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Universities should set clear policies to tackle racial harassment, say experts

Out-Law News | 19 May 2021 | 9:54 am | 3 min. read

Universities and colleges need to lead by example to promote diversity and tackle racial harassment on campuses amid a growing, wider focus on protecting young people from harm, say experts.

Julian Sladdin and Stephanie Badrock of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, were commenting after a leading academic called on universities to do more to address systemic racism. 

David Richardson, chair of Universities UK’s (UUK) advisory group on stamping out racial harassment on campuses and vice-chancellor of University of East Anglia, told a BBC Three documentary UK universities were systemically and institutionally racist and needed to put in place better support for students, to enable them to stand up to instances of racism on campus.

“UUK has told universities across the country that they need to do more to tackle racism and racial harassment on campus. The last year has highlighted racism and racial harassment as a societal issue in the UK and a priority for all public and private sector bodies to address. This is an area where universities can play a significant role in driving change, with the benefit of having a large community of staff and students who have potential to have a positive impact that goes beyond their own education community,” said higher education expert Badrock.

The call for action comes as the UK government published an Online Safety Bill, aimed at clamping down on online racist abuse and other harassment. The proposed legislation would make companies and organisations accountable for limiting the spread of harmful material online and all companies in scope of the legislation will have a duty of care towards their users so that what is unacceptable offline will also be unacceptable online.

In November 2020 UUK published a set of recommendations designed to decisively tackle racial harassment as part of efforts to address racial inequality in UK higher education. The recommendations came 18 months after the Equality and Human Rights Commission uncovered widespread evidence of racial harassment on university campuses.

The recommendations included practical steps such as reviewing current policies and procedures, developing new institution-wide strategies for tackling racial harassment, improving awareness and understanding of racism among all staff and students and ensuring expected behaviours for online behaviour are clearly communicated, as well as sanctions for breaches.

In addition, the guidance called on leaders at institutions to identify and acknowledge where there are issues within their own institution. It cited racial harassment, a lack of diversity among senior leaders, the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) student attainment gap and ethnicity pay gaps among staff as evidence.

Training for senior leaders and governing bodies was recommended to improve awareness of concepts including white privilege and allyship and emphasises that efforts to address this issue will only succeed if the entire university community are engaged and encouraged to take shared ownership and responsibility for change.

In April 2021 the Office for Students (OfS) published a statement of expectations to support English higher education providers to develop and implement effective systems, policies and processes to prevent and respond to incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct. The OfS said providers should clearly communicate, and embed across the whole organisation, their approach to preventing and responding to all forms of harassment – including racial – and sexual misconduct affecting students.

The OfS said providers should have adequate and effective policies and processes in place for all students to report and disclose incidents of harassment, and put in place a fair, clear and accessible approach to taking action in response to reports and disclosures. A number of the expectations reflect the principles that those in the sector have been working to for a number of years, including those set out in the UUK’s 2016 Changing the Culture report.

“The OfS’ recent statement of expectations reflects the principles that those in the sector have already been working to for a number of years, and reinforce UUK’s practical recommendations to tackle racism published in November 2020. However there is still much work to be done,” Pinsent Masons’ Sladdin said.

“While engagement at macro level will play a significant role, if university senior leaders drive change and raising awareness, there also needs to be an assessment of an institution’s approach on a more micro-level. Institutions should ensure that they set clear expectations and promote greater diversity while also having effective reporting systems in place to safeguard their staff and students,” Sladdin said.

“Confidence in an institution’s systems can also be developed through effective implementation including investment in staff training and ensuring that when reports are made, these are managed fairly and effectively with appropriate sensitivity and compassion. Universities should also continue to take positive steps to challenge default responses and use the recent guidance from the advisory group and the sector’s regulator to develop solutions and implement permanent change quickly,” Sladdin said.