'Positive action', positive results

Trevor Phillips hails equality bill's potential to widen access to the academy. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 25, 2010

The biggest change to equality law in years will have "particularly significant" implications for higher education, according to the head of the UK equality body.

In a lecture last week at City University London, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argued that Britain's universities did not reflect society.

At present, he said, the "great benefits" of a British university education were not equally accessible to all.

However, the equality bill, which is currently going through Parliament, meant that Britain's equality law was on the brink of the "most significant shake-up in a generation".

He said the fact that it would make "positive action" legal in recruitment and promotion would be particularly significant for the academy.

This would make it lawful for an employer choosing between two equally qualified applicants to select one candidate on the grounds that he or she came from an under-represented group.

Mr Phillips noted that this was different from positive discrimination, which would allow preferential consideration of candidates from under-represented groups.

He also discussed university admissions, suggesting that the strict limits the government has placed on student numbers put those without experience of the workings of higher education at a disadvantage in the rush for places last summer.

He said he hoped the equality bill would encourage universities to "have the process of admission designed in such a way that the skew against people and families from poorer backgrounds is reduced to a minimum".

In the lecture on 16 March, titled "Inclusive or exclusive? Are universities reflecting society and does it matter?", Mr Phillips also argued that in a period of cuts to the public sector, it was more important than ever to focus on these issues.

Difficult economic conditions were "threatening to make the task of widening access even harder," he said.

In a warning to universities, he added that the new chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit, David Ruebain, "will have his eyes on you over the next few years".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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