Race equality isn't just a nice idea, it's a duty

July 8, 2005

Access to UK universities remains littered with obstacles for members of minority groups, says Nick Johnson

For universities to contribute in a valuable way to 21st-century Britain, they need to attract skilled and talented people from all ethnic backgrounds. The arguments for addressing racial inequality in higher education and the case for robust legal measures that compel universities to address the issues are established. But many efforts to promote race equality remain inadequate and the key driver for change - the race equality requirement introduced in the Race Relations "Amendment" Act three years ago - has not been fully implemented.

There are twice as many black men in prison as in higher education. The reasons for this are complex: the systematic underachievement of black boys in education being one. It is perverse that having fought their way to university, some of the hardest hit will suffer from the discriminatory effects of the system.

There are examples of good practice in the sector, but some attempts to meet statutory requirements - producing a race equality policy, collecting data on employment and where and how different groups are served - are substandard.

The result is that for people from ethnic minority backgrounds, access to the UK's top universities and the whole spectrum of courses remains littered with obstacles. May 31 saw the end of the race equality duty's first three-year review cycle. This required public bodies to assess the effectiveness of policies and practices. They should have updated them where necessary and set ambitious targets for the next three years.

Issues differ from institution to institution. Old universities, particularly, need to widen access by encouraging members of minority communities to apply and by ensuring successful applicants have the best chance of success. The proportion of ethnic minority students at these institutions is about 14 per cent, but because home and overseas students are not disaggregated, this figure disguises the fact that only a small percentage of minority British students battle their way in.

New universities have done well to attract the vast majority of the UK's ethnic minority students. However, they need to address the marked asymmetry in study patterns. It is not enough to accept that Asian students' preferred destinations are medical, dental, legal and computer science departments, and not faculties of education, physical science or humanities.

The reasons for inequality differ depending on factors such as geographical location. But those universities with few ethnic minority students or those in areas with low ethnic-minority populations that say they have less need to implement a strong race equality agenda because ethnic-minority students "just don't want to come here" should ask themselves why this is so. Ethnic minorities have a right to choose where to study but, without additional support, the prospect of being the only black or brown face in a sea of white can discourage applicants. As a result, many choose an inner-city university where they can blend in.

The need to increase diversity at university does not stop at the student union bars and halls of residence. There is a chronic lack of diversity among higher education's senior teaching and administrative positions; the UK's university boards consist almost exclusively of white faces.

Despite the statutory duty and the liberal ethos that higher education is founded on, many universities' approach to race equality remains unsophisticated, lacking the leadership required to deliver change.

Awareness of equality practice is low, and momentum for advancing the agenda non-existent.

Race equality should by now be incorporated into the policy development and modernisation agenda of any forward-thinking organisation. This is particularly important for organisations providing public services; essential when we're talking about the right to a decent education.

The race equality duty provides a framework that, when implemented correctly, enables organisations to provide a service built around the needs and aspirations of all users.

We will be looking at how seriously this is being taken in a survey to be undertaken this year. Advice and guidance is readily available from the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equality Challenge Unit and the higher education funding councils, and, with three years of practice, it is hard to see why institutions will have difficulty meeting the minimum requirements. Where there is evidence of non-compliance we will use our enforcement powers, resorting to court, if necessary.

Nick Johnson is director of policy and public sector, Commission for Racial Equality.

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