The extent of racism in UK universities has been yet again exposed by a new Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report. But while statistics like the fact that more than a quarter of minority ethnic students have faced both physical and verbal racist attacks are shocking, they’re not new. Last year the Student Room found that one in two students had witnessed or faced racism on campus, while a National Union of Students (NUS) report said that incidents of racism made students of colour want to discontinue their education.
I have heard anecdotes such as these firsthand. When the EHRC enquiry was launched I was serving as black students’ officer at the NUS, where I was regularly contacted by students of colour to support them with the racism they were experiencing on and off campus. Some of these stories made it into the news, with stories of leaked Facebook and WhatsApp chats, pictures of socials, and videos in halls going viral.
These stories and statistics can no longer be waved away as an aberration or minor part of some people’s experiences. For students of colour, racism is a constant in their lives. It is woven into every part of their so-called “student experience”, from being freshers to finding employment. For black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff, the challenge of getting a job in a university is surpassed only by the difficulty in getting promoted in a profession in which only 0.6% of UK professors are black. Although some universities have begun to make progress on these issues, often by using the Race Equality Charter framework, too many are sitting idly by and failing students and staff.
The problem is that racism and other forms of oppression are not something institutions want to readily admit exist, let alone begin the difficult work of rectifying. The marketisation of higher education has led to universities shifting focus from teaching and learning to protecting their reputations for fear of dropping in the league tables and losing out on students. In such a system, how can we expect universities to address racism, when the threat of bankruptcy looms with every low student intake? Meanwhile universities that are successful enough to expand are incentivised to increase their surplus, rather than looking after their students by increasing student support services or grants to the students’ union.
The focus on protecting the reputation of the institution was a theme of the EHRC report. One student said their university “was more bothered about covering the incident up to maintain a ‘spotless’ reputation than it was about tackling racism”. Universities have begun to fear that talking openly about racism will deter potential applicants, but an honest conversation about race in our universities is desperately needed. This has been called for by students, staff and academics for decades, but has gained momentum over the past few years with the Why is my curriculum white? and decolonising movements enabling people to articulate their visions of a fairer campus.
For far too long universities have been exempt from public criticism thanks to their perception as elevated spaces of knowledge; places where liberalism and tolerance rule and which have meritocracy at their very heart. But studies like the EHRC report or research by the NUS black students’ campaign have begun to tear down this myth.
Yet for many, this myth never existed. Their experience at university isn’t discussing lofty ideas in dreaming spires. It’s being stopped by security; being asked to represent your “people” in a seminar; watching your junior colleagues getting promoted above you; being fearful of being referred to the home office at every student demonstration you attend; hearing lecturers use the “n” word; not using your “ethnic” name when applying for graduate schemes and fearing the prevent duty.
The truth is that from a historical perspective, universities have never been meritocratic or liberal. Many were created with the sole purpose of enabling people of wealth and prestige to accumulate further wealth and prestige. Their legacy includes training the next generation of people to run the British empire, funding from slavery and intellectualising eugenics to justify the racism on which the empire was built.
The writing is once again on the wall, and universities have a choice to make. They can continue to resist calls to change by hiding behind their reputations. Or we can finally see the tearing down of the myth of the liberal, tolerant institution and the creation of a progressive, democratic alternative.