racial harassment
Image: Evianne Suen / The Boar

Warwick apologises for not responding to sector-wide racial harassment survey

The University of Warwick has apologised for not responding to a survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on racial harassment in higher education.

Warwick was one of the 18 universities, out of 151 in total, that did not participate in the EHRC survey. It was the only Russell Group institution that did so.

Responding to enquiries from The Boar, the University said: “Our failure to complete the survey within their deadline was the result of a genuine oversight. We profusely apologised to the research organisation and offered to respond.

“We were told that we were too late but that they would ‘…acknowledge in our published report that you did engage with us after the deadline and offered to participate in the research, but that we were not able to accept your submission.’

“We take the matter of racial harassment, and indeed all other forms of harassment and discrimination, very seriously and we have undertaken a major piece of work within our community to reaffirm our core principles relation to such matters.”

UPDATE (25/10/2019 6:15PM): Warwick Students’ Union (SU) has described the University’s “oversight” as “deeply disappointing”, “shameful and embarrassing”.

They said: “Given the appalling way that Warwick University handled the issues arisen from the group chat scandal last year, we expect, and we demand better. Once again, the most marginalised student communities have been let down by an institution that prides itself on diversity and inclusion.

“For years, students of colour have been highlighting the experiences of racially marginalised communities on campus and of the huge detrimental impact this has on their experience and mental health. Reports produced by campaigns such as the Speak Out Campaign (2018) reveal that students of colour continue to be victims of racism at Warwick – a situation that is neither new nor surprising.

“The University has a duty of care to its own students and staff under the Equality Act (2010), to eliminate discrimination and harassment towards those victimised by racist social norms. We’re demanding that the University make it a priority to form a strategy with tangible actions to properly address and prioritise this immensely important, pervasive issue.”

The EHRC investigated the scale of racial harassment suffered by students and staff in higher education across England, Scotland and Wales. Calls for evidence ran from December 2018 to February this year.

Of the 845 students and 571 staff that responded, 585 and 378 respective respondents “personally experienced racial harassment”. An online survey of over 1,000 students across Britain was also conducted.

Key findings included that 24% of minority ethnic and 9% of white students were racially harassed since the start of their course, equating to 13% of all students. The figure for black students is highest at 29%, followed by Asian students at 27%.

The decision sparked outrage across the student body, including Warwick Students’ Union (SU)’s Ethnic Minorities Officer Taj Ali, who said it was “deeply disappointing”.

20% of students have experienced physical assault, and 56% of those who were racially harassed “experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes”. International students described “feeling unwelcome, isolated and vulnerable”.

Key findings included that 24% of minority ethnic and 9% of white students were racially harassed since the start of their course

Common experiences included “microaggressions”, “being ignored or excluded” and “being exposed to racist material or displays”. Perpetrators were often students, though “a large number” of respondents cited “their tutor or another academic”.

Responding to the EHRC, over half of staff “described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race” and more than a quarter “experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes”.

Most incidents “took place in office environments, frequently in plain sight of their colleagues”. For both staff and students, the organisation “received examples of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic slurs, and anti-English sentiment at Scottish and Welsh universities”.

The inclusion of data on racism experienced by white students has been criticised for possibly “confusing” universities and “equating” the experience of a black student with someone who is Welsh at an English university.

It “conflates racism with individual harassment and entirely minimises the racism by including groups who do not experience racial prejudice,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University.

As a result of racial harassment, students reported “feeling angry, upset, depressed, anxious and vulnerable”. 8% felt suicidal. The same impacts were felt by staff.

Subsequently, they “disengaged from core activities, to keep themselves safe or to prevent further erosion of their confidence and wellbeing, but at a cost to their studies or careers”. Responding to the EHRC’s call for evidence, around 5% of students left their studies and approximately 15% of staff did the same, or have considered doing so.

The first conclusion drawn by the EHRC was that students and staff “are not adequately protected by the law” through the Equality Act 2010, which provides “limited protection” for third-party, student-on-student, student-on-staff harassment and other forms.

Secondly, the university sector “does not fully understand racial harassment and university staff lack confidence in dealing with race issues,” evidenced by the EHRC’s findings.

For example, two-thirds of the student survey’s respondents and over half of staff replying to the EHRC calls for evidence did not report relevant incidents, as they had “no confidence” that the university would address it, “did not know how to report” it, “could not judge” the severity of the incident or “had difficulty proving what occurred”.

Where sanctions were applied against the perpetrator following a disciplinary process, universities often felt unable to tell the person who made the complaint due to concerns about breaching data protection rules

Some also cited possible “personal consequences” that they might incur, such as being seen “as a troublemaker”. Students on medical placements and research postgraduates in particular feared reporting would “directly affect long-term career prospects”.

Meanwhile, the EHRC reported: “Many universities significantly underestimate the prevalence of racial harassment and have misplaced confidence in people’s willingness to come forward.

“Although many universities thought that staff and students were likely to raise complaints informally, for example, through their tutor or students’ union representative, more than half did not have processes for collecting data on informal complaints.”

38% of the universities surveyed “received no complaints of racial harassment from staff” and 29% did not see complaints from students. 18% did not receive complaints from either group.

The EHRC concluded that due to “underreporting and informal complaints not being recorded routinely”, universities “have an incomplete picture of the scale of racial harassment”.

They are also “overconfident in their complaint handling processes”, as a majority “did not seek feedback on the complaints process” and many students and staff were not informed – sufficiently or at all – of the support available.

Furthermore, a high level of “dissatisfaction with investigative processes” was found as a majority of respondents “did not get the outcome they wanted”.

The report read: “Where sanctions were applied against the perpetrator following a disciplinary process, universities often felt unable to tell the person who made the complaint due to concerns about breaching data protection rules.

“This left the individual feeling unsupported and that justice had not been served.”

Universities were also found to be “not following guidance on how to handle complaints”, as complainants were “not kept informed of progress and felt unsupported”.

Some institutions did acknowledge the need for “good practice” and better approaches, especially when handling “more nuanced and covert instances of racism or harassment” or “how to explain and deal with racial ‘banter’”.

Several admitted that their handling “often took too long and understood how this undermined effective redress”.

“A lot of recent university action to tackle harassment has focused on sexual harassment. There was not the same confidence in talking about, and tackling, racial harassment,” the EHRC stated.

They also found “a strong perception that universities too often place their reputation above the safeguarding and welfare of their students and staff.”

The EHRC has since put forth various recommendations surrounding themes of transparency, “effective redress” and “change in university culture”.

Various higher education bodies have since responded to the EHRC’s report. Office for Students (OfS) Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge described the findings as “deeply troubling”, showing that universities have “a long way to go” in tackling racial harassment.

(The EHRC) also found “a strong perception that universities too often place their reputation above the safeguarding and welfare of their students and staff”

She added that it is “unacceptable” for universities to “believe that every incident of racial harassment against their students was reported” when students are shown to “have low confidence in their complaints being dealt with”, which reflects “a worrying complacency” and that institutions are not handling the problem “effectively”.

The OfS will be launching a consultation soon to lay out their expectations for universities on how to prevent and address “hate crime, harassment and sexual misconduct”, which will also “inform” their approach and help them “take decisive and effective action where necessary”.

Reacting to the report, President of Universities UK (UUK) Julia Buckingham said that it was “sad and shocking” students and staff are “still subjected” to racial harassment, against which “urgent action” must be taken.

She announced that the vice-chancellors’ representative body is now “seeking independent, external expertise to strengthen” the way in which racial harassment is handled.

Professor Buckingham further called on university leaders “to make this a top priority, starting by committing publicly” to informing staff and students about “the support available to them”.

Of the five actions to be taken by the UUK, one includes writing to the Information Commissioner “to explore how universities can better understand the requirements of data protection legislation to support more effective complaints handling and redress”.

The University and College Union (UCU) also agreed that “there needs to be a proactive duty” to protect staff and students from racial harassment – including “improved” reporting processes – and stressed the need for “a zero-tolerance approach”.

Fope Olaleye, Black Students’ Officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), said that the EHRC report “reveals a largely hidden set of issues, which drive many inequitable outcomes for students”.

“The sector must commit now to combatting any acts of racialised hate or harassment students experience,” she added. “We welcome further action by universities, the sector and national organisations, to address the structural and cultural norms that enable racial harassment in our institutions.”

Warwick SU Ethnic Minorities Officer Taj Ali has been contacted for comment.

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