Universities guilty of ‘perpetuating institutional racism’, report says

Katie Hoare
By Katie Hoare,
updated on Nov 24, 2020

Universities guilty of ‘perpetuating institutional racism’, report says

New report calls on senior higher education staff to undergo training ‘to improve racial literacy as part of a sector-wide crackdown’

Tackling racial harassment in higher education sheds light on the ongoing racial discrimination people face at university, stating unis are guilty of ‘perpetuating institutional racism’ on campus and calling on leaders in the higher education sector alongside students and staff to spot and stand up to racism.

Universities UK (UUK), the body that represents the higher education sector in the UK, has warned that ‘a quarter of black, Asian and minority ethnic students and a third of BAME staff have faced harassment on campus.’

UUK found that a third of BAME staff has experienced racist insults, which were part of repeat abuse. As a result of campus racism one in 20 students had given up their studies and three times as many staff left their posts.

The report highlights the essential need for additional education on campus, in the improvement in awareness of prejudice, white privilege and microaggression at university, alongside increasing diversity within staff, particularly at senior level. Data revealed last year highlighted that there were fewer than 150 Black professors teaching at university.

In 2019, an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission discovered that universities were letting down many students on campus by failing to address thousands of racist incidents. These included shocking incidents of physical assaults against BAME students, ostracism and harassment.

The latest report revealed that some students find it hard to report racism at university, with one respondent quoted, “I came to the UK and I met racism. I met English racism, which is very polite . . . so it’s difficult to accuse people and progress to a complaint.”

Chairman of the UUK advisory group, vice-chancellor and professor at the University of East Anglia said that universities are guilty of failing BAME staff and students.

“Too often black, Asian and minority ethnic students and staff have been failed. While they may have heard positive words, they have seen little action. That needs to change now.”

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students stated that although the report may be one step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. “Although we welcome this report, it makes for a sobering read and is a stark reminder of the racism that students and staff face on a daily basis in higher education.

“Changing a university culture that enables racial harassment to take place will not be achieved merely by an EDI project or by recruiting black people into senior positions, it requires us to go to the root of the problem: systemic racism.”

New guidance

New training programmes are encouraged by UUK, urging the higher education leaders to encourage allyship among white staff and students, and focus on training to identify and stamp out microaggressions. Collective microaggressions - commonplace, daily verbal indignities - have been found to have severe negative impact on affected students.

Latest recommendations from UUK that university leaders can implement immediately include:

  • Publicly commit priority status to tackling racial harassment.
  • Engage directly with students and staff with lived experience of racial harassment.
  • Review current policies and procedures and develop new institution-wide strategies for tackling racial harassment.
  • Improve awareness and understanding of racism, racial harassment, white privilege and microagressions among all staff and students, including through anti-racist training.
  • Ensure expected behaviours for online behaviour are clearly communicated to students and staff, as well as sanctions for breaches.
  • Develop and introduce reporting systems for incidents of racial harassment
  • Collect data on reports of incidents and share regularly with senior staff and governing bodies.

Existing initiatives are in place to tackle racism on campus, but findings show that there was an unconscious bias that such trainings were perceived as ‘tick-box exercises’, which leaves a gaping disparity in anti-racist training and other staff and student training initiatives.

President of Universities UK, Professor Julia Buckingham concluded that university leaders ‘have a duty of care.’ “Every racist incident is one too many and all university students and staff are entitled to a positive, safe and enjoyable experience free from racial harassment.”

Support resources

If you have experienced racism in any form, there are a lot of support services available for you to discuss your experiences, and find help, in safe, confidential spaces.

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