Elitism creates another hurdle for people from ethnic minorities

Talk to any major employers and they will all claim to take race diversity seriously. And most do; the talk is not just talk, but is backed up by real and meaningful programmes. But ask how many of their senior management – not just those who sit on the board or at an equivalent level – are from an ethnic minority background and few will produce big numbers.

British management is still very white. Companies and the public sector are making an effort to address this but change is slow.

There are no British born people from ethnic minorities running a FTSE 100 company and, disappointingly, only three people from a minority background have ever served as cabinet ministers. It’s fair to assume then that we still have a long way to go before race is no longer an issue.

Promising futures

So what of tomorrow’s talent, the recently-graduated and those currently studying at university? Race for Opportunity’s latest research project, Race into higher education, attempts to get to the bottom of this by delving into how people from ethnic minorities are faring in higher education.

Progress has been made, with the number of black, asian and minority ethnic students progressing to higher education twice what it was 15 years ago. But the university population has doubled too, driven on by Labour’s pledge to get 50% of school-leavers into universities. The picture differs from one ethnic group to another, but as a whole, ethnic minorities are now better represented in higher education.

Exclusive elite

What is worrying is the small numbers of ethnic minority students making it into Britain’s elite institutions. From universities like Oxford and Cambridge come the business leaders and politicians of tomorrow. With these institutions and many of The Russell Group universities failing to attract a proportionate number of ethnic minority students, the under-representation at the top of UK society looks set to continue.

But the picture for Russell Group universities is not uniform. The London-based universities; London School of Economics, King’s College London, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine and University College London – attract above-average numbers of ethnic minority students. And outside of London, the universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Warwick also attract a representative proportion of the UK ethnic minority population.

 These successes can in part be explained by where these universities are located, as most of them are in areas with high minority ethnic populations. Even so, these institutions are not attracting all ethnic minority groups, for example, black or black-British Caribbeans are highly-represented only at King’s and Birmingham University.

Arguably it would be a challenge to see the same level of representation at universities such as the University of Edinburgh, a top ranking university, where the surrounding area has a much lower minority ethnic population. But geography and the absence of a large locally-based ethnic minority population should not be an excuse for ethnic minorities not being properly represented. Oxford and Cambridge take pride in drawing candidates from across the globe and would never be hidebound to recruiting from local communities.

Social engineering

The question of universities’ role in social engineering is vexed. Politicians and vice-chancellors have been at loggerheads over this for some time, frequently trading punches via the national media. And the battle of differing ideologies, with all its macho posturing, will no doubt continue to play out with no resolution.

The answer need not be heavy-handed. In fact the answer need not be political. If employers were willing to show the same commitment to identifying potential, as opposed to realised ability, that the government is so keen universities adopt, then they might venture beyond the red bricks of Leeds, Manchester and London.

Simply put, employers should place less importance on where someone studies – many people from ethnic minorities are simply not aware of the importance employers ascribe to going to a ‘proper’ university – and value them for what they could achieve rather than what they already have.

It’s not a big step but it requires employers to be less slavish about a university’s brand and to recognise that a graduate from a socially deprived background with a degree from the University of Salford, for example, may be the equal of the privately educated University of Edinburgh graduate.

Employers can make a big difference.

Sandra Kerr is  national director,  Race for Opportunity 

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