When will we see the Gazza chair?

June 5, 1998

The 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush is a convenient, if confected, peg on which to hang a review of Britain's progress in accommodating black and Asian immigrants.

Immigrants have come to Britain in successive waves over centuries - Huguenots, Jews, central Europeans, east Europeans before those from the Caribbean, India, Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh - their passage from immigrant to established members of our society marked by the changing shop fronts of areas like London's Spitalfields.

For black and Asian immigrants it has been tough: numbers were relatively large and colour makes people visibly different. The arrival of West Indian and Asian immigrants brought to the surface prejudices which the British had liked to think they did not have. There have been confrontations, even conflagrations.

But there has also been success. We could elect a black mayor of London, Trevor Phillips, who made his mark as president of the National Union of Students. We have a raft of Asian millionaires. Students from immigrant backgrounds are enrolled in higher education in numbers well beyond their representation in the relevant age groups of the population. Higher education is seen as the best way to secure a good living. Medical schools and law firms have come under particular pressure for discrimination precisely because so many young people wanted to get into those mainstream professions - the passport to a secure middle-class life in British society.

The lack of black academics may be a result of discrimination, though academics are probably less prejudiced than most professions. But it may also be the result of discriminating decisions by bright students who see the bad pay and insecurity of academic life as a poor option compared to medicine, law or the financial services industry.

If so, the key to attracting more black academics may lie as much in improving the attractiveness of academic careers as in scrupulous checking for discrimination in appointments and promotions.

Britain's black communities have not allowed the trick to be played on them that has so marred American society (page 26), where race became a surrogate for class. If we are to have programmes in Britain to help counter social exclusion - very much part of the Labour project (page 20) - they are not likely to be along the racial lines now being outlawed in the United States, nor targeted on increasing participation by women: women overtook men in admissions to higher education a couple of years ago.

The access challenge facing further and higher education in Britain is that of attracting young white men from lower socio-economic groups, the group which is now losing out most heavily. They will be hard to attract. There is a macho attitude in some schools that it is un-cool to study. Many would once have left early to take apprenticeships or join the armed forces. In Germany they would be tracked into craft training. Now that work is dwindling.

Attracting these young men first to qualify for and then to enrol in higher education will require more than exhortation. It will require new courses and new approaches of which there is so far little evidence.

Perhaps the ministerial idea of homework centres in local football clubs will prove the first step. Could sport be the key? Shall we yet see college sport assume the status in Britain it enjoys in the US and the creation of Gazza chairs?

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