Time To Talk About It: Racism At University

Every year, over 2.5 million students attend universities across the United Kingdom, with Black and ethnic minority students accounting for half a million of the total. A place where students from all backgrounds come to learn and have fun, but where recent surges in racially abusive behaviour from staff and students are becoming a subject of concern for many, however, data shows a low number of incidents being reported but why is this?

This may be due to the fact that these students believe that the university will not take sufficient action or that this will affect their studies. Students also complain that their complaints were mis-handled by the university and often never known the outcome of disciplinary for their aggressors due to data- protection policies. Universities believe that this issue is being dealt with due to the data however the data is misrepresented as the incidents are not consequently being reported.

Statistics from BBC three’s ‘Is Uni Racist?’ documentary airing in April of 2021 showed that between 2015 and 2019 the highest number of complaints for racially charged issues were Cardiff University with 24 cases, Essex University reported 52 cases, and Nottingham Trent University with 25 cases.  On campuses around the UK, racial profiling, abuse, and harassment have all occurred. In 2019 the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a study on racial harassment at universities. They uncovered that “Students had reported that their harasser was usually another student, but a significant percentage said it was their instructor or another academic”. Additionally, international students expressed feelings of alienation, isolation, and vulnerability. From the report there were examples of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic slurs, as well as anti-English prejudice, from both staff and students at Scottish and Welsh universities. “We were told that most incidents were part of a pattern of repeated harassment” which is an alarming finding that this is being experienced on a regular basis. Mental health has massively affected students who have experienced such abuse. The report stated that “students who were subjected to racial harassment reported feeling angry, unhappy, depressed, anxious, and vulnerable, with 8% reporting suicidal thoughts”. Similar effects were noted by employees.

Universities are under significant pressure to uphold the belief of non-discriminatory and safe environments where students can come to study and yet it is the universities inability to deal with the issues at hand adequately that causes unrest and little belief in the university’s ability to deal with racial discrimination. Incidents such as the ‘Bracton Law Society Scandal’ in 2018 involved screenshots of racist text messages being leaked, from a WhatsApp chat group of Bracton Law Society (BLS), a student law society at the University of Exeter, this gained massive publicity forcing universities to take serious action. The racist messages were publicised on social media, which led to the society being dissolved and some students being suspended and expelled. However, it begs the question if not publicised how serious would the issue be taken by the university?

 Rufaro Chisango was also the victim of a racist attack when in 2017 in her university accommodation she was left feeling vulnerable and scared, after white students stood outside her door and proceeded to chant derogatory and outwardly racist remarks such as ‘We hate the Blacks’. Chisango proceeded to write a statement to the university but had no response. The racial abuse was recorded by a fellow student and Chisango felt as though at this point, she had to take matters into her own hands and decided to upload the footage onto social media, where it went viral. The university then took action, and the police were also called, Joe Tivnan the main perpetrator was arrested along with another male student and received an £800 fine and will likely suffer irreparable damage. A Nottingham Trent spokeswoman said the university was “shocked and appalled” by the incident.

 In a letter to the university in 2020, 60 student societies expressed their “shock and disgust at the recent increase in cases of racism that have been seen to have come from NTU students” evidencing that racism in university if anything is rising with events such as European Football Championship being a trigger.

 Overall, it is clear that major changes are required for students to feel safe and respected in these institutions. It seems that most of all students want to be heard and feel that their experiences are significant enough to be taken seriously by the university.

BBC three’s ‘Is Uni Racist?’ documentary available on BBC iPlayer gives greater insight and detail on the issues discussed.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Report: Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged (

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