Get the facts, then act to halt discrimination

May 6, 2005

Institutions have a legal duty to promote racial equality, which makes monitoring essential. Joyce Hill offers some advice

There has always been a strong sense that our universities and colleges are institutions of liberal thought, dedicated to fairness and justice and reliant on merit for judgement. Yet this is not sufficient to ensure that every policy, practice and procedure of each institution in the UK is free from prejudice and discrimination.

Developing and embedding a sustainable and effective equality and diversity strategy is one of the biggest challenges universities and colleges face.

The Equality Challenge Unit - which was set up by and for the sector and offers services free at the point of delivery - helps institutions and sector-wide bodies develop their understanding of and expertise in what is required by law and by good practice.

Systematic and regular monitoring would be essential in sustaining high standards of equality of opportunity even if it were not a legal obligation, but the Race Relations (Amendment) Act makes it mandatory. What has to be monitored is laid down: for higher education, this includes staff and students. The precise way in which this is done depends on the institution and the degree to which more penetrating investigations may be needed in some areas once patterns have been identified.

The ECU has included monitoring in seminars and workshops, and has published, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, guidance on monitoring and on impact assessment. Although primary responsibility rests with individual universities and colleges, the Higher Education Statistics Agency had to revise its sector-wide data collection to take account of the requirements of the Act - and the ECU was able to offer advice on this as well.

Monitoring is not an end in itself. It is only one of the specified means by which we can track progress in the implementation of the Act, which requires us not simply to avoid discrimination but to be proactive in eliminating discrimination and promoting equal opportunities and good race relations. This positive duty will soon be extended to cover disability and gender, and so monitoring will be necessary for these areas, too.

Even within institutions, monitoring will reveal a variety of patterns. To understand these, we may need more investigation. Sometimes a more refined numerical analysis can help. Sometimes qualitative analysis and well-targeted consultation is required. But in any case, the purpose of monitoring is to lead to action, and the data will allow us to see what the focus of our activity might need to be.

This will differ from institution to institution depending on factors such as institutional mission and reach, geographical location, available sources of recruitment for staff and students and the discipline mix, given the differing patterns of take-up across subjects by students from ethnic minorities.

Some issues identified through monitoring will be able to be addressed relatively quickly by internal action. Others will take longer, and those that have a dimension beyond the institution may need co-operative action with other organisations - such as local authorities, further education colleges, schools, job centres and community groups - if the institution and the region within which it is located are to be seen as promoting diversity and accessiblity. International staff and students already contribute to this diversity, but they, too, need to see us as a sector that is accessible and inclusive.

The Act's Statutory Code recommends that this cycle of monitoring, review and action becomes part of the normal management cycle for the institution, and if that is to be achieved, it needs to be embedded in the standard management information systems. Dealing with it as something apart leaves equality and diversity in a box on its own. So even the arrangements made for monitoring can contribute to the mainstreaming of equal opportunities.

But as we know from the raft of activity that we monitor, data collection is never just about counting things. It has value only when it stimulates questions, when those questions lead to a better understanding of cause and effect, and when action is taken as a result. This is why monitoring is at the heart of the positive duty for race, and why it will be a key requirement in implementing other equal opportunities legislation.

We do well to remember Ron Dearing's ringing assertion that higher education plays a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised and inclusive society. There is no difficulty in subscribing to that, but the challenge is to make it real for everyone. In achieving this, monitoring is a powerful tool.

Joyce Hill is director of the Equality Challenge Unit.

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