Universities told to cover ‘white privilege’ in training to tackle harassment

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University leaders should improve awareness of “white privilege, fragility and allyship” to urgently tackle racial harassment on campuses, vice-chancellors say.

Institutions should carry out anti-racist training with staff and students to increase their understanding of racial “microaggressions” – which are “subtle, less overt forms of racism”, according to Universities UK (UUK).

UUK, an organisation which represents vice-chancellors, has published recommendations for senior leaders to eradicate racial harassment at universities.

It comes after a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last year found that there was an “alarmingly high rate” of racial harassment on university campuses.

Nearly a quarter of ethnic minority students said they had experienced racial harassment at UK universities, according to the watchdog’s report which concluded that many universities are unaware of the scale of the problem and are overconfident in their ability to respond to it.

The guidance, from the advisory group set up by UUK, calls on senior leaders and governing bodies to acknowledge issues that exist in their universities and acknowledge that higher education “perpetuates institutional racism”.

It cites racial harassment, a lack of diversity among senior leaders and the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) student attainment gap as evidence.

Universities should conduct training which incorporates the concepts of white privilege, white fragility, white allyship and microaggressions to highlight everybody’s responsibility for tackling racial harassment, the guidance says.

University leaders should ensure expected behaviours for online behaviour are clearly communicated to students and staff, as well as sanctions for breaches, according to the report.

It adds that institutions should introduce reporting systems for incidents of racial harassment and share data on reported incidents regularly with senior staff and governing bodies, it adds.

The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have “shone a stark light” on racial inequalities that exist within higher education, the report says.

It adds: “The sector cannot reach its full potential unless it benefits from the talents of the whole population, and individuals from all ethnic backgrounds can benefit equally from the opportunities it provides. These developments reinforce the need to act now.”

The senior management team at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have recently undergone “white allyship training” to enhance their understanding of microaggressions and white privilege.

Professor David Richardson, chair of the advisory group and vice-chancellor of UEA, said: “It is my firm belief that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism. This is uncomfortable to acknowledge but all university leaders should do so as a first step towards meaningful change.

“Too often Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students and staff have been failed. While they may have heard positive words, they have seen little action. That needs to change now.

“By embracing and embedding an anti-racist approach we can ensure that 2021 is the year we lead decisive and meaningful change, not just for our universities but for society as a whole.”

The advisory group was informed by experts in the field and carried out in-depth consultation with panels of exclusively BAME students and staff with lived experience of racial harassment.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and member of the advisory group, said: “It is not acceptable that students at the same institution can have a completely different experience at university just because of their background.

“This report is timely and relevant – students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are clearly being let down, and it is a wake-up call to higher education to show we cannot ignore this issue any longer.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “Every racist incident is one too many, and all university students and staff are entitled to a positive, safe and enjoyable experience free from racial harassment.

“As university leaders we have a duty of care to provide that outcome and these recommendations are designed to ensure that we do.”

She added: “It’s clear that more needs to be done to tackle racial harassment throughout higher education. This guidance provides lessons and solutions which will help university leaders make rapid and lasting change for all those working and studying at the UK’s universities.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive at the EHRC, said: “It is vital that universities make absolutely clear that any form of racial harassment is wholly unacceptable.

“We welcome this guidance from Universities UK and are pleased to see that they have taken forward a number of our recommendations. This leadership could go a long way to help universities become inclusive environments where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential through education.”

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students (NUS) said: “Although we welcome this report, it makes for a sobering read and is a stark reminder of the racism that students and staff face on a daily basis in higher education.

“Changing a university culture that enables racial harassment to take place will not be achieved merely by an EDI project or by recruiting Black people into senior positions, it requires us to go to the root of the problem: systemic racism.”

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