Urgent action needed to tackle racial harassment in universities

Urgent action is needed to tackle racial harassment in universities because students are being let down, Vice-Chancellor Professor Nishan Canagarajah has said.

Responding to a new report into racial harassment in HE by Universities UK (UUK), which Professor Canagarajah helped to compile as a member of the advisory group, he said it was the “moral duty” of academic leaders to address this urgently.

The guidance calls on university leaders to acknowledge where there are issues in their institutions, and that higher education suffers from institutional racism. It cites racial harassment, a lack of diversity among senior leaders, the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic student attainment gap and ethnicity pay gaps among staff as evidence. 

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester and member of the Advisory Group said:

“Education has the power to change lives, which is why it is imperative that every university creates a truly inclusive environment for every student to flourish and achieve their full potential. It is not acceptable that students at the same institution can have a completely different experience at university just because of their background.

“This report is timely and relevant – students from BAME backgrounds are clearly being let down, and it is a wake-up call to HE to show we cannot ignore this issue any longer.

“I am acutely aware of the challenges that BAME students face on a daily basis, which is why I have committed to play my part in effecting change – I am hopeful that my peers will read this report it will mark the start of a movement of change.

The recommendations are the product of an advisory group convened by Universities UK in October 2019 to address racial harassment in UK higher education, and come just over a year after the Equality and Human Rights Commission uncovered widespread evidence of racial harassment on university campuses.

The resulting recommendations include practical steps that all university leaders can implement immediately:

  • Publicly commit priority status to tackling racial harassment
  • Engage directly with students and staff with lived experience of racial harassment
  • Review current policies and procedures and develop new institution-wide strategies for tackling racial harassment
  • Improve awareness and understanding of racism, racial harassment, white privilege and microagressions among all staff and students, including through anti-racist training
  • Ensure expected behaviours for online behaviour are clearly communicated to students and staff, as well as sanctions for breaches
  • Develop and introduce reporting systems for incidents of racial harassment
  • Collect data on reports of incidents and share regularly with senior staff and governing bodies

It also recommends training for senior leaders and governing bodies to improve their awareness of concepts including white privilege and allyship, and makes clear that efforts to address racial harassment will only succeed if the entire university community – including students, staff, alumni, and local partners – are engaged and encouraged to take shared responsibility for change.