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Universities challenged: EHRC on racial harassment in British universities

Racial harassment is built into the fabric of university life - but is anxiety about race denying victims a voice? Debbie McVitty unpacks the EHRC report on racial harassment
This article is more than 2 years old

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published the results of its investigation into racial harassment at UK universities, and it’s a serious piece of work.

Universities UK has clearly worked closely with the Commission in getting ahead of some of the recommendations, and its new advisory group will be tasked with delivering fresh advice and guidance to universities in the next year.

But the EHRC’s recommendations range well beyond what we’ve come to expect from sector-led policy work, and remind us of the value of fresh eyes and public policy heft when it comes to addressing some of the more intransigent, complex societal issues that universities – if not directly responsible for – are certainly implicated in.

Who’s affected?

The EHRC made efforts to understand the scale of the issue of racial harassment, and its survey found that 24 per cent of ethnic minority students and nine per cent of white students said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course, comprising 13 per cent of all students. A similar survey was not undertaken for staff, but staff and students were invited to submit evidence to the inquiry.

But though there are recommendations focused on developing data collection of the scale of the problem, the bulk of the report’s content demonstrates the challenge of identifying and recording incidents, not least because there’s very little consensus within universities over what constitutes an incident.

And maybe understanding the scale of the problem isn’t the most important issue here. The individuals affected are Black, Asian and ethnic minority students and staff, both UK and international, Jewish students and staff, international students and staff and in one memorable example the report draws out, the problem can even extend to hostility to people from other nations of the UK.

Higher education is not immune from the structural inequalities and pack mentalities of wider society. But in bringing diverse groups of people together to study, live and work in an organisation like a university, it’s safe to assume there’s going to be some toxic group dynamics, and some people are going to be enabled to act on their worst impulses.

The responsibility to acknowledge and understand racial harassment doesn’t end with logging specific reportable incidents and running a disciplinary procedure to deal with them. Harassment happens on university campuses, online, and outside the university, on work placements and in local communities. The role of the university might be slightly different in each case but the overarching responsibility to understand what’s happening, how staff and students are affected, and take action to mitigate is there in each instance.

For example, universities can’t be held responsible for protecting students from harassment in town centres, but they can encourage reporting, work with police and local decision-makers, speak out about the problem in local press, and offer support to affected students and staff.

What are we talking about?

It’s clear from the report that the UK higher education sector is collectively deeply anxious about the prospect of talking about race and how racial harassment issues affect people in higher education. This reticence is in one sense understandable – well-meaning people may fear to get it wrong, or cause offence – but this conspiracy of bashfulness is depriving the victims of harassment a language and a voice to describe what is happening to them.

The first thing to acknowledge is that cut and dried incidents of outright racial aggression do happen, but if those incidents are the only examples of racial harassment that the university codes and culture can accommodate, there’s a vast amount left unaddressed.

Microaggressions that leave victims feeling both furious and helpless, “banter” that covers humiliation and belittling with a veneer of humour, overt or covert excluding people from groups – all these techniques have evolved to enable people to continue to exert social power and control by using difference as a weapon, within the law.

They are difficult to evidence, and so they don’t tend to surface in formal complaints. They are calculated to make it difficult for the victim or bystanders to raise an objection. And too frequently they prompt a form of gaslighting when victims attempt to raise incidents like these – only to be told they are imagining it or that the perpetrator did not mean to offend. The result is that victims of harassment are asked to carry a disproportionate burden of social inequality, and it takes a real toll on their wellbeing.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, surfacing how microaggression, gaslighting and banter work in practice, and taking seriously when people describe their experience of being on the receiving end of these, is a really important part of building towards culture change.

Raising issues

Once again university complaints processes come under scrutiny, and some of the critique covers familiar territory. Complaints and disciplinary systems aren’t always set up to deal with these sorts of cases, with burdens of evidence on the complainant, lack of thought about the impact of asymmetric power relations between complainant and those judging their case, a lack of bias training and expert advice for adjudicators, and limited support for complainants.

Unconscious bias training is being taken up more widely in universities, but these findings speak to the value of contextualised thinking around how bias might work in practice and in relation to specific processes. Generic training, while valuable, could run the risk of giving a false sense that the issue is under control.

One thing that jumped out was that universities that have fewer ethnic minority students and staff have greater confidence in the fairness of their complaints procedures, which suggests a degree of self-delusion. Another was that not every university actually gathers feedback data on how confident students and staff are in the processes, and the experience of complainants, so the basis of reported confidence in processes is slender indeed.

One of the useful recommendations is that Universities UK will convene a group to issue guidance on navigating data protection in the case of complaints, in the hope of clarifying what complainants can be told about the outcome of their case.

What are the levers?

Equality law: under the current iteration of the Equality Act 2010, which was updated in 2013, students and staff have no legal redress if they are harassed by a student, because students are not employed by the university. The EHRC recommends that legal duties for protection from harassment by third parties be reintroduced.

Regulation: the EHRC would like regulators to be empowered to measure and make judgements on whether universities are taking sufficient steps to tackle racial harassment and to intervene if not. We’ve highlighted before the lack of focus in this area from the Office for Students.

Public sector equality duty (PSED): the PSED applies to university boards of governors, who are encouraged to take it more seriously in the case of harassment, but there’s also a suggestion that public bodies publish equality objectives and outcomes. Implicitly, that means HE regulators including funding councils, the Office for Students and the OIA.

Universities UK: in matters of adopting best practice, such as data collection, reporting and managing complaints, the sector is asked to get its house in order. UUK is tasked with working with the sector to produce more guidance for providers, and to incorporate evidence of the impact of harassment on mental health into wider work on mental health and wellbeing.

NSS: it’s suggested that questions on student safety be incorporated as core questions in future iterations of the NSS. This is interesting because OfS’ pilot postgraduate NSS, carried out earlier in the year, included questions on whether students felt safe on campus and whether they felt able to express themselves on campus.


Arguably one of the most difficult areas in the report is the tension between creating a culture of reporting – including ensuring that students and staff can report and talk about incidents informally – and ensuring that those reports are centrally monitored and escalated effectively. The report calls for more work on data protection in this area.

As ever the report – along with accompanying documents summarising the qualitative and quantitative findings – makes for sobering reading. It’s clear that the big lesson is that merely discussing and agreeing policies to handle complaints won’t solve this problem – and that deeper action on uncovering and tackling culture is necessary from institutional leaders.

4 responses to “Universities challenged: EHRC on racial harassment in British universities

  1. There’s an interesting issue of scope here. EHRC have surveyed universities and UUK has made the response, but we need to remember that in England there are 387 providers on the OfS register. It may be that other providers have much to offer – but some of them are less easily covered by the public sector equality duty.

  2. Really good point Mike – it’s why I’d argue that (at least in England) OfS needs specific regulatory focus of its own in this area

  3. The report’s main findings were that only a very small number of complaints were made and it attributes this to the effectiveness of informal resolution mechanisms.

    A secondary finding was a suggestion of regional conflict within the UK linked potentially to nationalism. Examples cited individuals moving from England to parts of Wales and Scotland where they reported incidents that made them feel uncomfortable. Again, small numbers and again this thought to be due to informal resolution mechanisms.

  4. Additionally, the report finds that 1 in 20 students who were BAME left their course due to harassment but it adopts a wide definition of harassment.

    Recommendations include gathering more feedback on complaints which is very sensible. There is also a recommendation to keep records of informal resolution which would be valuable although there are potentially some pitfalls to navigate here.

    Well worth reading the full version.

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