British universities ‘oblivious’ to high levels of racial abuse

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s enquiry said there was an 'alarmingly high rate' of abuse across the sector

Universities are failing to tackle racial harassment because of misplaced confidence in complaint’s procedures, an equalities watchdog has concluded.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said racial harassment occurs “at an alarmingly high rate” and universities are “unaware of the scale of the issue”.

The report said: “There was a strong perception that universities too often place their reputation above the safeguarding and welfare of their students and staff.”

The EHRC inquiry – Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged – revealed that 24% of ethnic minority students have experienced racial harassment on campus.

Instead of being progressive and forward thinking, [universities] are living in the past and have failed to learn from history
– Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC

Of those, black students reported the highest rate of racial harassment (29%), followed by Asian students (27%) and mixed/other students (22%).

Victims’ grades and mental health often suffer and can lead to higher drop-out rates, the authors noted.

Two-thirds of students and more than half of staff who had experienced harassment said they had not reported it to their higher education institution (HEI).

One in five universities received no complaints of racial harassment in the last academic year, leading authors to conclude many HEIs have an “incomplete picture” of the problem.


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Responding to the inquiry’s findings, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC chief executive, said: “It is considerably disappointing to discover that, instead of being progressive and forward thinking, [universities] are living in the past and have failed to learn from history.”

Among its many damning conclusions, the report uncovered a “strong theme of international students feeling unwelcome, isolated and vulnerable”. The authors even suggested some international students felt like “commodities”.

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, pledged “urgent action” in response to the report and said the body “will today be urgently seeking independent, external expertise to strengthen our new group on tackling racial harassment.”

“I am calling on my fellow university leaders to make this a top priority, starting by committing publicly to taking urgent action in their institution and ensuring staff and students know how to report incidents and how to access the support available to them,” she said.

Nearly 20% of students who were racially harassed experienced physical assaults, and more than half said they were subjected to racial slurs and insults from other students and university staff.


Read more: BME staff less likely to hold top university jobs


That almost half of universities believe that every incident of racial harassment against their students was reported indicates a worrying complacency
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “It is a particular concern that many students do not feel confident in reporting incidents of racial harassment and have low confidence in their complaints being dealt with. That almost half of universities believe that every incident of racial harassment against their students was reported indicates a worrying complacency.”

The report recommended the government “reinstate third party harassment protections” and “introduce a mandatory duty on employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment”.

Higher education leaders must offer institutional leadership and a public commitment to tackling the problem, the EHRC said. The report also said universities must ensure complaints procedures are handled by impartial, well-trained staff.

Fope Olaleye, National Union of Students black students’ officer, said:”The research by EHRC demonstrates what the black students’ campaign has maintained for some time, that there is a largely hidden set of issues, which drive many inequitable outcomes for students.

“The sector must commit now to combatting any acts of racialised hate or harassment students experience. Institutions must make reporting accessible, transparent, and effective at providing redress. They must also ensure students are supported when they experience harassment and during the process of reporting harassment.”

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