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Universities “out of touch” and “oblivious” to scale of racial abuse on campus

Equality and Human Rights Commission

5 min read Partner content

Universities are “oblivious” to the extent of racial harassment on their campuses, Britain’s equality body has warned in a damning report on the sector.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) inquiry report ‘Tackling Racial Harassment: Universities Challenged’ has revealed that with racial harassment occurring at an alarmingly high rate across British universities, many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are not only unaware of the scale of the issue but are overconfident in their ability to handle it.

The Inquiry has found that 24% of ethnic minority students have experienced racial harassment on campus.

Universities are over confident that individuals will report harassment, with 43% of universities believing that every incident of racial harassment against students was reported, and 56% believing that all incidents against staff were reported.

However, two thirds of students who responded to the EHRC’s survey and had experienced racial harassment said that they had not reported the incident to their university. Less than half of all staff who responded to the EHRC’s call for evidence because they had experienced racial harassment, said that they had reported it to their university.

Students and staff suggested that they did not come forward about their experiences because they had no confidence that the incident would be addressed. Others said that fear of reprisals also played a part, as two thirds of staff said that better protection from personal repercussions would have made it easier for them to bring a complaint.

Responding to the Inquiry’s findings, Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive at the EHRC, said: “We expect universities to be innovative environments that do more than just teach us how to pass exams.  We look to them to help us to grow as individuals and prepare us to be good citizens. It is considerably disappointing to discover that, instead of being progressive and forward thinking, they are living in the past and have failed to learn from history.

“No one should ever be subjected to racial harassment in any setting. 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. 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.”

The report also warns that universities are reluctant to admit the prevalence of racial harassment on campus for fear of reputational damage or putting off potential students:

One student told EHRC: “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, or homophobia – hence a delayed investigation, and the unfair sacking of a whistle blower.”                                                                                              

Despite universities being keen to encourage international students to choose their courses, the research unearthed a strong theme of international students feeling unwelcome, isolated and vulnerable. Some even described feeling like commodities and only wanted for the fees that they bring. Half of the international students who responded to the EHRC’s call for evidence because they had experienced racial harassment, said that they had been made to feel excluded, over half said they had experienced racial microaggressions, and 44% said they had experienced racist abuse, but 77% of respondents did not report it to the university.

Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged’ also uncovers the impact that racial harassment has on mental health, warning that 8% of students who had experienced racial harassment admitted to having felt suicidal. It also exposes the detrimental impact on attainment and career progression, as one in 20 of the students who responded to the EHRC’s call for evidence said their experiences had caused them to leave their studies, and three in 20 of the members of staff who responded said it had caused them to leave their jobs:

One student said: “As someone with a pre-existing mental illness, it’s difficult to express how much these incidents contributed to a relapse which I had that later that year. It was easier for me to isolate myself and not interact with others, even when I really needed support, because of how close I was to my perpetrators … I withdrew a few months after those incidents and returned to my home city.”

The EHRC has made a series of recommendations for the UK Government and higher education providers to address racial harassment, including:

  • The UK Government must reinstate third party harassment protections and introduce a mandatory duty on employers to increase protections for staff from harassment
  • Governments across Britain should ensure the sector regulator and funding councils have adequate powers and that these are used to hold universities to account on their performance to prevent and tackle harassment
  • Higher education providers must enable students and staff to report harassment and ensure their complaints procedures are fit for purpose and offer effective redress
  • Senior leaders should take steps to embed an inclusive culture where staff and students feel confident and supported when making complaints.

The full report and a complete list of recommendations can be found on the EHRC website.


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Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

Find out more