The Problem of Racism at UK Universities

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CW: This article contains talk of racial abuse, hate crimes and harassment.

British Universities are failing to tackle racial harassment on campus, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found. Almost a quarter of students have suffered racial harassment, with a fifth having suffered physical abuse and over a half having suffered verbal abuse.

The UK equalities watchdog has concluded that racism is a ‘common experience for a wide range of students and staff‘ on campuses across the country. Through in-depth interviews with both staff and students, the EHRC also revealed that racial discrimination came in the form of verbal abuse; racist name-calling, insults and jokes; physical abuse; and even racist material and displays such as during student society social events. Over half of students who admitted suffering harassment had been verbally abused, and one in five students had been physically attacked, with other common experiences including microaggressions, subtle acts of discrimination, and being ignored or excluded from conversations and group activities.

24 per cent of BAME students, and 13 per cent of all students, disclosed experiences of racial harassment since starting their courses at university, with one student commenting that ‘it impacted my academic performance, because I didn’t enjoy studying or doing group work with students who were so casually racist, sexist and homophobic.’

An academic at an undisclosed Welsh University also stated that ‘as a Muslim, suicide is never an option but I feel incredibly isolated and alone. This institution is the first time in my life I have felt the target of racism.’

It was also uncovered that religious minorities, such as Jewish and Muslim individuals, reported being targets of antisemitic or Islamophobic harassment. International students suffered from widespread isolation, with the report suggesting that they were treated like commodities: only wanted for their high fees. Anti-English sentiment was found to be prevalent in Scotland and Wales.

Victims of harassment and abuse in turn go on to suffer in the long-term, with a negative impact on grades, a toll on mental health, and higher dropout rates all reported. One in 20 of the students surveyed reported that they have left their studies due to racial harassment, and this figure was three times as high for staff.

Reasons for under-reporting of racial harassment included:

  • Difficulty to prove incidences
  • Lack of confidence it would be addressed
  • Not knowing whether it was serious enough
  • Not knowing how to report

Some feared that reporting would have a negative impact on their education, career or reputation due to perceptions of being a ‘troublemaker’. This was especially prevalent amongst students; whose tutors had the potential to affect long-term career prospects.

The EHRC highlighted a large discrepancy on reported incidents, with the proportion of students reporting racial incidents much greater than the number recorded by universities. Additionally, it was found that universities were overconfident in their procedures of handling such complaints, seemingly unaware of the high levels of dissatisfaction with the investigative process and leaving sufferers feeling unsupported. This suggests that universities are often unaware of the true extent of the problem on their campuses, nor provide the right framework for victims.

The report said; ‘There was a strong perception that universities too often place their reputation above the safeguarding and welfare of their students and staff’.

About one in five universities said they had received no complaints of racial harassment at all in more than three years. In turn, the report suggests that some universities are reluctant to admit the true scale of the problem for fear of putting off potential students and losing their fees.

They are living in the past and have failed to learn from history,’ said EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath. She went on to say that ‘our report reveals that not only are universities out of touch with the extent that this is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue.

The watchdog concludes with some recommendations for higher education institutions:

  1. Increasing transparency about how universities are tackling harassment, building robust reporting mechanisms and creating safe spaces
  2. Use of data for learning and improvement
  3. Shift in university culture where leaders have a suitable basis to drive positive change

This report comes in the wake of racial abuse scandals in many universities across the country last year, which prompted the nation-wide investigation; earlier this month, Universities UK urged universities to do more to combat harassment and hate crimes centred around race or faith, although they acknowledged that there had been progress in tackling sexual misconduct and gender-based violence. The report said that ‘a lot of recent university action to tackle harassment has focused on sexual harassment. There was not the same confidence in talking about, and tackling, racial harassment.’. Universities UK also found that only half of universities that responded allowed students to report incidents anonymously.

Accusations of Racism at the University of Southampton

Following this damning report’s release, the University released a statement in response, with Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark E Smith stating that:

This is an issue our University takes extremely seriously. We have zero tolerance towards the racial harassment of students and staff and any proven cases result in disciplinary action in accordance with our Dignity at Work and Study policy.

A dedicated network of trained Harassment Contacts across our campuses provide a confidential service to anyone who feels they are being bullied or harassed. Also, the University is a signatory of the Race Equality Charter and supports an active Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Staff Network, which promotes equality and cultural diversity.

We welcome this report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Inquiry, in which we cooperated fully and submitted evidence.  In response we will examine the report and its recommendations as a matter of urgency. In line with the higher education sector generally, we are continuing to review our policies and procedures to ensure that our university is operating with best practice.

Yet, the EHRC’s findings could not have come at a more harrowing time for the University of Southampton.

Mere days following the release of this report, an investigation was launched into an incident of alleged racism by several of its students.

A video of members of an Intramural football club, Mayflower FC, chanting racial slurs on a Unilink bus was spread on social media – with a member of the club later describing the bus journey as a ‘highlight’. This video was later publically released by The Soton Tab.

Following this incident, the Social Secretary of the football club resigned, stating he conflicted the club’s ‘disgusting’ morals. He told The Soton Tab:

You’re represented by the company you keep and what does it say about me if I let myself be associated by racists. It’s sickening.

The University and SUSU also released a joint statement in response to the scandal, where they stated that:

The University of Southampton and the Students’ Union will not tolerate any form of racist behaviour by anybody at the University and we have taken action on this as a matter of urgency. 

We are working in partnership with the Students’ Union on this issue and staff from the University will speak to all members of Mayflower FC as we work swiftly to identify the individuals responsible for those appalling scenes. Once identified, they will face our rigorous disciplinary proceedings.

The University of Southampton is proud to be a part of the local community and being open and respectful.  I want all our neighbours to understand how seriously we take it when any members of the University behave in this way.

In response to this incident, Femsoc President and SUSU BAME Officer Halima Jibril has also called for the University to treat it with appropriate severity, arguing that if it’s brushed under the carpet, black students will not feel safe on campus:

The n-word is a verbal weapon that was created by white people specifically to harm black people as part of our systematic oppression. That is the reason the word was created and that is its origin, however, we are always told to “get over it”, and to ”stop being so sensitive.” This word has a history, a legacy only black people will ever understand. To put it into a larger context, this is the same word that many black people heard before they were killed and lynched. So no, it is not “just a word”, and we are not “being sensitive.” The n-word was used to describe black people as we were being stolen from Africa, put into slavery, chained, lynched beaten and spit upon – this word was created as a tool of oppression. Mayflower FC are part of a larger problem when it comes to racism and sports, and racism in general at university. This is something the University plan on tackling head-on with disciplinary hearings, but I do hope this incident isn’t something we just forget about and sweep under the rug after the hearings. Black students on campus should feel safe at university, and we need to be loudly against this behaviour to show that this is not something we tolerate at the University of Southampton.

The outcome of disciplinary proceedings related to the Mayflower FC incident is yet to be announced.

SUSU held a Black Students Forum on Monday 28th October, where the topics of the Mayflower FC incident, as well as racial experiences at institutions like the University, were brought up. The outcomes of the forum are yet to be announced.

If you have experienced or witnessed any racial harassment or abuse, you can report it via SUSU’s anonymous, online Harassment Reporting Tool, which you can access here.

If you are affected by any of these issues, you can contact Enabling Services by emailing enable@soton.ac.uk, or through calling them at  +44(0)23 8059 7726. They also have weekday drop-ins between 1pm and 3pm at their base in the Student Services Centre (Building 37) on Highfield Campus.

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Natural Sciences student and News & Investigations Editor 2019-20.

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