White male sector must set targets for diversity

March 31, 2000

British academics are too white and too male, and too few come from Britain's disabled population. The government wants universities to do something about these problems. In response, the sector is setting up an equal opportunities executive (page 3) to speed progress by ensuring that targets are set and met.

There are many reasons for trying to improve the ethnic mix especially. Most crucial is the need to attract the full range of applicants. A more varied workforce also means a wider range of approaches, as Gargi Bhattacharyya points out (page 18), at a time when traditional university structures need to change.

Targets should be tough. For example, academics are mobile around Britain and internationally. Even universities in areas with few non-white faces have no excuse for low ethnic minority recruitment. For women, the stress should be on promotion. There are many women in junior posts, too few higher up.

The backing of the funding councils will mean at least a veiled threat that unmet targets will cost money. This cannot happen in the short term because new appointments and promotions procedures will take time to show results.

Even longer term, levying fines would be tough in a country where the police, among others, have failed to reflect the racial make-up of the communities from which they recruit with no such punishment. Worse, it would give the funding councils a new hold over universities to add to the excessive number they have already. But denying money to a university that insisted it was simply appointing and promoting the best people is a threat that might be hard to carry out.

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