Quarter of ethnic minority students in UK racially harassed

Equality and Human Rights Commission report says UK universities “oblivious” to scale of abuse on campus

October 23, 2019
Multicultural students
Source: Istock

Nearly a quarter of ethnic minority students in the UK have experienced racial harassment, according to a report that also said universities were failing to adequately protect staff and students.

A report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 24 per cent of ethnic minority students said that they had experienced racial harassment. The figures were highest for black students, at 29 per cent, and Asian students, 27 per cent.

The report said that UK universities were “oblivious” to the scale of the problem. It found that 56 per cent of the 585 students who had been racially harassed had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes and 20 per cent had been physically attacked.

A third of students said that they had seen racist displays or material on campus in the past year, which were most likely to come from slogans on T-shirts linked to society events.

Two-thirds of student respondents said that the harassment came from other students, but a quarter described incidents of harassment from staff. Roughly one in 20 students who responded to the survey said that racial harassment caused them to leave their studies.

International students reported feeling unwelcome and described feeling as if they were wanted by universities for the fees that they bring.

The EHRC also analysed responses from university staff and found that more than half reported being ignored or excluded because of their race, and more than a quarter had experienced racist name-calling and jokes. It found that staff were most likely to experience harassment from their managers or senior staff, but that some of it came from students.

More than four in five staff told the survey that the incidents were part of a pattern of repeated harassment.

About three in 20 staff said that racial harassment had caused them to leave their jobs, and “many more” said that they were considering, or had considered, doing so.

Despite the widespread incidents of racial abuse, staff and students told the EHRC that they rarely reported them. The survey found that during a six-month period in 2018-19, 8 per cent of student respondents experienced harassment, which if scaled up to the entire student population, would equate to 180,000 students.

However, universities said that there were 559 recorded complaints of racial harassment across 159 UK universities over three and a half years. This is equivalent to only about 80 complaints every six months.

Students told the survey that they did not often report incidents because they were not confident the university would address the issue, or they did not know how to report it.  A number feared the personal consequences of reporting, such as how it might affect their career.   

This was echoed by staff. Less than half of those who said that they had experienced racial harassment said they had reported it to someone.

Most universities said they were confident incidents of staff or student harassment were reported, but the report also found that fewer than four in 10 student complaints of racial harassment, and about one in six staff complaints, were upheld.

The EHRC’s chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said the report “reveals that not only are universities out of touch with the extent that [racial harassment] is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue”.

“This isn’t good enough. More must be done to protect all students and staff on campus so everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential in work and education,” she said.

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said that all higher education providers must study this report’s findings and recommendations and take urgent action.

“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.

Professor Buckingham added that UUK would be “urgently seeking independent, external expertise to strengthen our new group on tackling racial harassment to advise universities on effective actions and how to scrutinise and challenge action plans”.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students said that the findings were “deeply troubling”.

“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,” she said.

Ms Dandridge said that the OfS will shortly be launching a consultation setting out its expectations of all higher education providers as to how they should be preventing and addressing hate crime, harassment and sexual misconduct.


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