Universities still have a “long way to go” to ensure students are safe on campus, a regulator has warned as an inquiry found there is an “alarmingly high rate” of racial harassment on campuses.
At least 24% of ethnic minority students have experienced racial harassment at UK universities, according to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
And the watchdog said many universities are unaware of the scale of the problem as well as being over-confident in their ability to respond to it.
The Office for Students (OfS) said the findings are “deeply troubling”, adding it was particularly concerned that students do not feel confident in reporting incidents and that their complaints will be dealt with.
University leaders said they will lead action to take “effective and urgent steps to prevent and respond to racial harassment”.
The EHRC interviewed students and staff, and surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 students.
As many as 44% of international students told the commission that they had experienced racist abuse, yet 77% of those who responded said they had not reported it to their institution.
Less than half of university staff who responded to the watchdog because they had experienced harassment said they reported the incident to their employer.
The report said: “Universities are over-confident that individuals will report harassment, with 43% of universities believing that every incident of racial harassment against students was reported, and 56% believing that all incidents against staff were reported.”
EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said of many universities: “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.”
The commission has recommended to the Government that it reinstates third-party harassment protections and to universities that they improve complaints procedures.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said: “Universities UK will today be urgently seeking independent, external expertise to strengthen our new group on tackling racial harassment to advise universities on effective actions and how to scrutinise and challenge action plans.
“And I am calling on my fellow university leaders to make this a top priority, starting by committing publicly to taking urgent action in their institution and ensuring staff and students know how to report incidents and how to access the support available to them.”
Nicola Dandridge, OfS chief executive, said: “The findings from the Equality and Human Rights Commission are deeply troubling and show that universities have a long way to go to ensure that all students are safe on campus.
“It is a particular concern that many students do not feel confident in reporting incidents of racial harassment and have low confidence in their complaints being dealt with.
“That almost half of universities believe that every incident of racial harassment against their students was reported indicates a worrying complacency.
“Consequently, too many students are not getting the support they need if they suffer abuse and discrimination, and universities are not dealing effectively with the harassment that is taking place. This is unacceptable.”
She said the regulator will soon be launching a consultation setting out expectations on universities and colleges on preventing and addressing hate crime, harassment and sexual misconduct.
Fope Olaleye, black students’ officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “The research by EHRC demonstrates what the black students’ campaign has maintained for some time, that there is a largely hidden set of issues, which drive many inequitable outcomes for students.
“The sector must commit now to combating any acts of racialised hate or harassment students experience.
“Institutions must make reporting accessible, transparent, and effective at providing redress. They must also ensure students are supported when they experience harassment and during the process of reporting harassment.”