Racism levels at UK universities “alarmingly high”

“Oblivious” universities are failing to deal with racial harassment on campus

Students in the UK are being racially harassed at an “alarmingly high rate”, a government inquiry has found. One in four ethnic minority students (24%) have experienced racial harassment on campus according to the report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

It also found a significant gap between how well universities thought they were dealing with these incidents and the reality of students’ experiences, with only one-third of affected students making a complaint.

The EHRC spoke to students and staff at universities throughout England, Scotland and Wales for its report Tackling Racial Harassment: Universities Challenged, which ultimately found that the universities “are living in the past and have failed to learn from history”. Rachel Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, explained that “not only are universities out of touch with the extent that this is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue”.

Name-calling, physical attacks and micro-aggressions

Of students who had been racially harassed, 56% reported experiencing racist name-calling, insults and jokes. One student at a Welsh university shared that “on multiple occasions, myself or my friends have had the N-word shouted at us [by fellow students] or been told they are “pretty for a black girl”. 20% had suffered physical attacks, while nearly a third (32%) had been exposed to racist materials, such as T-shirts with offensive slogans.

Students who felt upset about micro-aggressions, which can include stereotyping and dismissive comments, regularly had their concerns brushed off as overly sensitive by perpetrators justifying their offensive comments as jokes. An undergraduate at an English university gave an example of the kind of micro-aggression they had witnessed: “nicknames have to be adopted by lecturers for minority students for whom their names are deemed too difficult. Often this takes place initially when the lecturer screws their face up upon seeing an “ethnic” name on the register”.

International students may be particularly isolated and vulnerable, according to the research. Some speculated that they’re only wanted for the fees they bring, making them feel like commodities. One international undergraduate reported that “people would prefer not to talk to me or sit with me”, meaning they have to “work extra hard and be extra friendly in order to get on in lessons”.

University responses reveal lack of awareness

The report revealed a serious lack of awareness from the universities about the scope of these issues. Of the responding universities, 43% believed that all incidents of students being racially harassed were reported, but only 33% of racially harassed students said that they had gone to their university.

For the two-thirds of affected students who didn’t report their racial harassment to the university, 46% put their silence down to a lack of confidence that the university would do anything to help. With the students who did report, fewer than four in 10 found that something was done about their complaint.

Suffering the consequences of racial harassment

The inquiry described how victims of racial bullying have been affected, finding that it was common for them to avoid activities out of fear of suffering more harassment. This in turn can negatively impact on how well they do in their studies and, ultimately, future careers. Of those who were racially harassed, one in 20 even said that they’d left their course as a result of it.

A postgraduate at an English university shared “I do not trust anyone at university – I have PTSD because of this all. It is also still ongoing. I just want to finish and go, I do not feel safe here”.

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, described the report as “sad and shocking”, and called for universities to study the findings and “take urgent action”. The EHRC report recommended that universities should be held accountable to their funding councils and regulators for their efforts to tackle harassment. It also advised that their complaints procedures need to be fit for purpose and that senior staff should actively work to create an inclusive culture where students feel able to make complaints.

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