgraded the scores of "non-Caucasian'' and female candidates. As there was no monitoring at the time, non-Caucasian candidates were identified by their surname, place of birth or other indications. The CRE found that in one year the bias could have denied up to 60 non-Caucasian candidates the possibility of an interview.

So why did St George's not recognise it had a problem? Simply because the non-Caucasian candidates got the grades in their exams and entered through clearing. Figures showed that 37 per cent of non-Caucasians gained entry through clearing, compared to 11 per cent of Caucasians.

St George's said it had no idea the racial element was included in the computer program, and that on the occasions the program was reviewed this point was never raised with them. Following the CRE report the program was scrapped and new measures introduced to the satisfaction of the commission.

But given that the original computer programwas introduced only after it was shown to have a 90-95 per cent correlation with the traditional selection procedure, it is perhaps not surprising that the National Union of Students believes there is still discrimination in selection procedures. "Institutions do need to look at their admissions procedures,'' says vice president (education) Shrupti Shah. "They need to monitor racial applications against admissions, and act where there's an imbalance."

But students are not always on the receiving end of campus discrimination. According to lecturers' unions, it is often the students who are dishing it out. As a result some black staff face discrimination from pupils and peers. Last year a lecturer at Thanet College, Broadstairs, Kent, won substantial damages after an industrial tribunal found the college guilty of discriminating against him by failing to deal effectively with his complaints of racial abuse by students.

Zimbabwe-born Stanley Jenkins was one of only three non-white lecturers on the 130-strong staff. Only 2 per cent of the pupil intake is black mainly Asians. John Kemp, principal at the time of Mr Jenkins's appointment in 1979, told the tribunal that "race was not an issue at Thanet College".

But between 1983 and 1988 Mr Jenkins was abused on a number of occasions by various students. Once a student directed abusive language towards Mr Jenkins, including the word "kaffir.'' He took notes of the insults and raised them with managers, demanding action be taken. The student's apology did not include any reference to the racist nature of the insult, and the college accepted the apology and said that his language had not been directed "at a person". Indeed, the college letter accepting the student's apology said that if the student had any future complaints about Mr Jenkins's lessons the college "will always be sympathetic to investigate on your behalf.'' Other insults directed towards Mr Jenkins included "Sambo", "Paki" and daubed slogans like "Jenkins nigger wog". When challenged, the students repeatedly claimed Mr Jenkins simply misunderstood what had been said. The tribunal found no effective action was taken to deal with the problem.

Indeed, it found that "not only were the complaints of Mr Jenkins of racial abuse ignored, but at the same time the defences to those allegations tended to give rise to allegations against Mr Jenkins which were themselves racially prejudiced, and the college management consistently mixed the two together so as to adopt the prejudiced viewpoint of the students." Only on one occasion was action taken, and that was when a white lecturer overheard a student call Mr Jenkins a "****ing nigger'' in Mr Jenkins's absence.

Cases like that of Mr Jenkins which receive national attention are few and far between, according to Adrienne Aziz, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers. Most complaints they receive are dealt with by local branch officers, who are loath to create a fuss because there are so few black lecturers they fear it may actually make the complainant's position worse: "It's often made clear to people that they should 'know' what the culture is and that they should be prepared to accept it. So, even if things go our way during internal cases, the institution often finds it difficult to reintegrate people into the workplace.

The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education also deals with most cases on a local level, and, according to president Doreen Cameron, there are persistent themes to the complaints: "Black staff complain of harassment in terms of unjustified attacks on their work. They complain about being passed over for promotion and the lack of promotion opportunities. They also complain they're being singled out for redundancy and premature retirement."

A 1990 survey for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals showed that 66 per cent of universities monitor applicants' ethnic origin, while 52 per cent monitor the ethnic background of their current staff. It has also issued guidelines to universities outlining best practice on the employment of people from ethnic minorities.

But universities are ill placed to refute the attacks by students and lecturers: "It's generally accepted that there are few black faces on the teaching staff, but no-one has an overall picture,'' says Zoe Davis, secretary of the CVCP-funded Committee of University Career Opportunities. "Without that information it's hard to know what action's necessary."

Later this year the Higher Education Statistics Agency will carry out a comprehensive survey of academic staff. Its findings will be published next year action may take a little longer.

Pat Younge is community affairs correspondent for BBC Newsroom South East and a former NUS vice president.

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