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Scottish universities 'oblivious' to extent of racial abuse

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland education correspondent

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image captionRacial abuse is a "common occurrence" in Scottish universities, according to a report

Racial harassment is a "common experience" for staff and students at Scottish universities, according to a new report.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission says some institutions are "oblivious" to how big the problem is.

The commission warns that harassment can take many forms and can have a serious effect on its victims.

Scottish universities have described the findings as "stark and challenging".

The report says there are also examples of anti-English sentiment expressed at Scottish universities.

However, the report contains few specific details of this and suggests that particular problem is more commonplace in Wales.

The experience of racial harassment was reported by a wide range of students and staff at universities across England, Scotland and Wales.

Researchers heard from 571 staff and 845 students across the three nations.

What do the students say?

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image captionStudents reported isolating themselves after enduring racial harrassment

One UK student at a Scottish university said: "My confidence was completely knocked so I just hid away and tried to focus on my courses."

Another said: "I often tried to act more "white" and I used to conceal the fact I speak Cantonese and was embarrassed by my ethnicity. I now have mostly international friends at university who are all very accepting and have helped me again be proud of my identity."

The report also highlights harassment's impact on mental health.

One said: "As someone with a pre-existing mental illness, it's difficult to express how much these incidents contributed to a relapse which I had later that year. It was easier for me to isolate myself and not interact with others even when I really needed support because of how close I was to my perpetrators.

"I withdrew a few months after those incidents and returned to my home city."

The figures suggest incidences of racial harassment are lower among students at Scottish universities than at institutions in England. However, the report says this may reflect the fact that England has a more ethnically-diverse student population.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive at the EHRC, said: "We expect universities to be innovative environments that help us to grow as individuals and prepare us to be good citizens.

"It is considerably disappointing to discover that, instead of being progressive and forward-thinking, they are living in the past and have failed to learn from history."

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She added: "No-one should ever be subjected to racial harassment in any setting. Our report reveals that not only are universities out of touch with the extent that this is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue. This isn't good enough."

She said more should be done to protect all students and staff on campus.

What can be done?

The commission makes several recommendations:

  • The Scottish government should ensure the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council has adequate regulatory powers to hold universities to account on their performance to prevent and tackle harassment
  • Institutions must enable students and staff to report harassment and ensure their complaints procedures are fit for purpose and offer effective redress
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image captionRecommendations include ensuring institutions have robust complaints procedures

Universities Scotland says the problem is being taken seriously.

The organisation's convener, Professor Andrea Nolan said: "The findings are stark and challenging for universities and we must turn to face those findings and recommendations head on.

"We are committed to tackle racial harassment within universities. We will follow the collegiate, evidenced approach we have used when dealing with issues around mental health and gender-based violence.

"Scotland will be represented on Universities UK's new advisory group on racial harassment.

"Universities are a platform for people to flourish, we must ensure that always remains the case."

The report also highlights an example of good practice at a Scottish university as an example of how to help combat harassment.

The scheme at Strathclyde University - called Equally Safe in Higher Education - is funded by the Scottish government.

'Damning figures'

NUS Scotland's black students officer, Franklin Jacob, said: "It lays bare the unacceptable scourge of racial harassment experienced by staff and students at university.

"To read that 24% of students surveyed had been the victim of racial harassment whilst 20% of students had been racially attacked. is damning. The figure in Scotland (11%), whilst lower, still shows the work that must be achieved by the entire sector.

"All universities - without fail - must take steps to address transparency of reporting procedures, provide proper redress for victims and to create a zero-tolerance culture towards racial harassment on campuses, stamping out hatred and prejudice for good."

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image captionA seminar is to take place in Edinburgh next week to discuss the report's findings

A Scottish government spokesperson said: "Racial harassment has no place in Scotland, nor our universities.

"We must tackle and eradicate it, leaving our students, researchers and staff - from Scotland and around the world - to flourish without the distress it causes.

"The Scottish government is wholly committed, and already taking action, to address its recommendations through effective joint action with key stakeholders, such as the Scottish Funding Council, and we encourage all relevant interests to play a part in addressing these issues."

The SFC will co-host a seminar in Edinburgh with EHRC, Universities Scotland and the Scottish Government on 29 October to discuss the findings and recommendations.

Related Topics

  • Racism
  • Students
  • Universities
  • Mental health
  • Universities in the UK

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