Racism in higher education: how to take action

Universities around the world are placing a heavier focus on culture, inclusivity and support to ensure everyone feels safe and respected while they work or study. Harassment, discrimination and bullying are just some of the adversity Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students face. To make matters worse, victim-survivors often feel unable to speak up about their experience.

tackling racism in higher educationThe good news is there are a variety of things institutions like yours can do to encourage speak-up culture amongst students and tackle racism in higher education. 

Lead from the top

Evidence found by the EHRC (Equalities and Human Rights Commission) saw that fewer than four in ten student complaints of racial harassment were upheld and offered some kind of redress. That’s why it's essential for student-facing staff to create a speak-up culture. Staff should clearly show there will procedural consistency and fairness if an incident is reported, promoting a ‘when-in-doubt-speak-up’ mentality. 

Students need to be aware of what the university will do if misconduct is reported. This includes who'll investigate it, how they'll do this and what support and protection your institution will provide.

This can be done by highlighting inappropriate behaviour and by ensuring this message is echoed throughout the institution, both verbally and in a written format through university channels. Emails, student portals and student forums are just some examples of student-facing material where leaders at the institution can convey this message.  

And it’s important it does come from the leaders too. A visible commitment to making sure nobody experiences racism on campus is vital. This pledge by Scotland’s colleges and universities is a great example.

Provide visible, accessible reporting

Attending university should be one of the best times of a student’s life. But with one in 20 students reporting that they left their studies due to racial harassment, promoting a speak-up culture has never been more important.

Many victim-survivors don’t speak up because they’re fearful of the impact on their education, causing many cases to go unreported. 

Implementing anonymous reporting is a great way to give the power back to the victim-survivor and inspire confidence in students to come forward. With a visible, accessible reporting structure in place, students will know where to go when something happens. This, alongside staff who are trained to handle these situations with compassion, will help ensure students feel supported and that their report won’t fall through the cracks.

Raise awareness with training

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons harassment goes under-reported is because of the stigma attached to it. Many victim-survivors avoid reporting their experiences because they feel they may be further traumatised by disclosing. Luckily, there’s so much that can be done to break down these obstacles to reporting. 

With a competent, anonymous reporting mechanism in place, training is also needed. You can do this by offering training internally, hiring specialist staff or partnering with specialist organisations. 

Once your staff are effectively trained in handling harassment and subsequent reporting - and are open with students about what they can do to help - students will feel encouraged to speak up about racism in higher education. This will also provide a clearer sense of the scale of any issues while also enabling institutions to assess the impact of preventive measures. 

See how other institutions are tackling racism in higher education

It’s important to review your own policies and collect data concerning reported and unreported incidents. Once you’ve done this, you may find areas for improvement but struggle to know how to implement the changes.

Instead of struggling, take a look at what other institutions have done to tackle racism in higher education and promote speak-up culture. 

For example, after reviewing Insider-Outsider: The Role of Race in Shaping the Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Students, Goldsmith's committed to meeting a number of recommendations made by the report, including:

  • Establishing a Racial Justice Action Group to oversee racial justice work
  • Mandatory race-awareness training for staff
  • A Race Equality Audit of the College and the creation of a racial justice strategy for the institution
  • A taskforce reviewing how to handle complaints of racist and other discriminatory behaviour

All students and staff are entitled to have a safe, positive experience at university and student services have such an important role to play in this. Contact Culture Shift to find out how we can support you.

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