New report sheds light on racial harassment in UK universities

By Zoe Kramer

A recent survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that 24% of university students from an ethnic minority background across England, Scotland and Wales have reported experiencing racial harassment. 20% of these students had been physically attacked, whilst 56% reported racist name-calling and jokes. Other commonly reported issues were microaggressions, being excluded from group activities, and being exposed to racist material or displays. This harassment was reportedly at the hands of not only fellow students but also tutors.

Students who have been harassed have reported feeling depressed, anxious and vulnerable. 1 in 20 said that harassment caused them to leave their studies and 8% reported suicidal thoughts.

Under the public sector equality duty (PSED), public universities are required to pay due regard towards eliminating harassment, but the burden falls on individuals to take their cases to court, which can be costly. Two thirds of students who reported experiencing racial harassment did not report it to their university, the report states. This was reportedly because they did not know how to report it, had no evidence, or did not believe their university would take any action to address the issue. This lack of reporting arguably gives universities an overly optimistic view of how they are doing in terms of racial discrimination.

Cardiff University has received a total of 39 complaints regarding racist behaviour in the last five years, and speaking to the Guardian a Cardiff University spokesperson said: “Cardiff University recognises that racial inequality affects people throughout society” and they “acknowledge the need to do more to tackle these inequalities and to make race equality a priority for all our students and staff.”

“As a University we are already taking proactive steps to ensure that promoting race equality is central to us as an institution. We recognise there is still more work to be done, working alongside the wider Higher Education sector and society as a whole.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission uses Cardiff University’s Race Equality Support Panel as a case study for solving this pervasive issue. The panel includes access to staff with expertise in racial harassment, tailored support for complex cases, and assurance that effective programs are in place to deal with harassment. The panel focuses not just on the person reporting the incident, but also others who may have been affected by the incident or by the perpetrator, as well as what those involved needed to resolve the issue and move forward. The panel identifies emerging themes within the university and reports them to the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. Its purpose is to maintain consistent practice, eliminate achievement gaps, improve student and staff retention, and improve the university’s standing as an institution.

Speaking to Gair Rhydd about the recent findings by the Equality and HumanRights Commission, a spokesperson for Cardiff University said: “We continue to work together with our Students’ Union, the Race Equality Steering Group, BAME+ Network, academic schools and professional services to ensure that we make real improvements in this area and on the broader issue of race equality in higher education.

“We have recently reviewed our Dignity at Work and Study policy which covers harassment and bullying from any party and have set up a Race Equality Supervisory Panel to provide advice on issues raised.”

The spokesperson continued, “Some of this work includes facilitating conversations and discussions about race, this will enable us to develop more inclusive environments and we understand that it is essential to listen to the lived experiences of our BAME students and staff.

“Gathering and analysing the evidence about race inequality informs the university about important next steps in addressing inequality.

“Our student complaints procedures have also been reviewed in light of the recommendations arising out of an independent review into race equality we undertook in January 2017 and more recently against our academic regulations.

“We welcome further recommendations from the EHRC report to contribute to the work that we are implementing.”

In summary, these results draw attention to a startling element of the student experience and with more emphasis being placed on this by the university sector, hopefully students should see more support in future. 

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