Seminar on Racial Discrimination
Race Discrimination Commissioner to Equal Opportunity Practitioners in
Higher Education, University of Western Australia, 27 March 1997
Some people think
of universities as a meeting place for the best and brightest, a place
to learn, to exchange ideas and to make a contribution to society. In
that milieu, something as base as racism should have no place. Unfortunately,
though, racism is present - as it is in probably all other areas
As elsewhere, racism
in higher education takes different forms. There are the more obvious
sorts of graffiti and name-calling; perhaps some offensive posters or
cartoons that find their way into public spaces. Then there is the personal
sort: student-to-student, staff-to-student, or intra-staff. We have had
complaints about all of these manifestations of racism - or more correctly,
I say perceived
racism because the complaints are often difficult to prove in the
final analysis. It seems difficult in race complaints within the areas
of higher education to reach an outcome which is entirely satisfactory
A number of complainants
decide not to go on with their case - perhaps they are sufficiently satisfied
that someone is taking their complaint seriously, in terms of recording
it and advising them how to proceed. Perhaps they just feel daunted by
the idea of conciliation meetings, telling their story again and again,
possibly going to a public hearing.
On the other hand
in these cases, some complainants may become absolutely obsessed by their
case and pursue it to the bitter end, where it is found in public hearing
to be misguided or unsubstantiated, with little evidence to support it.
Those are difficult cases, as the university in defending itself from
the complaint may expend a great deal of time, effort and money. It is
worth looking at those cases to see what sort of preventative action could
be taken. And here I am going to generalise from a number of cases that
have come under my Act.
It seems that a major
obstacle in smooth race relations at university is communication. This
frequently involves overseas students - an increasingly important sector
within the universitys student body. For example say that the assessment
of the students capacity to communicate in English has been generous,
overly generous. Now let us put that student with an overworked lecturer
or tutor who becomes aggrieved with the responsibility of constantly providing
additional private tuition at that students request so that he or
she can keep up with the class.
should be in place and should be used to redress situations of discrimination.
However, I am acknowledging the complexity of the issues surrounding racism
in higher education and I am wondering about strategies that should be
implemented in addition to the complaints process.
We can see conflict
in the making. The students family has paid a great deal of money
for the course: they expect a level of service from the university. If
the university accepted the student, surely it must have made a realistic
assessment of the students ability to undertake the course. Therefore,
from the familys point of view, why is the student having so much
difficulty and getting poor marks?
On the other hand,
the lecturer had no say in the selection of the student. The lecturer
has a duty to a whole class full of students and feels that it is unfair
to have to slow down or stop and explain to someone who clearly does not
comprehend English well enough to be in the class in the first place.
The lecturer does not always conceal his or her impatience, at other times,
other students may demonstrate their impatience or intolerance with the
overseas student and their behaviour goes unchecked by the staff member.
situation can be perceived by the student as discrimination on the basis
of race, particularly if he or she is conscious of racism because of other
incidents around campus - the odd graffiti that I mentioned earlier, or
something similar. And once the process of pursuing a formal race complaint
gets under way, the matter escalates, often with no joy to either party.
Now let me hasten
to add that I am not, by any means, denigrating our complaint-handling
system. I firmly believe that race discrimination legislation should be
in place and should be used to redress situations of discrimination. However,
I am acknowledging the complexity of the issues surrounding racism in
higher education and I am offering solutions that should be implemented
in addition to the complaints process.
It is obvious that
situations arising from communication difficulties or lack of cross-cultural
awareness would be more effectively dealt with in a preventative fashion
rather than after the event. It is clear that the rights and responsibilities
of overseas students and university staff must be well understood by all
parties and constantly monitored to respond to new situations. And, in
all fairness, I believe that universities are now really working in this
direction, especially in light of the importance of overseas fee-paying
students in difficult economic times. The conciliation staff at central
office at the Commission who deal with race cases have acknowledged that
in the last couple of years universities had become markedly better in
providing counselling and support staff dedicated to issues concerning
Another reason for
providing these sorts of counselling services and for having a clearly
defined anti-racism policy and set of grievance procedures in place at
each university is simply self-protection. If a complaint of racial discrimination
is brought against a higher education institution, it is helpful to be
able to show that the ground staff were under strict instructions to remove
racist graffiti the moment it appeared, and that an anti-racism manifesto
was printed annually in the students handbook, and that there was
a dedicated grievance officer with race discrimination training on staff,
I realise that in
all my examples so far, I have been using overseas students. This is realistic
as many of the complaints about race discrimination in higher education
have been lodged either by overseas students or visiting staff. However,
there are other situations I would construe as racist which have not received
as much attention as those sorts of examples I have mentioned.
The area where I
believe a great deal more work can be done is in the field of systemic
racism. This is the hidden face of racism - the sorts of policies and
practices which are not identified as racist because they have always
been there. Let me give a few examples.
One may concern Australian
students of non-English speaking background. Before the expansion of the
university system and the liberalisation of entry, students of non-English
speaking background were few in number because of the close correlation
between university entrance and socio-economic status. Few working class
students made the grade; fewer still were of non-English speaking background.
Today, most of Australias immigrant groups are represented in the
student body. Do they face barriers that are not presented to their Anglo-Australian
counterparts? Are there groups which are not represented? Do they get
inappropriately lumped in with the overseas students and labelled foreign?
I present these as questions because I do not know the answers. However,
I know that the questions must be asked.
problem may be the content of courses. Have they evolved to keep pace
with new realities, or are they still Eurocentric or even Anglo-centric
in their assumptions? I mention this because I have, over the last year,
been assisting with the stolen generation inquiry. In looking
at policies of well-meaning welfare agencies, I was struck anew with the
narrowness of the framework in which they made decisions. Aboriginal children
were deemed to be at risk because they were not living in a nuclear family,
despite the large and loving clan system of child care and family responsibility
which was the norm in all Aboriginal communities. Yet based solely on
a culturally-determined view of the right way to bring up
a child, welfare workers removed Indigenous children from their families
with tragic results.
Given that our universities
are derived very much from the English tradition, it is important that
they constantly examine what they teach and the assumptions they make
to ensure their relevance to a multicultural society.
An awareness of systemic
discrimination must also extend to employment, both academic, administrative
and ancillary. In addressing a group of university women last year, I
was shocked to find out that only 17.6% of tenured academic positions
at senior lecturer level or above were held by women. It seems to me that
feminism has been rampant on campus for at least two decades, and yet
inroads into traditional male bastions have obviously been slower than
we would like. Consider, then, the question of the employment of Indigenous
people or those of non-English speaking background? What inroads have
they made? Are they fairly represented throughout the system? Have qualifications
gained overseas been recognised, or have the holders of those qualifications
been subject to the same degree of discrimination that they have faced
in the broader community?
have been brought to us about these concerns. Cases of discrimination
in employment on the grounds of race are often more straight forward than
the provision of goods and services that I was referring to earlier -
the formal category that would cover complaints about not passing or not
doing well in a course because of racial discrimination.
In short, I am saying
that while I believe that a number of complaints of racial discrimination
that have been brought against institutions of high education have been
misguided - that they related to a breakdown in communication and understanding
rather than racism per se - there is no cause for complacency on the part
of institutions. There may very well be other areas of covert racial discrimination
which simply have not been formulated into a complaint. However, why wait
for complaints to be lodged? It would be better for all concerned if universities
and colleges examined their own policies and practices and identified
any areas that could be construed as racist. These could then be addressed
not only by the governing bodies of the university but by all stakeholders
- staff, students, and other agencies such as ourselves if required.
I would like to mention
one other area of responsibility which institutions of higher education
must shoulder, like all other employers. This is the responsibility for
providing an environment free from racial discrimination. Section 18A
of the RDA deals with vicarious liability, meaning
that the university is equally culpable with its employees or agents for
acts of racial discrimination unless it can show that it took all
reasonable steps to prevent the employees or agents from doing those acts.
Hence, the university is as culpable as the lecturer who makes racist
remarks in the staff room or in class unless the university can show that
it has made clear to all staff that such behaviour is not tolerated and
that action is taken when it is reported.
To assist in understanding
the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, I have made available
today a number of our folders with fact sheets about the Act and the complaint-handling
process. I have also provided copies of a recent publication - so recent,
in fact, that it is still a working draft. Prepared by my
unit, the Employment Code of Practice details the responsibilities
of employers, individual employees and unions in relation to the RDA.
It also covers in some depth recruitment, promotion, transfer, training
and dismissal; and outlines the notion of special measures.
is an interesting concept, especially when a university is considering
some sort of affirmative action to redress past discrimination. However,
in recent times, special programs for, say, Aboriginal people have come
under fire from some quarters as being racist. For example,
the University of Newcastle has an excellent program to encourage Indigenous
students to study medicine, recognising that have been few opportunities
for Indigenous people to become doctors and that the health status of
Indigenous Australians is of enormous concern. I received a race discrimination
complaint from a non-Indigenous Australian man saying he had been denied
access to the special course at Newcastle because of his race - the fact
that he was not Indigenous. Of course, I declined it because the activity
about which he complained was not unlawful under the Act. So I hope that
you will find some interesting information in these publications.
At the request of
the organisers, I have also brought copies of the paper that I gave on
racism in higher education at the National EOPHEA Conference in Byron
Bay last July. If you read it, please realise that the figures are by
now almost a year out of date. However, I must add gloomily that if anything,
any scenarios that I presented then are probably worse today. There has
been a real resurgence in racism in this country in the last year or so
- I see that in the sharp escalation of the complaints statistics, apart
from the anecdotal evidence in the media and from community groups as
I travel around.
So let me conclude
by urging an equal resurgence in anti-racist activity from the universities
and colleges on all fronts - both in the scrupulous observance of the
letter and the spirit of anti-discrimination law and in community education
efforts. I said at the beginning that universities were the gathering
place of the best and brightest, and for this reason, they must also be
the models of best practice. They must be seen to be the places where
the dark and regressive forces of racism are actively fought because they
have no place in the training grounds of the nations future leaders.
They are antithetical to progress and ideas.
updated 1 December 2001