“We cannot be a beacon to the world unless the talents of all the people shine through. Not one black High Court judge; not one black chief constable or permanent secretary. Not one black army officer above the rank of colonel . . . Not a record of pride for the British establishment.”
Bold (if near-verbless) words from Tony Blair, quoted in the introduction to its 1999 review of anti-discrimination laws by the government’s Better Regulation Task Force. But the task force, whose mission is to reduce what is pejoratively called red tape, did not advise new regulations against discrimination. It merely proposed that private firms should be encouraged to adopt monitoring policies. Surprise, surprise: every survey since has revealed that companies have done next to nothing.
Now comes incontrovertible and shocking evidence that racial prejudice is rife in the business world. Early next month, an official study will show that black and Asian graduates are up to three times as likely to be unemployed after university, even when they have the same grades in the same subjects as their white counterparts.
The finding is nothing short of dramatic. For the first time, the figures take into account all the factors that determine a university leaver’s job chances: degree classification; subject studied; class and school background; gender and age; even local employment conditions.
Many of the results confirm what we already know about graduate employability: a medical degree is better than an arts qualification; a First is better than a Third; private school is better than state school. One unexpected result is that women students are 50 per cent more likely than men to secure a job six months after graduating. Since this advantage disappears three years after graduation, the likely explanation is that women are less fussy about taking a lowly position for a first job.
Nothing as innocent can explain the differences in employment prospects for different ethnic groups. A graduate’s skin colour dwarfs all other factors put together, in determining the likelihood of employment. African Caribbean women and Indian males have slightly better chances than other ethnic-minority graduates, but there is little variation in the figures for black Caribbean, black African, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Chinese graduates. Where 6 per cent of white graduates are still looking for jobs six months after university, as many as 15 per cent of their black counterparts will be on the dole. A black graduate with a First in chemistry from, say, Manchester University has a far greater chance of being unemployed than a white graduate with exactly the same background and degree.
The figures, from the Higher Education Funding Councils, are intended to gauge the universities’ success in producing employable graduates. What they actually reveal is the urgent need for action on racial discrimination in the private sector.
The problem for employers is that it is hard to identify the kind of discrimination that is still endemic in the modern business world. We are not talking here about blatant racism. The Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence was much mocked for its focus on institutional racism in the police – but institutional racism is exactly what is at stake here.
A business may not realise that its decisions or policies unfairly disadvantage certain ethnic groups. And without systematic monitoring, a company may never identify the problem. However, the need for monitoring has all but been conceded by the government, following the announcement last month that public sector employers will now have a legal duty to track the composition of their workforce. But this is the easy step. The real test is to impose the same rules on private firms.
How might this be done? Publicly listed companies could be made to provide staff breakdowns in their annual reports. Better still, all businesses could report the information annually to Companies House. But the best model already exists in Northern Ireland. Catholic participation in the workforce has risen steadily over the past decade, since companies have been required by law to report the proportions of Catholic and Protestant employees (at all grades and positions) to the Equality Commission. The number of Catholic employees now stands at just 2 per cent less than the proportion of Catholics in the population as a whole.
As the Commission for Racial Equality says, most companies do not see recruitment of ethnic-minority groups as a priority, as there is no clear benefit to shareholders. Yet there are increasingly compelling commercial reasons to employ an ethnically diverse workforce. By shunning black and Asian graduates, who now make up just under 10 per cent of all university leavers, companies miss out on a huge source of potential talent. Indeed, an irony not lost on many blacks is the government’s attempt to recruit IT specialists from India and the like, when so much of the indigenous population is overlooked. Failure to embrace a multi-ethnic staff policy, moreover, risks alienating a large part of your customer base. It is not just that ethnic minorities make up 10 per cent of the UK population; it is also that whites, after all, account for only 30 per cent of the world population.
So it is not just that we need more black judges and generals (that’s the old establishment), but more blacks at every level in private firms, from the broom cupboard to the boardroom. Then, as Blair wishes, we may indeed be a beacon to the world.
The writer is higher education editor of Guardian Unlimited: www.guardian.co.uk