Is the Square Mile colour blind?

November 7, 1997

A degree from a university in or near the City of London is no passport to a job inside itswalls for graduates from ethnic minorities. Phil Baty reports

GRADUATES from London's new universities, on the doorstep of the graduate employment havens of the City of London, have the greatest struggle to find local jobs.

At the University of East London, next door to the big businesses in the Square Mile, almost 15 per cent of graduates end up on the dole six months after graduating, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

At Guildhall University, located inside the City, the graduate unemployment rate is just over 8 per cent. South Bank and North London universities, not much further away, both have unemployment rates at well over 10 per cent. The national average is 7 per cent.

But representatives of these institutions have defended the low graduate recruitment figures. They say the situation could be much worse, because their universities have some of the highest numbers of students from ethnic minorities in Britain.

They claim to be fighting a battle against an entrenched culture of racism in the City.

Although UEL has a 15 per cent graduate unemployment rate, half its students are from ethnic minorities, said Norman McClean, former UEL careers head and now chairman of the National Mentoring Consortium, set up with large City firms to provide work placements for ethnic minority students.

He said: "People have been lampooning the unemployment figures, but 15 per cent unemployment means that 85 per cent have got jobs. With the type of people UEL has - they're more likely to be from ethnic minorities and more likely to be working class - I'd expect the unemployment figure to be higher."

Similarly, at North London, Guildhall and South Bank universities, ethnic minorities make up more than half of the student populations.

Racism in graduate recruitment is very difficult to quantify. Legislation, and lip service from the employers, would suggest that racism should no longer exist in recruitment practices. But research has shown that the big employers are still a long way from offering genuine equal opportunities.

An industrial tribunal this summer ruled in favour of James Curry, a senior bond trader who claimed he had been dismissed unfairly by banking giant Goldman Sachs because he was black. In the wake of that case, the Commission for Racial Equality has written to all major City firms, demanding details of their equal opportunity policies and practices.

According to HESA, there is 17 per cent unemployment among black graduates nationally, almost 18 per cent among Bengali graduates and 15 per cent among Asian graduates, compared with 7 per cent among whites.

According to a report from the African and Caribbean Finance Forum titled The Cement Roof: Afro-Caribbean People in Management, unemployment among black men aged between 16 and 24 is 51 per cent, compared with 18 per cent for their white counterparts. And the disparity has no relation to qualifications.

In London's East End, unemployment among ethnic minority graduates in the Tower Hamlets borough is higher than unemployment among white non-graduates, points out Deian Hopkin, vice provost of London Guildhall University and chairman of Cityside, an East End regeneration scheme.

But when it comes to the City of London and the traditional big "graduate employers", denying jobs to black or Asian graduates from the newer London universities may have more to do with prejudice against their institutions, or their "class", than their ethnic origin.

A recent Institute of Employment Studies report found that ethnic minority graduates could be suffering in the recruitment rounds because the large recruiters still target a small number of older universities, where students are often white, middle class and from public schools, and the proportion of ethnic minority graduates is lower than average.

The City may not be blighted by overt racism, Dr Hopkin concedes, but the anti-institutional prejudice still hits ethnic minorities hardest.

He said: "I wouldn't call the problem racism. In terms of institutional practice, racism is outlawed. There is no overt, deliberate policy of racial exclusion, and in many cases I believe that employers don't actually understand that they're doing it. What they have is archetypal employment, where blacks and Asians just don't fit the mould.

"Ask the big city employers and they'll say 'of course we have equal opportunities'. They may even give you a head count and show they have a high proportion of blacks or Asians. But ask where they are in the firm and they'll be in the basement, or they'll be toilet attendants. How many will be in management posts?" Part of Dr Hopkin's Cityside project is a scheme called Breaking the Stereotype. He explained: "'Anti-racist' is an old fashioned concept. It's too crude. For employers, it is more a question of ethnic minorities who 'don't fit in'. The City has a dress code: a military pin-stripe uniform. Imagine a Muslim woman fitting in. Or there are the first-year immigrants. They might speak differently, and their employer will say 'I just don't think they will fit in well with the team'. There are deep cultural expectations."

Great Expectations, a paper for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, found that "there was a measure of frustration with employers who pay lip service to equal opportunities and widening access, but invariably recruit from the same narrow range". Similarly, the Graduates Work paper, from the the University of Central England's Centre for Research into Quality, concluded that "too much recruitment is guided by prejudice".

Dr Hopkin said: "You can't demonstrate or prove discrimination. You can set up mechanisms that are difficult for corporate employers to avoid. It's the culture of the City. I'm very anxious to ensure we understand the issues, rather than throw accusations around. Graduates in Tower Hamlets are unemployed because they are from ethnic minorities - it might be true, it might not."

A gradual, but significant, cultural shift may be the answer. "New communities don't possess the networks. It is easier for white, middle-class families to find their way into the these professions than ethnic minorities," Dr Hopkin added.

Ethnic minority mentor Norman McClean agrees: "Some major firms are getting involved in our mentoring schemes. The barriers are breaking down gradually. My ambition is to work myself out of a job, where mentoring schemes are no longer necessary."

For Anne Francis, head of the University of East London's careers service, what is most frustrating is that many ethnic minority graduates clearly demonstrate all the qualities that the big employers are looking for.

"For many of our ethnic minority students, just to have earned a degree in the first place is a major demonstration of impeccable time management, decision-making, and financial budgeting. Many of our students have beaten enormous obstacles just to get the degree,"she said.

"All the City firms say they are crying out for graduates with exactly the transferable skills that most of our ethnic minority graduates have proved they've got to the nth degree. It is more than witness to the fact that they have the skills employers say they want."

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