Equality and Human Rights Commission challenges universities on racial harassment

Whilst much of the recent focus on harassment in the higher education sector has been on preventing and tackling sexual harassment, racial harassment is also under the spotlight. A recent inquiry and report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission encourages institutions to look more closely at incidents of racial harassment and their responses, and recommends that senior management should take a lead to embed a culture where racial harassment is not tolerated.

Alongside this, the Office for Students (OfS) recognises in its ‘Regulatory Advice 6’ (guidance on preparing access and participation plans) that harassment related to identity, including ethnicity and sexual orientation is a factor that is likely to adversely affect the success and progression of affected students.

The EHRC inquiry looked at the experience of both staff and students, and took in evidence from a public call for evidence along with staff and student surveys, roundtable discussions and interviews.

The report uses the term “ethnic minority” to describe any ethnic background other than white British. 

The EHRC report highlights a number of statistics from the evidence collected, for example:

  • 24% of students from an ethnic minority background and 9% of white students said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course.  Overall this equates to 13% of all student respondents.
  • 20% of student respondents had been physically attacked.
  • 56% of students who had been racially harassed had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes.
  • 1 in 20 students said they had left their studies due to racial harassment.
  • Over 50% of staff from an ethnic minority described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race.
  • Over 25% of staff reported having experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes.
  • 3 in 20 staff said racial harassment had caused them to leave their jobs.

The EHRC expresses concern that the Equality Act 2010 is limited in the protection that it provides for harassment of staff or students by third parties, including for student-on-student and student-on-staff harassment.  As well as pressing for changes to the harassment protections in the Act, it also recommends the public sector equality duty (PSED) should be strengthened to enable action on sector-wide inequalities to be tackled more quickly and consistently.

The EHRC also comments that university staff frequently “lack the understanding, skills and confidence to manage conversations about race effectively”.  This in turn leads to anxiety in managing incidents of racial harassment, undermining fair treatment and the likelihood of early resolution.

Under-reporting was also a concern, with significant proportions of staff and students not reporting incidents of harassment.  Examples of reasons given for not reporting included individuals lacking confidence that the complaint would be addressed, or because they might be perceived as a troublemaker.  The EHRC considers that due to this under-reporting universities have an incomplete picture of the incidence of racial harassment; it questions whether universities are meeting their PSED obligations as a result.

Whilst universities’ own perception was that they handle complaints of racial harassment well, the EHRC reports that the majority do not seek feedback on the process and that many staff and students said they had not been informed about the support available, or had received inadequate information.

Similarly, complainants reported feeling unsupported and not kept informed of progress or the outcome of complaints, potentially linked to universities’ concerns not to inadvertently breach the data protection rights of perpetrators and alleged perpetrators.

The EHRC encourages university leaders to “create and maintain environments where racial harassment is not tolerated and where race, and racial inequality, is discussed competently, confidently and constructively. This will create a culture where individuals across the whole institution – both students and staff – are able to work and study in a safe environment, be themselves and fulfil their potential.”

The recommendations from the report include:

  • proposed amendments to the Equality Act to better support staff who experience harassment from third parties, alongside a workplace statutory code of practice;
  • that all public bodies should set equality objectives or outcomes, and publish evidence of action and progress;
  • that the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act should be reviewed with a view to better focusing public bodies’ activities;
  • a consultation to better inform the regulatory approach of the OfS, HEFCW and SFC;
  • a review of how the court and tribunal system hears non-employment discrimination claims, such as claims by students, to ensure that complainants have access to an affordable and prompt hearing;
  • that further regulatory and sector guidance be issued to help support universities to prevent and tackle harassment;
  • that providers should better support reporting of racial harassment and ensure their procedures are fit for purpose, supported by better data collection;
  • a recommendation that Universities UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the sector work together on data sharing to better understand when the outcome of complaints can be shared and to implement changes;
  • a linking up with mental health initiatives, given the impact of harassment on mental health and wellbeing;
  • that heads and senior leaders demonstrate leadership and accountability for embedding an inclusive culture across their institution.

Many institutions will be considering their own culture, policies and procedures in light of the EHRC report.  A further factor for English institutions to be aware of is that alongside these recommendations, the OfS has announced that it will be publishing a consultation document on 6 November 2019 which will set out its expectations on what registered providers should be doing to prevent harassment, hate crime and sexual misconduct.  Evidence from the EHRC will be used to inform that process, along with a range of other sources.

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