Examining racism in UK universities
London, UK. 18th March 2017. March Against Racism - National Demo for UN Anti-Racism Day - Thousands of people turn out for the anti-racism/anti-Donald Trump rally through central London. Source: Shutterstock

In a series of articles published earlier this month, The Guardian investigated racism at UK universities.

The investigation followed an inquiry announced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Its report is set to be published this fall. 

The EHRC inquiry specifically focuses on higher education institutions that received funding from government bodies during the 2018-2019 academic year. 

However, universities that receive public funding were also required to submit information about their processes for handling reports of racism.

Fast facts about The Guardian investigation


  • 131 UK universities provided data on complaints regarding racism
    • 75 universities kept “centralised records of racism complaints”
    • 25 universities did not keep records of racism complaints
    • 12 universities recorded either student or staff complaints — not both
    • 36 universities “did not provide exact figures”
    • 20 Cambridge colleges “provided inexact figures in the range of zero and five complaints”
  • 264 university staff members and students submitted their personal experiences of racism on campus


  • 996 total complaints made regarding racism, with roughly
    • 54 percent of complaints against university staff
    • 46 percent of complaints against university students
  • 367 complaints upheld by UK universities, resulting in
    • 78 student suspensions
    • 51 staff suspensions, resignations or dismissals

See how your university fares in The Guardian’s full report.

The investigation concluded that the “data provided by 131 universities…reveal insufficient dedicated anti-racism training for staff and students, a lack of policy on institutional racism and inconsistent record-keeping of racism complaints.”

The implications of racism at UK universities

How do UK universities address such abuse? Often, they don’t – unless the complaint goes viral on social media, remarked one student of a Russell Group University to The Guardian.

The Guardian reported the experiences of two students who attempted suicide following racial abuse:

“[My lecturer] said if you spoke like [a particular white student] spoke you’d get a higher mark,” said one architecture graduate.

Source: Shutterstock

How did that student’s university respond? By ignoring their emails and defending the lecturer’s mark when the student consulted the university’s welfare officer.

Another student reported they were “making plans to complete suicide” following continuous “casual racism” from both students and staff.

Other students described their university’s responses to various complaints as:

  • downplaying or shutting down student concerns
  • defending white senior staff members
  • reaffirming the “glittering” reputation of the university
  • charging the abused staff member with gross misconduct for reporting the incident (in one case)

A long history of racism

Cambridge University is just one of several “prestigious” Russell Group Universities that’s come under fire for its weak and wavering policies on combating racism.

Earlier this year, Cambridge University announced a two-year research project exploring the ways in which the university benefited from colonial slavery – spearheaded by a white academic.

In an interview with The Telegraph, equal rights activist Trevor Phillips criticised the study as “virtue signalling on steroids”:

“Rather than having some clever people looking back 200 years for the next 35 months, wouldn’t it just be a good idea to have some people looking a few months into the future and do some work on how we could prevent discrimination affecting people of colour every single day,” said Phillips.

Compare this to the fact that a white lecturer at Cambridge was recently allowed to read a passage containing a racial slur in class, causing one student to drop out of her PhD programme in protest.

When a black student emailed their lecturer to express their discomfort, they were “patronised” for supposedly failing to understand the context in which the word had been used.

All things considered, it’s no wonder why Cambridge has fallen to its lowest ever place in the world university rankings.

A sector-wide problem at all levels

It isn’t just students who face racial discrimination and abuse. As of September 2018, 19,000 professors worked at UK universities. Of those, just 25 were black women, 90 were black men – and 14,000 were white men.

In the case of minoritised* academics, University of York sociology lecturer Dr Katy Sian asserts that “universities are a far cry away from the meritocratic spaces they claim to be.”

Source: Shutterstock

Sian’s latest research project, a paper titled Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities, compiles the experiences of black, Asian and other minoritised academics across the UK. Many participants reported that they:

  • Felt unsupported and “blocked” in their careers
  • Felt compelled to overachieve to qualify for a promotion
  • Were criticised as being “oversensitive” when rejected
  • Were shut down by senior white academics
  • Had their work dismissed, despite international accolades
  • Were kept on temporary employment contracts for several years

Sian calls for “structural rather than cosmetic” solutions, including: 

  • holding universities accountable for underrepresentation
  • auditing universities’ hiring and retention processes
  • including at least one minoritised academic or staff member on recruitment panels
  • improving the dialogue surrounding institutional racism

All talk and no action?

As we’ve already seen, most universities fail to address individual complaints of racism. But how are they responding to public criticism? 

In 2018, Cambridge sociology professors Dr Ella McPherson and Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa launched an independent research project called End Everyday Racism, which allows students and staff members to anonymously report racial abuse.

The project goes beyond the university’s official anonymous reporting process in an effort “to highlight how racism is normalised.”

Some university students, notably Goldsmith’s Anti-Racist Action (GARA) protestors, are taking matters into their own hands. For the past 135 days, GARA has occupied Deptford Town Hall “protesting against the lack of anti-racist action from Senior Management” following a series of incidents in which students and staff members were racially abused.

The GARA Manifesto outlines the group’s mission and demands. In response, the university’s senior management team has pledged to:

  • invest £500,000 toward anti-racism measures
  • implement mandatory racial awareness training for staff
  • allocate additional staff to support student well-being, including chaplains and counsellors
  • review existing policies on handling reports of racial abuse, discrimination and harassment
  • reinstate scholarships for Palestinian students

You can read the full list of commitments here.

In an open letter to Goldsmiths staff dated 22 July, acting warden of the college, Professor Elisabeth Hill, claimed that “the only responsible course of action remaining is to take proportionate legal steps to regain possession of the building, while continuing to progress all of the commitments previously made in response to the protest.”

GARA is continuing to resist the court-ordered eviction.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s the thing: we’ve reported on racism in UK universities before. A year later, it seems nothing has changed. Indeed, in a world where the grossly unqualified leader of the so-called free world spews racist tweets all hours of the day, racists are now more emboldened than ever before.

But some good has come of the recent investigations into racism. Students and staff are now starting to speak out about their experiences with racism and expose the individual perpetrators. Universities that fail to address racial abuse are being publicly exposed and challenged.

The EHRC report, when published, will further examine the scope of racism at UK universities and hopefully help spur the changes we so desperately need.

In the meantime, keep making noise, keep telling your stories, and remember: you belong here.

Further reading

*I have deliberately and carefully chosen to use the term “minoritised” rather than BAME or POC. While the latter terms can be useful in the overall dialogue about race, some consider such terms to be a “catch-22”. To paraphrase author and Vintage Books’ senior marketing executive Candice Carty-Williams, “‘Minority ethnic’ covers so many people that it seems reductive just to say… I prefer ‘minoritised’ because we are not a minority people, we have been minoritised.’”

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