Why I believe a new drive is needed to stamp out institutional racism

March 30, 2001

By Anita Sharda, Policy adviser, sociologist and former equal opportunities officer at the University of Hertfordshire.

Over the past year, I have been an independent member of the home secretary's Stephen Lawrence steering group, overseeing the Macpherson recommendations and the home secretary's action plan to address institutional racism. Most of my professional life has been spent working across a range of public services, including universities, allowing me to obtain longitudinal, empirical evidence that there is structural and systemic discrimination. This needs to be tackled through the development of policies to achieve equal opportunities and social justice.

In April, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act comes into force, outlawing discrimination in all public services and placing a statutory duty on public bodies to promote race equality. The Commission for Race Equality will provide codes of practice on how to achieve this.

This - the most radical piece of race relations legislation and administrative framework in nearly 25 years - has to be welcomed. Previous attempts to promote equal opportunities have often been met with resistance and inertia. Now, race equality is not just about tolerance but recognising diversity and an individual's social rights in modern multicultural Britain.

Universities and medical schools are in a key position to tackle issues of inequality and poverty. There are no easy solutions, but policies of social inclusion that widen participation, target resources and challenge structural discrimination in education may take us closer to equality of opportunity.

Race equality for academic staff has become a priority for vice-chancellors, funding councils and trade unions in the past 18 months. But there is still a lot of complacency. Academics and management like to think of themselves as tolerant, rigorous, demanding intellectuals, so how could they be prejudiced? Litigation and individual casework suggest otherwise.

Some notable milestones in the rise of equality include the 1999 Ethnicity and Employment report by John Carter, Stephen Fenton and Tariq Modood, which highlighted poorer promotion chances for ethnic minorities and significant under-representation in academic posts. Other studies show how, for example, the lack of adequate facilities that cater for religious, cultural and dietary needs, and organisational culture have sometimes alienated students.

Equal opportunities criteria need to be part of all mainstream management and academic activity from recruitment, retention, admissions, appeals and assessments to religious, pastoral and counselling services. Simply having a good policy is not enough. Equal opportunities needs to be an active corporate priority that is outcome-focused, with clear targets and monitoring mechanisms in place.

Education secretary David Blunkett has made it clear that, in return for the £330 million announced for university pay over the next three years, he expects significant improvements in monitoring and performance of equal opportunities. This must include a critical assessment of who they are trying to reach and an appraisal of the assumptions on which policies and procedures are based.

Some universities are beginning to take equal opportunities quite seriously. I spent last year at a university working closely with deans and directors to identify faculty and departmental equality objectives and projects as part of a corporate action plan.

The Human Rights Act and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 are the cornerstones in a new culture of rights and responsibilities. I hope the new agenda will fire our enthusiasm and help make the paradigm shift that offers so much opportunity.

Anita Sharda
Policy adviser, sociologist and former equal opportunities officer at the University of Hertfordshire.

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