January 15, 2007

Time to kick racism out of university

Harinder Bahra bemoans the failure of higher education to adequately tackle racism on campus

Thursday November 16, 2006 - Education Guardian

Far from celebrating the growing diversity of UK university staff and students, the higher education sector is almost doing the opposite. There has been a collective failure of employers in the university sector to tackle race discrimination and racism, or even accept it exists.

Like football clubs, universities are descending on developing countries, picking up cheaper black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers and lecturers in response to the transatlantic brain drain and continued pressure on operating costs.

BME staff are often on part-time or fixed-term contracts with lower salaries and have difficulty in progressing through to senior positions. Meanwhile, BME students are increasingly being stereotyped as "extremists" in addition to being seen as academically less able.

As the University and College Union today launches a race equality campaign it is high time to ask what is being done.Some universities, like the trade union sector, have appointed BME chancellors or presidents in voluntary, unpaid roles, but without corresponding changes in senior paid positions. This window dressing presents a diverse public profile, but still preserves the status quo.

Leeds Metropolitan University has become the first in the UK to appoint an independent staff ombudsman to cover equality issues - a role that I am delighted to take on. Our initial discussions led to the development of an innovative model where the employee, the university and the trade union could work together with an informed independent intermediary to seek an amicable solution to discrimination cases.

It is encouraging to work with a senior management team that not only recognises that inequalities exist, but are prepared to invest time and effort to develop new solutions rather than resort to normal adversarial responses, which can often destroy the employment relationship leading to a waste of human talent.

Although we are still refining how the process will work, it may provide us with a sector-wide model where we seek mediated solutions instead of adversarial ones. Apart from reducing costs, the process will help develop an inclusive culture, which will enable staff to manage conflict, while maintaining their dignity.

With the plethora of legislative requirements, it has become increasingly difficult for the public sector to keep up to date with best practices on diversity and equality issues. There are no records kept by the funding council for England, Hefce, on the amount universities spend on legal fees dealing with employment matters, or the costs of such discrimination cases on the brand, recruitment of suitable staff, productivity and staff turnover.

I have had first hand knowledge of tackling race discrimination, having been successful in a tribunal case against Brunel University, where the senior management team was heavily criticised for failing to follow their internal processes.

Any attempts to raise issues of racism or other dubious practices within the sector often leads to the withdrawal of "honorary membership" for individuals, who quickly get labelled troublemakers, leading to further discrimination, victimisation, or academic "containment". Some become the subject of a "reorganisation". Some individuals I have encountered are so systematically hunted that they leave voluntarily or are "managed out" of employment through ill health, redundancy or alleged poor performance. It is with sadness, that I have watched the career destruction of those who are far more talented than myself.

Although the sector has collectively responded via Universities UK and Hefce to fund the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), to date it has made some progress, but allowed universities to hide behind their often plagiarised and commended race equality schemes - excellent written documents, but rarely measured or monitored for outcomes. This lack of progress, whatever the reasons - poor understanding, ignorance, collusion, resources or institutionalised racism - has, obviously, led to little change.

It is time for the government to set up an independent commission into the experiences of BME staff and students in higher education (like the FE sector), to investigate the challenges diversity brings the sector and how leadership and the culture of higher education needs to adapt to grasp current and future opportunities.

The trade union movement is often unable to understand and respond to the concerns and experiences of BME staff. Members who have paid union subscriptions and are facing discrimination visualise this giant machinery kicking into life and regiments of trade union activists coming to their aid like a fourth emergency service. Many have commented they have been left stranded and forced to become litigants in person. The added complexity of their cases and difficulty in securing direct evidence often leads to cases being abandoned or to a forced settlement.

Although it is comforting that trade unions have accepted the existence of racism, it is time for trade unions and universities to undertake impact assessments on their respective polices and procedures, including satisfaction surveys, to improve their employment and service delivery. It is only through critical self-reflection and a commitment from both university leadership and trade unions to work together that we can have changes that will enable us to develop world-class cultures that afford equal treatment for staff and students.

· Harinder Bahra is Professor of Management and Diversity at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Schwartz slated for role in sacking
Phil Baty - Published: 20 May 2005, Times Highr Education

The Government's senior adviser on the fairness of university admissions has been criticised for the "deeply unfair treatment" of a senior colleague, writes Phil Baty.

The Watford Employment Tribunal this week described how Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, presided over the victimisation of his marketing director, Harinder Bahra.

Releasing its full written reasoning after announcing its verdict last month, the tribunal said that Mr Bahra, who is of Indian origin, was summarily dismissed after revealing that he had an outstanding race discrimination case against his previous employer.

Professor Schwartz, who wrote a landmark report on university access last year, was personally criticised for ordering the sacking. The tribunal said Professor Schwartz's claim that Mr Bahra had been treated "fairly and appropriately" was "simply a travesty"...


Anonymous said...

For many employers, BME researchers are transient.

There is the perception that BME researchers are all too happy to be in the UK. There is also the perception that many BME researchers, having come from countries where corruption is rife will not challenge being lied to, will not challenge having their rights violated, etc... they will not fight back.

BME researchers can always be blackmailed with a visa cancellation or a lack of visa extension.

There have been cases where BME researchers were specifically selected to work on projects that had serious problems; high risk projects and projects that were about to be stopped.

Your weblog is a wake up call to UCU reps.

As for HR, they will continue to prolong discussions until the complainant gives up or is about to be deported, they will continue to lie and to write increasingly more eloquent policies after every case, guaranteeing their steady climb up the career ladder.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said...

There does seem to be - at least anecdotal evidence - that ethnic academics are marginalised, victimised etc.

It would be useful to find a study on the issue or somehow have some data or statistics.

The HEFCE gives some figures but there is no specific breackdown of ethnic minorities in higher education, participation rates, roles, etc.

We know they exist and we know they are out there, and we also know that they too can become the victims of academic bullies.

What we don't know - or do we know it? - is to what extent the ethnic background attracts more bullying, if there is more 'attraction' due to what?

They will not speak up, they do not know our rules here... our culture... naive really for if anything I would have thought that people from ethnic backgrounds are perhaps more likely to stand up for their rights. The experiene of being in another country and expecting better... it is the UK after all... 1.5 out of 10 are bullied at some stage... but it is all very silent and 'dignified' - under the carpet... the British way of doing things...

Anonymous said...

Brunel University in West London conducted a detailed survey of the experience of ethnicity amongst all its staff in about 1998. The experience of BME staff was so appalling that the results of the survey got lost in some never-ending cycle of re-analysis, buck-passing and transferred responsibilities that no report was ever released. As anonymous commented, BME employees are transient so their rights and dignity are easily ignored.

Anonymous said...

To the racist manager

* equal rights for Career progress:
networking, exposure to the wider academic community, dissiminating one's own work (not giving it to your european researchers to present without consulting with the BME researcher), guiding them on funding, allowing them to execute their own ideas

* Equal rights for Intellectual Progress:
attending conferences, attending project meetings, inclusion in group discussions, being introduced to specialist researchers in the institution

* equal rights when acknowledging BME's intellectual input:
not disclosing their ideas to boost your career, not handing over their proposals to your european researchers and telling BME at the end of their contract that there is no funding for them

*Upholding BME's research interests like:
not disclosing their ideas at every opportunity

* respecting their health and need for social interaction: Not consuming their every minute of existence with work, while your european researchers change deadlines because 'it is sunny outside' and because their jobs are secured.

The above is drawn from real cases.

A word for the the HR and AUT who handled these cases, may someone discriminate against you, may you be victimised to know how a person feels when faced with such situation.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said...

It is very hard - almost impossible - for the victims (targets) of workplace bullying to communicate to others the pain and the symptoms of PTSD.

They stem from the huge injustice.

Neither HR nor AUT will know how it feels unless they had direct experience of workplace bullying.

Then come health problems, isolation, loneliness, depression and at times suicide. Who would even believe the victim of workplace bullying?