Unions and employers are backing a commission investigating obstacles to ethnic minorities. Harvey McGavin reports
A HIGH-LEVEL commission to investigate race discrimination in further education will be announced at next week's Association of Colleges' conference.
The commission - to be chaired by Michael Peters, the chief education officer of York - should begin work next year and is expected to report back with a series of recommendations by the summer.
It will have the support of the association, the Further Education Funding Council and the lecturers' union NATFHE. The leaders of all three organisations agreed to set up an inquiry on racism in FE, following this year's Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The exact terms of reference of the commission are yet to be decided, but it will look at staffing issues as well as students and will include union representatives and senior figures from the AOC and FEFC on its panel.
One of its first tasks will be to undertake research into racial representation in further education. According to the latest FEFC statistics, around 6 per cent of staff are from ethnic groups - roughly equivalent to the population as a whole - compared with about 12 per cent of students.
Dave Gibson, chief executive of the AOC, said that he hoped the commission would address the employment of ethnic groups in all areas of college life and in particular their under representation on governing bodies.
Although lecturers from ethnic minorities are generally better qualified, they are more likely to be employed on part-time or short-term contracts. Just 2 per cent of college managers and just two principals - Wally Brown at the City of Liverpool Community College and Ahmed Choonara at South Nottingham - are black or Asian.
Michael Peters, who was the first black chief education officer outside London when he was appointed to the new unitary authority of York in 1995, said he would be approaching the job as an "interested outsider".
"We will be looking at what are the barriers that seem to prevent people from progressing in FE.
"Our primary concern will be looking at staffing issues. As far as I am concerned that has a link through to students and student participation. If you have a more diverse staffing profile across all levels in colleges you are more likely to have a a better understanding of students," he said.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of NATFHE, welcomed the establishment of the commission which he said was long overdue.
"It will be a partnership approach between unions, employers and government bodies in an attempt to examine problems of institutional racism in our sector.
"It will look at recruitment and selection procedures through the whole of FE to see if there are barriers to entry and informal practices like 'mates of mates' recruitment. That can entrench existing underrepresentation."
He added that although colleges should be congratulated for the way they had helped many black and Asian people re-establish their careers and education paths after being failed at school, the proportion of black staff in colleges was still "pretty inadequate" and that NATFHE would support the setting of targets for recruitment from ethnic groups.