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July 7, 2006

Tony Tysome reports on how Manchester is seeking to appoint more minority staff

Manchester University is moving as close to positive discrimination as it can without breaking the law in a new drive to appoint more black and minority ethnic (BME) staff to senior posts.

Recruitment heads at the university will be urged to cast their net far wider than they have in the past to ensure that future shortlists are representative of the population and include a BME candidate where possible.

The move is part of what Manchester claims is a unique Race in Leadership programme to boost equal opportunities at senior level. It has been hailed by University and College Union leaders as a model that should be adopted across the sector.

Aneez Esmail, a professor of general practice and Manchester's associate vice-president for equality and diversity, is heading the initiative. He described the scheme as "positive action, a step short of positive discrimination".

"Where we advertise for a senior position,"he said, "we will still advertise it publicly. But the question is, how well do we look for people, so that we can choose from a pool that is more ethnically representative and diverse?"

He will work closely with a project steering group whose members will be drawn from all levels of staff in the university. The team will survey BME staff attitudes and expectations, scrutinise the university's recruitment and promotions policies and practices, and carry out audits of staff recruitment and progression.

It will also identify training and development needs to help staff prepare for promotion. The team will produce a report next March.

Professor Esmail said he had been taken aback by the unrepresentative face of the university's senate when he announced the project at its last meeting. BME staff make up about 3 per cent of Manchester's professors and 6 per cent of senior lecturers. "I was shocked to see not a single black or minority ethnic face. I want to take this to a position where our senior management team begin to discuss this issue," he said.

Manchester is not unusual, Professor Esmail pointed out. In 2004-05, for instance, BME staff made up only 4.7 per cent of professors across the UK.

But Professor Esmail said Manchester was ready to take action because it could see a business as well as a social case for doing so.

"This is nothing to do with political correctness," he said. "The university wants to become a world-class institution. It recognises that it will not achieve that unless it widens its net to attract the best candidates."

Bill Gulam, a senior lecturer at Salford University's Higher Education Research Centre who chaired the former Association of University Teachers equal opportunities committee, described Professor Esmail as a lone "beacon" in a sector where top management-tier BME staff could be counted on one hand.

He said: "Some universities make a big play about how many BME staff they have, but you often find that most of them have been recruited from overseas."

But Gus John, visiting faculty professor of education at Strathclyde University and author of a report for the Equality Challenge Unit that three years ago exposed institutions' failure to act on new race relations laws, said that some BME staff at Manchester feared the initiative was more of a numbers game than a serious attempt to bring about cultural change.

He added: "They feel this is a slightly mechanistic approach that will not address how BME staff are treated once recruited."

Michael Rubenstein, a discrimination law expert, said Manchester's approach to attracting more BME staff to senior positions was legal. But he added:

"It is fine to have a target to have BME staff included on shortlists, but there is a danger that those administering it will see this as a quota rather than a target - and quotas are unlawful."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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