Is Uni Racist? How to support harassment complaints

On Wednesday 28th March we watched the provocatively entitled documentary ’Is Uni Racist?’ from The BBC. Its narrative concluded that yes, Universities in the UK are institutionally racist, a statement that to some viewers might be startling, unbelievable, or even offensive.

However, what we learn through testimonies of students, and reports from universities and independent bodies alike is that this is the real, lived experience of many minority ethnic students within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) across the UK.

The documentary follows the highly controversial Sewell report, which challenged the extent of Institutional Racism within British society, a series of ensuing conversations on the prevalence of Racism in a number of industries, and the #EveryonesInvited campaign, which is highlighting incidences of sexual harassment in education across the UK. 

Now is a time where Universities are being challenged to answer to cases of student harassment, to showcase what they’re doing to prevent these issues from occurring and to support students when they do.

Importantly though, the documentary breaks down the key challenges ahead of Universities, which we understood to be:

  • How do Universities encourage students that face harassment to feel safe in reporting?
  • How do Universities improve in their support of students who report harassment on campus?
  • And finally, how should Universities respond when receiving harassment reports?

Harassment reports: Why encourage them, and how to create safer environments

Research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), discussed in the 36 minute documentary, estimated that 2 in 3 cases go unreported by students. Reasons for this ranged from not believing the University would do enough to address the case, to fears of reports impacting on the complainant's education and experience. 

Even more shocking than this, 11 out of 93 Universities that responded said that they had no complaints of racism against staff or students between 2015-2019, but we can see from the data that not knowing about a problem is certainly not evidence of it not existing.

Accepting that Racism is an issue that your University or organisation needs to deal with isn’t an acceptance of culpability, but a commitment to your community that you’re there to support when these incidences do occur. 

The documentary suggests that 1 in 20 students (that’s about 125,000) are being driven to leave their studies due to mismanaged reports of harassment. What’s clear is that more needs to be done to support students dealing with these devastating cases of harassment. This starts with giving them the means and empowerment to report, and ends when all students feel safe to do so.

We wrote a piece giving 5 tips that will help to create a culture where people can speak up that you can read here.

How to support students who report harassment in your University

The documentary also addresses how students who make a complaint are inadequately supported throughout the investigation process. The key challenge being the overarching misconception that data protection is a barrier to sharing outcomes of harassment claims with the complainant.

However GDPR & DPA obligations are not barriers to sharing outcomes, in fact they provide a framework within which information can be shared. In doing this, you can create a process and environment where students and staff can feel satisfied that their complaints are taken seriously, and that incidences of harassment are just that; an incident, not a culture.

Our most recent guidance on data sharing provides advice on how you can still ensure students feel supported from beginning to end whilst remaining data compliant. 

What to do when made aware of harassment on your campus

The overriding response presented in this documentary was one of denial and avoidance. Reactive responses to harassment claims can often leave institutions scrambling for answers, and no clear policy or process can leave you open to bad press. The best response is built upon a culture of prevention; achieved through training and education, and in providing your community with the means of reporting harassment anonymously or named, when cases do arise.

It’s key that institutions engage in primary prevention, rather than just dealing with these issues on a case-by-case basis. Whilst supporting survivors and holding perpetrators to account is important, it is equally important to focus on the institution's overarching initiatives that address the key drivers of violence and harassment. This is where we will see real change.

Our Exceeding Expectations report, written in response to the Office for Students guidance on tackling harassment and sexual assault in Universities, is a detailed demonstration of how to best safeguard your students and your community from harassment cases in the future.

At Culture Shift we work to remove barriers to reporting, and create an environment where people will speak out if they experience or witness unacceptable behaviour of any kind. What we were reminded of with the BBC’s documentary is that more work is needed to realise a world where everyone can be safe from harassment.

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