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  • Priya Rakkar

Institutional Racism in UK Universities: A Guide

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Universities are home to a range of different cultures, ethnicities, and religions, so this should lend itself to be an incredibly welcoming experience for students from all walks of life. However, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, Professor David Richardson, believes universities are “institutionally racist”.

So, what is institutional racism? Institutional racism or systematic racism is a form of racism that has been embedded into laws and regulations in an organisation, such as higher education. This leads to Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) students being at a disadvantage when entering further education. An example of institutional racism could be BME students being disciplined more than their white counterparts.

Disclaimer: many of the stories, information and quotes have been noted from the documentary “Is Uni Racist?” and the EHRC report.

What does institutional racism look like at university?

Professor David Richardson spoke about systematic issues that specifically affect BME students, and his claims have been supported by students who state they have been racially discriminated against on campus. The most well-known instance being of 19 year-old student Zac Adan from the University of Manchester, who was pinned to the wall by campus security and demanded to show ID as he was told he “looked like a drug dealer.” The incident was filmed and went viral on social media and left Adan with a difficult story to retell.

Adan has since expressed his views and agrees with Professor Richardson that universities are institutionally racist. He believes the racism in universities is more covert and subtle, saying “it's more micro-aggressions and systematic racism”. Adan took matters further and contacted the Head of Diversity at the University but was told matters were being dealt with privately and they cannot reveal the outcome as it breaches data protection laws.

A public apology was issued, and the security guards were suspended from the university once the story broke out on social media. Adan believes this only happened because universities are more afraid of their public image than the safety of the students. No consolation was provided to Adan for the emotional distress that occurred after the incident. Institutional racism affects the mental well-being of hundreds of BME students, and Adan is only one of many.

Institutional racism in UK universities

Coming out of the woodwork

Adan’s story led to other students revealing their stories of how they have been racially harassed while on campus at university. In the BBC Three documentary “Is Uni Racist?”, Gracie, a student at the Christ Church College in Oxford, described how a student blatantly said the N- word to her and refused to apologise. She followed up on the incident but was again told she would not be informed of the outcome, despite being the victim in the situation.

The University of Oxford has had notoriously low admittance of BME students, with 2011 statistics showing only 20% of their students being people of colour. 2020 statistics show this has only risen to 23.6%. Is this really enough to make BME students feel welcomed on campus?

The impact of institutional racism

Institutional racism leaves students from ethnic minorities vulnerable and unsafe. Students have stated they have suffered from mental illnesses as a direct result of the discrimination they have faced on campus, some having to take a year out from education. Melanie, a student from Christ Church College at the University of Oxford, took a leave of absence from university life after complaining to the college about a distasteful joke a student made about the death of George Floyd. After she went public with the situation, she described feeling singled out as students began to harass her.

Institutional racism affects many areas of BME student’s life, and the lack of university support can make these students feel even more isolated. A report named ‘Tackling Harassment in Higher Education’ by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that racial harassment can cause “humiliation” and “loss of confidence” which can seriously affect mental health and well-being. They reported that students who experienced racial harassment were left feeling angry, upset, depressed, anxious, and vulnerable.

The situation becomes more complicated as universities are predominantly unaware of issues of racial harassment that occur at university. It was reported by the EHRC that ⅔ of racial incidents go unreported. This leads to the big question…

Institutional Racism in UK Universities

Why don’t students report it?

BME students often feel they are unable to report incidents of racial harassment: whether it’s a subtle form of micro-aggression or physical harassment. ‘Is Uni Racist?’ showed students felt they could not report incidents as they were nervous that this would affect their grades, graduate prospects, and future career. Students also reported that they felt their concern would not be believed or not taken seriously.

Many incidents have shown that universities start expressing concern only once students threaten to take matters public, or online, which would damage the universities’ public image.

What's the solution?

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, who has spoken out about institutional racism in universities, was shocked to hear these worries from students and stated that we must “dismantle these fears and support vulnerable students”.

Professor David Richardson stated: “UK universities perpetuate institutional racism. This is uncomfortable to acknowledge but all universities should do so as the first step towards meaningful change”.

Richardson was not the only person to speak about these matters. Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, Professor Kalwant Bhopal, stated acknowledging the issues of institutional racism at would be a “positive step forward”, however, she added that real actions must follow to result in change. This statement was supported by the Head of Equalities at the Universities and College Union (UCU), Jenny Sherrard, who stated, “we need more than warm words from institutions in order to ensure that our higher education sector is equal and inclusive.”

‘Tackling Harassment in Higher Education’ reported universities were letting thousands of racial incidents go unnoticed. This was due to universities feeling ‘overconfident’ in their ability to resolve these issues. Professor David Richardson is part of the group Universities UK (UUK), which represents over 140 institutions in the UK. Due to the number of racial incidents flying under the radar, they have suggested for senior members of the institutions to improve their racial literacy and understanding of students who have faced racial harassment. They have proposed highlighting issues of ethnic diversity occurring between both staff and students, including matters such as the pay gap between BME staff at universities. The UUK published guidance and recommendations for universities in November 2019 and have decided to review the guidance in summer 2022.

Institutional Racism in UK Universities

What can we do to end institutional racism?

It is a strongly held belief that to end institutional racism, senior members from all higher education institutions must communicate with black, Asian and students from ethnic minorities about ways to improve and support their experiences at university and assure them that their complaints will not affect their grades or career.

"University staff often lack the understanding, skills and confidence to manage conversations about race effectively"

The EHRC wrote about the difficulty for universities to fully understand the racial issues that occur at university. This is due to the underreporting of racial incidents and the universities overconfidence in their handling of matters. The report states “university staff often lack the understanding, skills and confidence to manage conversations about race effectively”. They have advised institutions to improve their knowledge of racial harassment to create an effective and simple way for students to report their incidents, and so that universities have a clearer picture of the scale of racial harassment. The EHRC also added that students who submitted a complaint about racial harassment should have clear transparency from the university about what action is being taken against the perpetrator. This comes as one of the main concerns from students was that they lacked confidence in the universities and were anxious about what the outcome would be.

In addition, EHRC have suggested universities change their policies for university leaders to “create and maintain environments where racial harassment is not tolerated”. The EHRC added universities must put the safety and mental health of their students and staff wellbeing first and foremost and respect their mental health struggles after experiencing racial harassment. The report concluded that students should report every form of racial harassment to ensure universities are able to provide help and resolve matters accordingly.

In a nutshell

Essentially, the EHRC suggests ways to prevent institutional racism, primarily advising universities to improve the way they handle reports and complaints of harassment, evaluating awareness and effectiveness of policies and procedures, and providing better knowledge to students on how to report racial incidents.

Institutional racism at universities is an extremely difficult topic to speak about, but it is an uncomfortable conversation that is needed to make a difference in universities and make sure vulnerable students are safe and supported on campus.

If you would like any further help, advice or struggling with any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can find the numbers, emails and websites of a number of helpful organisations here.

For more resources on this topic, head to our Racism Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.

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