Racist incidents at UK universities have risen by more than 60 per cent in two years, figures show

‘All the evidence is telling us that universities are not liberal places of tolerance’

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Monday 11 June 2018 11:08 BST
Nottingham Trent University student Rufaro Chisango speaks following 'we hate the blacks' video

The number of racist incidents in universities across the UK has surged by more than 60 per cent in two years, The Independent can reveal.

The data, from freedom of information requests, has prompted calls for universities to do more to tackle racism amid concerns that the numbers could be much worse due to underreporting.

Racism is happening every day on campuses across the UK, the National Union of Students (NUS) say, but often students do not tell their university as they fear they will not be taken seriously.

The warnings come as black students’ experiences are in the spotlight – with racist chants in student halls and a banana being thrown at a black graduate hitting the headlines.

An analysis by The Independent has found that 129 alleged incidents of racism were reported to UK universities in 2017, compared to 80 incidents in 2015 – a rise of 61 per cent.

And in just one year, the number of complaints about racism from university students and staff rose by nearly a quarter (23 per cent), the figures show, with 105 incidents reported in 2016.

Of the 94 universities who provided comparable data, nearly two in five (37 per cent) institutions have seen the number of incidents of racism increase over the past two years.

But the scale of the problem is even greater, according to the NUS who argue that the rise in reports can be attributed to the efforts of student officers running intolerance campaigns on campuses.

The data, requested by The Independent, also reveals that the number of religiously motivated hate crime incidents at universities doubled in the same period, from six in 2015 to 12 in 2017.

Over three years, antisemitic and/or islamophobic incidents were reported to 26 UK universities – including several Russell Group institutions such as Durham, Newcastle and Exeter.

Just last month, a number of law students from the University of Exeter who allegedly made racist comments were expelled after private WhatsApp conversations were shared on Facebook.

The new data, shared with The Independent, reveals that some students were suspended and expelled for racism. But in many cases, students were given warnings, fines or asked to apologise.

In one case at Queen’s University Belfast, a student accused of Islamophobia was asked to write a 3,000 word reflective essay as punishment.

Ilyas Nagdee, NUS black students’ officer, said that stories of perpetrators getting away with a “slap on the wrist” had meant many students were being put off from complaining about racism. “They don’t believe that they will actually see the justice they want to see,” he said.

Of the universities contacted, around a third did not share the details of alleged racist incidents, with many citing the sensitive nature of the information. Meanwhile, some universities did not provide any information because they said they did not record incidents under the category of ‘racist’.

Overall, there was not one consistent approach to recording the data – with some universities citing they only had access to formal complaints, rather than allegations raised through other outlets.

James Kingett, from Show Racism the Red Card, said he was “concerned” by the rise and he added that it was “troubling” to hear of inconsistencies in terms of reporting across universities.

He said: “Transparency of reporting is essential so that students and staff understand how incidents are defined, investigated and resolved.”

The rise has come as hate crime incidents have increased across the country, showing that universities and education are not immune. “Incidents of racism are on the rise across the country and the developing body of evidence can no longer be ignored,” Mr Kingett said.

Mr Nagdee added: “The first step has to be universities taking ownership and recognising the issue because until we do that, universities will continue to be perceived as liberal places of tolerance when unfortunately all the data, all the stories and all the evidence is telling us this is not the case.”

On the figures obtained by The Independent, he added: “I am sure the total number of racist incidents is much much higher. I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are even higher in the future.”

A recent social media campaign from the NUS saw more than 100 students come forward with stories of racism on campus across 30 universities in just one week – with some saying they were worried about their safety. “This is a daily reality for students across the country,” Mr Nagdee said.

And students appear to be using social media more and more to report racist incidents, rather than through the formal university channels, in order to ensure action is taken as quickly as possible.

A student from Nottingham Trent pleaded guilty to racially aggravated harassment in court last month, after a student posted a video of him making racist chants outside her room on social media.

And this year, Sheffield Hallam University began an investigation after a student tweeted that library staff had called him a monkey. It came after a banana was reportedly thrown at a black Sheffield Hallam graduate during an ice hockey game between his alma mater and the University of Sheffield.

The University of Sheffield was forced to apologise for an “unacceptable delay” in the handling of the incident – which involved one of its students – and it said it would review its proceedings.

Sheffield was one of the institutions that saw a rise in the number of racist incidents in two years, according to the new data, from three reports in 2015 to 11 in 2017.

But many students have found it difficult to report racist incidents. Melinda Acquah, a third year at Sheffield University, has experienced racism – but she has not formally reported any incidents.

One of her former housemates used the “n word” around her – which made her feel “uncomfortable” and singled out as the only BME student in the house. “I didn’t know how to report incidents like this to the university. I didn’t know how to deal with it,” she told The Independent.

And it is not only students that face racism. A racist note was left on a staff member’s desk at the Royal Veterinary College in 2017 – but they failed to identify the perpetrator, the data shows.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University College Union (UCU), said: “A number of shocking incidents have made headlines recently and while universities obviously must not tolerate this kind of behaviour, they need to be more proactive in stopping it.

“All universities must make it clear how staff and students can report any incidents and those that do make reports must be confident they will be properly supported.”

Sam Gyimah, universities minister, said: “There is absolutely no place for any form of hatred, discrimination or racism in society. Universities have clear responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 in this regard. I expect institutions to act swiftly to investigate and address hate crime, including racist related incidents reported to them.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “Universities UK’s Taskforce has published recommendations to universities on dealing with hate crime affecting university students.

“A recent follow-up report recommended that each university should consider having one system to collect, record and store data on all types of hate crime at their institution.”

She added: “Following this report and recent high profile cases, we are redoubling our efforts to identify the scale of race based hate crime in universities and how they prevent and respond to incidents. This project will establish what further action should be taken and continue to offer best practice guidance.”

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