"THIS IS the last chance we will have in my working life to end institutional racism," says Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE. The Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry created the mood in which something can be done, and Mackney wants to make the most of it.
"Sir William Macpherson said that every institution must examine its policies and practice with a view to eliminating institutional racism. For colleges and universities the report raises challenging issues," Mackney says.
This has already led him to hold a series of working meetings with Association of Colleges chief David Gibson and the Further Education Funding Council's David Melville, and a meeting with the Committee of Vice Chancellors is planned for November. It's also what inspired him to initiate a conference for next month, involving all the national bodies in further and higher education, called Learning through diversity - colleges and universities after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.
Yet at first glance the figures seem to suggest that race inequality in UK colleges and universities is a thing of the past. The proportion of young people from ethnic minority groups in full-time education is actually higher than the proportion of young white people. In spring 1997, 81 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds from ethnic minority groups were receiving education and training, compared with 67 per cent of white; and 42 per cent of ethnic minority 20 to 24-year-olds were receiving education and training, against 27 per cent among the white population.
It's a similar story in higher education: 13 per cent of the students entering HE in 1996-7 were from ethnic minority groups, which make up about 6 per cent of the total population. Earlier this year education minister Tessa Blackstone hailed the fact that a greater proportion of Indian young people were studying for higher education qualifications than white young people.
But the statistics hide some less optimistic facts. Higher up the status ladder, the ratios start to change. In 1996, 40 per cent of black 16-year-olds were pursuing vocational courses, compared with 30 per cent of white 16-year-olds and only 27 per cent of Asian 16-year-olds. But only 30 per cent of black teenagers were studying academic courses, against 38 per cent of white 16-year-olds and 41 per cent of Asian 16-year-olds.
At university level, new universities (former polytechnics) are thought to have higher proportions of ethnic minority students than "traditional" universities.
Ethnic minority students have a disproportionately hard time getting onto the most popular higher education courses, such as medicine. Applicants from ethnic minorities are 1.46 times less likely to be accepted on courses in the UK's 28 medical schools, according to research published in the British Medical Journal in October 1998.
"Having a European surname predicted acceptance better than ethnic origin itself, implying direct discrimination," conclude the researchers, led by Professor I.C. McManus of St Mary's Hospital Medical School. "Applicants from ethnic minority groups fared significantly less well in 12 of the 28 British medical schools. People from ethnic minority groups applying to medical school are disadvantaged principally because ethnic origin is assessed from the candidate's surname. The disadvantage has diminished since 1986."
Baroness Blackstone's welcome for the number of Indians in HE rather obscured the fate of other ethnic minorities: 16 per cent of all ethnic minorities over the age of 25 have degrees, which compares well with the figure for whites, at 14 per cent. But the ethnic minorities figure includes people of Indian origin, and 19 per cent of them have degrees, so there must be a loser somewhere in the ethnic minority communities. There is: it's people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, at 10 per cent.
Among 16 to 24-year-olds the difference is more marked. Seven per cent of whites in this age group have degrees, compared with 6 per cent of all ethnic minorities. But the number of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as well as the number of blacks, was so small that the proportion was not even measurable for the Labour Force Survey of 1997.
Black students are much more likely than others to go into higher education as mature students. In 1994-5, only 14 per cent of black first-year home students were under 19, compared with 49 per cent of Indians and 39 per cent of white students; 56 per cent of black students were 26 or older, compared with 15 per cent of Indians and 36 per cent of whites.
This is probably related to the fact that they consistently fall below white students at GCSE. In 1997, 45 per cent of white 16-year-olds achieved five or more A to C grades at GCSE. The figure was 38 per cent for Asians and 23 per cent for blacks. These figures raise important questions about inequality in schools and suggests that the key to improving access to colleges and universities lies, in part, to raising achievement in secondary schools.
In FE, Mackney points out, despite a large proportion of ethnic minority students, there are few ethnic minority teachers. The disparity gets more marked the higher up the pecking order you go. If the number of ethnic minority students is well above the proportion in the population as a whole, which is about 6 per cent, the number of FE principals is well below 6 per cent. And the Further Education Development Agency reports that only 3 per cent of FE college governors, and 2 per cent of sixth form college governors, were from ethnic minority groups in 1994.
Despite this, "colleges have not yet set targets for the proportion of black staff". Even when they are recruited, Mackney believes they are often not retained. When, in the mid-1990s he was a NATFHE regional officer in Birmingham, half of the cases of sackings during the probationary period were of black staff. Part of the reason, he believes, was that white managers felt uncomfortable giving their new black lecturers the sort of prescriptive advice they might give to white lecturers. So, unsurprisingly, things started to go wrong.
"We need proper induction procedures which don't rely on the intuitive behaviour of managers," says Mackney. He also wants to change the method of appointment. The way into FE lecturing is often to know someone who can fix you up with some part-time teaching, and this discriminates against ethnic minority staff.
"Any institutional barrier where there is not transparency provides a chance for racism," he says.
"Learning through Diversity: Colleges and Universities after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry", conference will be held on November 26 in London