racism uk
Muslim students said they have been subject to physical and verbal harassment. Source: Shutterstock

Close to one in four students from minority backgrounds have been racially harassed since starting their course. One in five have been physically attacked. More than half (56 percent) have experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes. Muslim students have reported being victims of racism, being offensively referred to as “terrorists” or feeling the need to downplay or hide their religious identity.

These are the realities across university campuses in the UK today, detailed in the recently published report, Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged’, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the UK government’s equality watchdog.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive for the EHRC said findings showed that universities were “not only out of touch with the extent that [racism] is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue”.

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK, the body representing 136 higher education institutions in the UK, called the findings “sad and shocking”, and called on Vice-Chancellors to publicly commit to tackling racial harassment.

These are the report’s recommendations for higher education providers:

1. Provide an effective redress mechanism

Universities “must enable students and staff to report harassment and ensure their complaints procedures are fit for purpose and offer effective redress”. Currently, universities significantly underestimate” how prevalent the problem is and have “misplaced confidence in people’s willingness
to come forward”.

They were also overconfident in their handling of complaints in this area, did not seek feedback on their complaints process and failed to provide adequate information about available support.

Universities should implement publicised mechanisms for students to report such matters, including those who are on placements, studying abroad, on joint degrees, or pursuing internships in industry. Procedures should be reviewed to ensure compliance with Acas, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator/Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s and EHRC’s guidance. They should also improve formal complaints handling procedures, such as letting impartial staff lead the complaints process.

Effective data collection procedures are also recommended. This would enable universities to have baseline to track the progress of their prevention and response strategies.

2. Change higher education culture on racial harassment

The current environment in UK universities allows race and racial inequality to be discussed
competently, confidently and constructively.

One postgraduate student said: “[The university’s response] shows that [this] university was more bothered about covering the incident up to maintain a “spotless” reputation, than it was about tackling racism/sexism/homophobia – hence a delayed investigation, and the unfair sacking of [a whistle blower]”

Another academic at an English university described her experience supporting a racially harassed student as such: “Seeing someone clearly talented and amazing undermined has been upsetting. She was sent on a dealing with stress course instead of senior management tackling the problem directly (the head of that school was known for his bullying behaviour).”

The report recommends a more inclusive culture on campus, something providers should demonstrate via leadership and accountability. This includes a better understanding on issues of harassment, publicly committing to tackling the issue and eliminating harassment in their institution’s culture, knowledge and practices.

Universities can refer to the National Student Survey to improve their understanding of student
safety and harassment.

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