‘The university professor is always white’

February 2, 2013 in Blog by Gus John

"Empty Seats" by Benson Kua (Flickr - BY-SA 2.0)

“Empty Seats” by Benson Kua (Flickr – BY-SA 2.0)

Rachel Williams’ disturbing feature (‘The university professor is always white’) comes at a time when this government is hell bent on removing the public sector equality duty from the compliance requirements of the Equality Act 2010. Already, the Coalition Government has effectively neutered the Equality and Human Rights Commission and rendered it a hollow shell that could easily be made to disappear without anyone missing it.

Williams’ piece rightly pointed to the bold initiative the chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies took 18 months ago in pursuit of gender equality by requiring medical schools seeking biomedical research grants to demonstrate evidence of supporting women’s career progression.

One of the dangers some of us foresaw in joining up the various equality strands into a single equality act was that public bodies that had shown so little evidence of engagement with anti-discrimination legislation and of promoting gender, race and disability equality would be even less focused on improving their performance in respect of those three strands, let alone promoting equality for the additional number of groups (6) with protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010.

Between 2003 and 2007, I evaluated the race equality policy of every higher education institution (HEI) in the UK for the funding councils in England, Scotland and Wales.  That exercise left me concerned about two key issues, among others. One was the tendency among those institutions to promote ‘diversity’ rather than tackle racial discrimination in all its structural, institutional, cultural and personal manifestations.  The following extract from my 2005 overview report on the sector spells out that tendency:

Most troubling of all, however, is the evidence of an insistence upon reducing the emphasis that the Act places on ‘race’, race discrimination and race equality and subsuming the intentions of the legislation under broader and more amorphous and ill-defined concepts such as equal opportunities, cultural diversity, ethnicity and cultural awareness.

In one instance, an Ethnicity Equality Policy and Ethnicity Equality Action Plan were submitted on the grounds that ‘race’ was an outmoded and unhelpful colonial concept which the Institution had decided to move away from.

If that approach, as evidenced time and again in the material submitted to HEFCE, says anything, it is that terms such as diversity, equality, equal opportunity, equity, cultural awareness, cultural diversity are often used interchangeably in a morass of sociological confusion, eschewing notions of power, dominance, ideology and hegemony.

The other tendency was for institutions to act on the assumption that the then Commission for Racial Equality would not have the resources to come after them (as many put it) for non-compliance with the General Duty, an assumption that proved to be correct in too many cases, irrespective of the number of race discrimination complaints that certain universities were made to answer in the Employment Tribunal.

Such was my concern that I recommended to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in 2005 that in the same way the Blair government had established as part of its ‘widening participation’ agenda a funding link between recruitment of certain groups of students in the population and top up fees as part of its funding arrangements for HEIs, it should link the funding of those institutions to evidence of their compliance, across all their relevant functions, with the requirements of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 and empower HEFCE to withhold funding until such time that certain specific conditions were met.

One such core function was the recruitment, selection, promotion and career progression of black and ethnic minority academic staff.  Given the inertia that accompanied the Race Relations Act 1976 and the performance of the HE Sector on ‘race’ issues prior to the RRAA 2000 and since, there was good reason for the funding councils to give HEIs a wake-up call by linking their funding to their performance in respect of the general duty under the RRAA 2000.

That recommendation was considered ‘too confrontational’ and it was felt that ‘carrots rather than sticks’ were what Vice Chancellors needed in order that they could be encouraged to put their own house in order.

Hiding the problem

The problem was and remains to this day that HEIs are accountable to no-one for their performance in complying with anti-discrimination legislation and promoting and sustaining a culture in the workplace and learning environment where everyone could feel that their rights are acknowledged and protected, irrespective of their profile or the target group to which they belong. In the case of black and ethnic minority (global majority) staff, not only do they face overt and ever so subtle forms of marginalization and discrimination, they also feel the unabated wrath of the organization if they dare take their employer to task for discrimination or victimization.

The review exercise I conducted revealed evidence of senior staff providing induction, mentoring and supervision for newly appointed and recently graduated staff, including supporting them to clock up an impressive list of publications, only to find them being promoted to professorial positions above their mentors and supervisors, despite the fact that the latter were actively encouraged to apply for those same positions on the basis of their own academic and managerial track record.

Rather than explore the reasons for the number of complaints brought by black staff, sometimes against the same manager or groups of managers, the default position in many of those HEIs is to resist the complaint, arm themselves with the most expensive and intimidating lawyers and beat complainants into submission.

The objective, of course, is to avoid a finding of race discrimination at all costs and send a message that the institution will defend and support its managers come what may. Very rarely, do those institutions, once they have secured ‘victory’ in the Employment Tribunal, or worse yet if they lose, revisit the matter in order to understand what lessons might be learnt and what systemic or management failures there might have been.

One of the consequences of this approach is to leave global majority staff feeling vulnerable and in no doubt that their employer does not afford the same ‘duty of care’ to them as to their managers and those complained against. Another consequence is that staff are cowed into submission, even though their individual and collective experience could teach the institution something about it and its culture and management practices.  Many global majority staff therefore work in an oppressive and suffer in silence as they consider the accumulated cost of complaining or attempting to change the culture far too much to bear.

The public sector equality duty provides a framework in which staff and students could hold their institutions accountable.  It gives them the right to demand that the institution articulates its race equality objectives and its active measures for eliminating unlawful discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity, as well as evidence of the impact of such measures. The Employment Tribunal could interrogate the institution’s performance on these criteria and form a view of the institutional culture in which global majority staff with or without the other protected characteristics are having to operate.

‘That’s just the way it is’

The nationwide reviews I conducted, beginning nearly ten years ago, provided each HEI (including Wales and Scotland, for instance) with a confidential status report and detailed recommendations, supplemented by a sector-wide report all of which were submitted to the respective funding councils. Since then, the funding councils themselves and the Equality Challenge Unit have done further studies, not one of which has provided any reasons for celebration as they have not been able to point to the advances made by the sector.

Yet, despite that lamentable absence of evidence of the sector putting its house in order, it is still being offered the carrot of ‘self-regulation’ by this government.

God forbid that despite the changing demography of Britain and the profile of students, domestic and foreign in HE, the university professor will always be white and that the nation will simply shrug its shoulders and accept that ‘that’s just the way it is’.

Picture (home):

Students in Classrooms at UIS 9-14-10” by Jeremy Wilburn (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)