UK higher education “perpetuates institutional racism” – UUK

Universities UK (UUK) publishes new recommendations for addressing racial harassment in UK higher education, including anti-racist training and data collection

Universities UK (UUK) has today [24 November] called for urgent action on racial harassment in higher education, saying that UK universities “perpetuate institutional racism”.

It has issued a series of recommendations for university leaders to implement “immediately.”

The recommendations are the result of consultation with a taskforce convened by UUK in October 2019, and come just over a year after the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said racial harassment in higher education was occurring“at an alarmingly high rate” and that universities were “unaware of the scale of the issue”.

The EHRC investigation revealed that almost a quarter of students from minority ethnic backgrounds reported experiencing racial harassment. Over half of staff who had experienced racial harassment described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race, and nearly a third had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes. Both staff and students reported regular experience of microaggressions (ie, subtle, less ‘overt’ forms of racism). Racial harassment occurred in a wide variety of settings and from multiple harassers. The impacts of racial harassment on both students and staff were severe, affecting mental health, educational outcomes and career progression. Negative mental health consequences such as depression and anxiety were widely reported, with 8% of students who had experienced racial harassment reporting that they had felt suicidal. Similar impacts were found among staff. Around one in 20 students also stated that they had left their course, and three in 20 members of staff had left their job, as a result of racial harassment.

The UUK advisory group was informed by experts in the field, was approximately 50% BAME and 50% white, and carried out in-depth consultation with panels of exclusively Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff with lived experience of racial harassment.

Racial harassment, a lack of diversity among senior leaders, the BAME student attainment gap and ethnicity pay gaps among staff are all evidence, says the UUK report, of institutional racism in higher education.

It is my firm belief that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism – Professor David Richardson

UUK’s recommendations:

  • Vice-chancellors, principals and senior leaders should make tackling racial harassment a priority, and be seen to do so.

  • The entire university community – including students’ unions, trades unions and staff networks – should be involved, and universities should “be clear that tackling these issues is everyone’s responsibility and should not fall to a minority of colleagues.”

  • Universities should develop a strategy for addressing racial harassment, with clear success measures.

  • Policies and procedures must be regularly reviewed and awareness of the impact of racial harassment raised across all university services.

  • Definitions/terminology (eg ‘microaggressions’) must be widely communicated and understood.

  • Staff and students should receive anti-racist training to improve their awareness of concepts including white privilege and allyship.

  • Online racial harassment should be punished as severely as offline.

  • There should be clearly defined channels for reporting incidents of racial harassment, including the option for anonymous reporting where possible, and usage of these channels encouraged.

  • Data should be collected systematically, using a centralised mechanism, on all reports of incidents of racial harassment, and passed to university leaders.

  • Procedures for handling racial harassment complaints should follow ACAS and EHRC guidelines in collaboration with BAME staff and students.

  • Activities to prevent and respond to racial harassment should be robustly evaluated and kept under review.

  • UUK will carry out a review to evaluate the impact of this guidance and identify areas for further improvement by summer 2022.


The report, Tackling racial harassment in higher education, also includes examples of good practice, such as Abertay University’s ‘Tell Us’ reporting tool and the University of Cambridge’s Diversity Fund.

UUK’s report offers recommendations to universities on how to address racial harassment

Institutional racism

“It is my firm belief that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism,” said Professor David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of the UUK taskforce.

“This is uncomfortable to acknowledge but all university leaders should do so as a first step towards meaningful change.

“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. These recommendations are designed to help university leaders put words into action and tackle racial harassment. By embracing and embedding an anti-racist approach we can ensure that 2021 is the year we lead decisive and meaningful change, not just for our universities but for society as a whole.”

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, vice-chancellor, University of Leicester and member of the advisory group said:

“Education has the power to change lives, which is why it is imperative that every university creates a truly inclusive environment for every student to flourish and achieve their full potential. It is not acceptable that students at the same institution can have a completely different experience at university just because of their background.

“This report is timely and relevant – students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are clearly being let down, and it is a wake-up call to higher education to show we cannot ignore this issue any longer.

“I am acutely aware of the challenges that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students face on a daily basis, which is why I have committed to play my part in effecting change – I am hopeful that my peers will read this report and it will mark the start of a movement of change. We have a moral duty as academic leaders to address this urgently.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London and President, Universities UK said:

“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. As university leaders we have a duty of care to provide that outcome and these recommendations are designed to ensure that we do.

“Although universities have made progress in tackling all forms of harassment since the launch of UUK’s Changing the culture work in 2016, it’s clear that more needs to be done to tackle racial harassment throughout higher education. This guidance provides lessons and solutions which will help university leaders make rapid and lasting change for all those working and studying at the UK’s universities.

“All university leaders should read this guidance and implement its recommendations alongside their own activities to make a real difference to all those working and studying in our communities.”

‘We need more than warm words’

Responding to UUK’s call for urgent action on racial harassment in higher education, University and College Union (UCU) head of equalities Jenny Sherrard said: “Universities have been quick to state their anti-racist credentials in recent months, but we need more than warm words from institutions in order to ensure that our higher education sector is equal and inclusive. The recommendations in this report provide a solid foundation for turning words into action and embedding a culture of zero tolerance towards racial harassment across the sector.

“The report rightly emphasises the importance of engaging with black staff and students – including through trade unions – to understand their experiences and perspectives. As UCU’s Witness research has shown, racism can be subtle and insidious so it’s vital that responses are informed by lived experience, and that those experiencing racism are empowered and supported to speak out.

“Black staff and students have been allowed to shoulder the burden of challenging structural and everyday racism for too long, so the report’s emphasis on collective responsibility and a whole-institution approach is also important. Institutions need to back that up with proper resourcing to ensure that challenging racism is on the agenda at every level.”

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