Equal Opportunities - An Issue or Not?

Having been involved in student politics for as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the number of academic institutions which profess to adhering to an equal opportunity policy. It seems that one of the buzz words for the millennium is (you've guessed it): equal opps.

So what in fact is meant by this term? Is it the ownership of a policy which protects the rights of all individuals who may be associated with any given institution, or is it just a piece of paper aiming to placate the many who fall into one its many named categories?

Certainly, a lot of positive work has been done, and should rightly be applauded. In the academic world, there are countless research papers demonstrating the lack of opportunities for the minorities, the question is what about the postgraduate world?

Walk into most academic institutions today, and it will probably be the case that a significant number of postgraduates will be classed as belonging to a "minority". Overseas students, mature students, part-time students are but a few of the examples which form part of the postgraduate population. However, there are cases where despite the presence of a concrete policy, these students still feel vulnerable and need more representation at all levels be it union or management to ensure that they their needs are not overlooked.

To take a concrete example, being a postgraduate in its own right is a tough road to follow, financial implications, supervision issues, time management, the list goes on... Add to that the fact that you might then belong to a "minority group", suggests the added bonus of other issues one has to deal with. The issue of double blind-marking has been an issue for postgraduate students on the whole particularly in taught courses, if then there are issues concerning prejudice due perhaps to a student's sexual orientation, or creed or race, this makes the postgraduate students road to success an even harder one.

There is however, an answer. Given the fact that more and more institutions are celebrating the fact that they implement "equal opportunities policies", the next step would be to exercise one's rights under these policies.

What always astounds me as a postgraduate is the fact that, for me, education is the key to freedom... freedom of thought. We are all born with inbuilt prejudices and to deny this would be futile, however, at the risk of sounding patronising, shouldn't education be the major tool which allows us to challenge these prejudices?

Is it too much to ask of the world of academia to lead British society in the recognition of equal opportunities? Not just on paper, but in terms of examining the number of research students who are from ethnic minorities, examining the number of teaching staff who are disabled, examining the hierarchical structure of management at academic level and the ratio in terms of gender and highlighting these issues.

All of these factors amongst others affect the postgraduate, and if venturing into this world of intellect and reasoning one discovers that there is still a lot to challenge, then surely this is to be celebrated. And at the same time changed.

Some Case Histories

If someone is told they have rights, what does this mean? Does this mean they must be grateful for the fact that once they have paid their fees, they must then be grateful for being treated with respect? Surely, everybody deserves to be treated with respect.

If someone is told that they have been accepted onto a PhD course, only to discover that their supervisor has a certain dislike for the fact that they are of a certain creed and this is demonstrated by subtle comments made on a regular basis then, is there really any point to this education?

If someone produces top quality work and submits along with colleagues only to discover that there appears to be a discrepancy in the marking procedure, that is, other people are being marked more favourably, where are the equal opportunities then?

If institutions have equal opportunity policies or codes, then this is to be celebrated. If institutions don't have relevant policies, then this can be rectified: student unions, academic forums, sympathetic academic staff, can all make a difference. Change takes time, but it can be achieved.

Complaints procedures need to be examined. Student Charters need to be adopted. Equal opportunity officers need to be created. Change will only come about, if we make an effort. Postgraduate students are a species in their own right, many defy financial constraints, social issues etc to fulfil these dreams of contributing to the world of academia, they also fall into the remit of "equal opportunities", so they can make the difference and are in a stronger position to do so.