In the midst of UK-wide protests against racial inequality sparked by the death of George Floyd in May 2020, world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua characterised racism as a pandemic spreading unapologetically through communities and affecting lives.
The allusion to Covid-19 was timely, powerful, and highly appropriate: the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected members of Black and minority ethnic groups and exacerbated racial inequalities in both health and finance.
Beyond changing the culture
It has also brought about increased levels of racial harassment experienced by students and staff at UK universities, particularly those from east and south east Asian ethnic groups. This is a stark reminder of the lamentable truth that racial harassment and racial inequality remains prevalent in higher education.
From their establishment centuries ago to the present day, the structure and traditions of UK universities have helped perpetuate systemic inequality, and as with other sectors deeply rooted in the socio-cultural fabric of the UK, the pace of change is often slow. Encouraging work to address inequalities has begun in recent years as part of universities’ efforts to clamp down on all forms of harassment and misconduct, with Universities UK’s 2016 report Changing the culture providing the blueprint. But although progress has been made in tackling sexual misconduct, there has not been the same focus on racial harassment.
It is my view that all universities perpetuate institutional racism. This is an uncomfortable truth, but the evidence is undeniable. Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff are underrepresented at senior levels and there are ethnicity pay gaps, as well as gaps in attainment and degree outcomes between white students and Black, Asian and minority ethnic students. Shockingly, nearly 1 in 4 students from minority ethnic backgrounds who responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s survey last year reported experiencing racial harassment while studying at university.
This is completely unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue. As well running contrary to the values and behaviours we associate with higher education – that of inspiring, educating, broadening minds, and changing peoples’ lives for the better – it is also immensely harmful to individuals.
Over the past year I have given this issue my full attention by chairing an advisory group on behalf of Universities UK, tasked with developing specific guidance for tackling racial harassment. We have consulted at length with external experts as well as those from across higher education, and assembled panels of students and staff with lived experience of racial harassment to listen to them directly. The end result is a set of practical recommendations for all universities to implement without delay.
Where we start from
As a white vice-chancellor with no lived experience of racial harassment, I acknowledge my limitations in leading this work. Taking action to address racism has taken me outside of my comfort zone and I have definitely made mistakes along the way; but standing back as a leader while a significant proportion of staff and students suffer from harassment cannot be right. This guidance is a call-to-action for all leaders, and all those in our communities, to work together and turn words into action to bring about meaningful change.
When embarking on changing institutional culture, the first step must be to acknowledge the existence of structural racism in our institutions. We then need to engage with the lived experience of staff and students and make an effort to understand concepts such as white privilege, allyship, and microaggressions. We should also assess the extent of the problem and ensure that expected behaviours are clearly communicated to students and staff, who should be left in no doubt of our zero-tolerance approach. We also need to invest in reporting systems so that students and staff know how to report incidents, and so data can be collected to further develop our understanding of the nature and scale of the issue.
Above all, university leaders should work with the entire university community – students, staff, and beyond – to educate them about the impact of harassment on individuals and society, and encourage them to take collective responsibility for eradicating it. Racism is not just the problem of those who suffer from injustice: it is for everyone to solve.
People are the vaccine
Taking action on racial harassment will benefit students and staff, but we can also do more. Universities can play a vital role in changing society by shaping the minds and attitudes of future generations. There are currently 2.8 million students and staff involved in higher education in the UK. If the higher education sector can step up and show itself to be anti-racist, the knock-on impact across other sectors and communities could be enormous. As Anthony Joshua said so eloquently, people are the vaccine that can halt the spread of racism, and much like with Covid-19, universities can be at the forefront of its development.
The university sector was able demonstrate how quickly it can change when adapting its entire educational delivery model within a few days earlier this year. We now need to see similar fast progress on tackling racial harassment in our institutions.