Universities need to tackle racism head-on, not deny it exists
Racism is rarely seen as “our problem” in the UK – in contrast to, say, the US where laws, states, and legislation were used to exclude African-Americans from public spaces. The very word and its connotations are unsettling. People would rather not talk about it. Nowhere is this more evident than in universities. Brochures, websites and the Department for Education would have you believe that our institutions are beacons of equality and diversity. And while some may appear to be on paper, the reality is very different. The past year alone has seen a string of cases involving black students faced with abuse and vile treatment at their universities. The media may be slowly waking up to the fact we have a race problem, but it has been a huge problem in educational environments for decades.
A product of widening participation has been that more than 40% of young people now go on to university. So if our institutions are the most diverse they have ever been why are black students having such a tough time? It’s not just physical, overt forms of racism that plight the lives of black students, a recent poll found that half of the students have witnessed racism during their studies, the majority being verbal, offhand or “casually” racist comments.
Not so private WhatsApp groups seem to be the choice destination for many to espouse hateful and derogatory views. However, it doesn’t really matter where the offense takes place, the fact it has is burden enough.
Universities are struggling to deal with incidents and the reason for that is pretty stark: each individual case brings them bad PR and bad PR weakens their chances of student uptake and good table scores. But that can’t go on. Racial discrimination isn’t something to be brushed under the carpet because it makes institutions look bad, nor is it something that will be solved with a fancy communications strategy and jazzy brochures. Bad PR really starts when institutions fail to support and protect students after terrible ordeals and they have no choice other than to take to social media. Cases of being ignored, not treated with dignity or not being consulted throughout the investigation process are common.