CONCERN: Activists want universities to crack down on bias
by NADEEM BADSHAH and LAUREN CODLING
A DAMNING inquiry which found universities are failing to tackle thousands of racist incidents every year because they are in denial about the problem has been branded “deeply disturbing” by campaigners.
Around a quarter of ethnic minority students said they had suffered racial harassment, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) probe found. Black students reported the highest rate of racism (29 per cent), followed by Asian students (27 per cent). And eight per cent of all students surveyed suffered racial harassment in the first six months of the last academic year, which is around 180,000 across the UK.
A third of those said they reported racist incidents to their university. But a separate survey of 141 universities found only 920 formal complaints of racism by students and staff were recorded between September 2015 and February 2019.
Some undergraduates and staff questioned in England, Scotland and Wales said they had experienced name calling, insults and jokes, physical attacks and seen racist material often linked to student society events.
Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, said the findings were “worrying”. She told Eastern Eye: “Many BAME academics are afraid of reporting racism as it is not taken seriously.”
“My own research found when complaints of racism are made, the victim becomes the villain and managers dismiss complaints as a clash of personalities. A failure to acknowledge racism results in a failure to act. Universities must be financially penalised if they fail to demonstrate how they are addressing racism.”
The EHRC watchdog also found that two-thirds of students and more than half of staff did not report racist incidents to their university, often because they had no confidence that the matter would be dealt with, while others were deterred by fears of a backlash by their tutors or managers.
The report called on the government to introduce a mandatory duty on higher education institutions to take steps to protect staff from harassment. It also recommended that universities improve their handling of complaints, ensuring investigations were led by staff trained in understanding racial harassment.
If universities failed to take action, they should also be made legally liable for harassment, it added.
Jaspreet Singh, a student at Birmingham City University and a sewadar (selfless volunteer) at the British Organisation of Sikh Students, said the findings were the “tip of the iceberg” and he has suffered discrimination on campus. He told Eastern Eye: “It is only due to the student led campaigns like #MyRacistCampus institutions were compelled to look into this problem.”
“Being a Sikh and visible person of faith, I have been targeted by an academic for wearing my kirpan [ceremonial dagger] on campus. I am glad senior leaders of the university got involved and a consensus was reached in which I requested the academic to apologise and get more educated about Sikh and other religions. The universities need to develop spaces on campus for non-white staff and students where students and staff together can have open and honest conversations to confront racism.
“The responsibility to tackle racism should not be left to only student societies like Afro-Caribbean Societies, Sikh Societies, People of Colour Societies. It should be the responsibility of the universities to develop anti-racist policies and decolonise curriculum.”
It comes after a report in September warned that “institutional racism” remains in UK universities and tackling the issue is seen as a lower priority than gender equality.
The Higher Education Policy Institute document said race is often seen as a “secondary priority” and making research funding conditional on an institution signing up to the Race Equality Charter would be one way of changing attitudes.
Jabeer Butt, CEO of the Race Equality Foundation, said: “These findings are deeply disturbing. It seems the university experience has not improved for black and minority ethnic students, with many not only having to deal with racism on a regular basis but also the university authorities themselves are failing to tackle the problem.
“Universities must work with black and minority ethnic students to regain their trust and come up with robust plans to stamp out racism on campuses, and become the supportive learning environments we need them to be.”
Forty-one institutions unveiled five year plans to tackle diversity including an “anti-racist” curriculum and workshops in “unconscious bias” this summer. Warwick University promised to make its staff more inclusive in departments including history while Warwick Business School will adopt non-Western business and management models.
And University of Brighton staff have had training in equality and diversity and attended workshops in unconscious bias.
Aisha Rana-Deshmukh, a former BAME officer at the University of Bristol, said: “Institutions first and foremost need to open and honest about racism that exists under their roof and only then can we strategise a way of tackling it.
“The way we report racism in university needs to be reformed in a way that centres the victim and ensures that people are held to account.
“Preventive work should also be at the core of university strategies. In the same way that we have consent talks, we need to be having workshops and talks on racism, discrimination, and prejudice for both staff and students. Universities continue to let down students of colour and we deserve more than this.”
Sukanya Sen Gupta, a professor of management at the University of London, is the Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) academic lead at Royal Holloway. The university launched a project called Report and Support, with software that allows users to report harassment and be connected to services such as the police and counselling services.
Last year, it also unveiled the student Experience Project which looked into the experience of BAME undergraduates and post graduates.
Gupta told Eastern Eye: “I have not personally experienced, witnessed or been made aware of any form of racial harassment of students over all these years, either as a student or as an academic.
“In fact, one of the reasons for being attracted to a university environment is because I felt that the academic and student community are very open-minded and tolerant of people from diverse backgrounds. Hence, I am truly surprised and saddened by the report.
“At the same time, I am pleased to see there is a concerted effort on the part of the government and higher educational institutions in recognising and addressing this issue.
“I am aware that this matter is taken seriously at Royal Holloway, and there are systems in place to lend support to victims of racial abuse and harassment.”
The Universities UK body pledged it would urge universities to commit publicly to making it easier for people to report incidents and to putting better processes in place to respond more effectively.