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Education briefing - Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes report on its inquiry into racial harassment in Higher Education

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Guides


Last December, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched an inquiry into racial harassment in Higher Education. On 23 October 2019 the EHRC published its report “Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged” under the heading on its website “Universities oblivious to scale of racial abuse on campus”.

The report, which contains ten recommendations, concludes that:

• racial harassment is a common experience for a wide range of students and staff at universities across England, Scotland and Wales and can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health, educational outcomes and career

• staff and students are not adequately protected by the law

• the HE sector does not fully understand racial harassment and university staff lack confidence in dealing with race issues

• most students and staff do not report racial harassment – though some universities are taking steps to improve reporting

• under-reporting and recording restricts the ability of universities to take action

• universities are overconfident in their complaint handling processes

• there needs to be leadership in HE to help embed a culture where racial harassment is not tolerated

We set out below the key points from the report which has already drawn responses from Universities UK (UUK) and the Office for Students (OfS)


The report states that the inquiry gathered evidence from a “wide range of sources to capture the experiences of staff, students and universities” as follows:

Online call for evidence

Staff and students from universities in England, Scotland and Wales were invited to tell the EHRC about their experiences of racial harassment since the start of the 2015/16 academic year. This call for evidence opened on 4 December 2018 and closed on 28 February 2019. The EHRC received 845 responses from students and 571 responses from staff which were within the scope of the inquiry - of these, 585 students and 378 staff reported that they had personally experienced racial harassment.

Roundtable discussions, interviews and desk-based research

Participants included those involved in managing student and staff complaints, student and staff unions, third sector organisations, regulators and professional bodies. The EHRC also completed some desk-based online research and drew on previous research and policy documents to compile the report.

Quantitative and qualitative research with universities

An online survey was carried out of all publicly funded universities in England, Scotland and Wales in January and February 2019. Of the 159 universities asked to complete the survey, 141 did so in time - a response rate of 89%. The names of the institutions which responded and those which did not are contained in Annex A of the report.

The survey asked universities to provide information on the numbers of cases of racial harassment of staff and students they had dealt with since the start of the 2015/16 academic year; details on the most recently closed case; information on their policies and procedures; and a self-assessment of how successfully they felt they were dealing with racial harassment.

Statistical survey of students

An online survey was carried out of a random sample of more than 1,000 higher education students across Britain.

The report’s findings


The survey reported that 24% of students from ethnic minority backgrounds (defined as any ethnic backgrounds other than White British) and 9% of White British students had experienced racial harassment since starting their course – equating to 13% of all current students in British universities. Male students were twice as likely than female students to have experienced racial harassment.

Racist name-calling, insults and jokes (56%), followed by other forms of verbal abuse (45%), were revealed to be the most commonly experienced forms of racial harassment. 34% of students who reported racial harassment said they had been racially harassed by being excluded or ignored during the 2018/19 academic year.

Of the 585 students responding to the online call for evidence who said they had personally experienced racial harassment, 365 said that this was perpetrated by other students, 154 said it was by their tutor or other academic and 107 by other university staff.

In relation to the 378 staff who said they had personally experienced racial harassment, 171 said it was by an academic colleague, 134 by professional or support service staff and 51 from students. Over half described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race with more than a quarter saying they experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes.

Reporting incidents of racial harassment and making a complaint

The EHRC comments that the inquiry found large discrepancies between the numbers of students who experience racial harassment, the numbers who report those incidents to their university, and the number of complaints recorded by universities.

In approximately six months since the start of the 2018/19 academic year, the EHRC’s student survey found that 8% of students had experienced racial harassment which, if applied to the entire student population, would equate to approximately 180,000 students in six months. Although only a third of those responding to the student survey reported the incident to their university, this would on the EHRC’s calculation amount to 60,000 reporting students. However, survey responses from universities disclosed that, across all 159 publicly-funded universities in Britain, there had been an estimated 560 complaints of racial harassment in aggregate from students since the start of the 2015/16 academic year which would work out at only 80 formal complaints every six months.

The most common reasons given by students for not reporting were having no confidence that the incident would be addressed (46%); not feeling able to judge whether the incident was serious enough to report (36%); not being able to prove the incident took place (36%); not knowing how to report it or who to tell (32%); and feeling too embarrassed or humiliated (30%).

Fewer than half of the staff who said they had been racially harassed had reported their experiences – for similar reasons.

The report concludes that although universities tend to think they are handling complaints of racial harassment well, the majority did not seek feedback about complainants’ satisfaction with the process and many students and staff said they had not been told about the support that was available or were given insufficient information.

Furthermore, although nearly all universities surveyed who had received complaints felt that they had dealt with them fairly, the EHRC’s call for evidence found a much higher level of dissatisfaction with the investigative processes than university responses would suggest.


The EHRC makes ten recommendations across three themes directed at Government, HE providers, regulators and sector bodies.

Theme 1: Protections, transparency and scrutiny

• The UK Government must reinstate third party harassment protections and introduce a mandatory duty on employers to increase protections for staff from harassment - this is something the Government has already consulted about in relation to sexual harassment (see our briefing). Consultation closed on 2 October 2019 and a response is awaited – although any legal change is likely to apply to all forms of harassment.

• Governments (across Britain) should review regulatory frameworks and court hearing structures within each nation, to determine how best to increase protection from harassment for students.

• Governments should strengthen the specific duties under the Public Sector Equality Duty to enable action on sector-wide inequalities to be tackled more quickly and consistently, drawing on evidence from the EHRC inquiry and ‘Is Britain Fairer?’ reports.

Theme 2: Effective redress mechanisms

• HE providers must enable students and staff to report harassment and ensure their complaints procedures are fit for purpose and offer effective redress.

• HE providers should ensure effective data collection procedures are in place to enable them to develop a baseline in order to evaluate and improve their prevention and response strategies.

• UUK, the Information Commissioners Office and HE providers’ data protection officers should work together to increase understanding around data sharing to support effective complaints handling and redress.

• The regulator, the funding councils and UUK should provide more guidance to support providers to prevent and tackle harassment.

Theme 3: A change in higher education culture

• Ensure that initiatives to support mental health in HE reflect the impact of harassment on people’s mental health and wellbeing, and the needs of people with different protected characteristics, to best support a diverse student and staff population.

• HE leaders and governing bodies must demonstrate leadership and accountability for embedding an inclusive culture across their institution.

• HE providers should use the National Student Survey to improve their understanding around student safety and harassment.


This report has placed the issue of racial harassment firmly in the spotlight and has drawn immediate responses from the OfS and UUK.

The OfS has described the findings as “deeply troubling” and says it shows that universities have a long way to go to ensure that all students are safe on campus. The OfS also comments that 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. The OfS also observed that the fact that almost half of universities believe that every incident of racial harassment against their students was reported indicates “a worrying complacency”.

Furthermore, the OfS says that it will shortly be launching a consultation setting out its expectations of all HE providers as to how they should be preventing and addressing hate crime, harassment and sexual misconduct - this will inform their approach as a regulator and ensure “we take decisive and effective action where necessary”.

UUK’s statement pledges to lead-cross sector action to support universities to take effective and urgent steps to prevent and respond to racial harassment and it has said that it will:

• call on its members to commit publicly to taking action, working with their staff, students, local communities and representative groups

• seek independent, external expert advisors to work with a new group, set up earlier this month, on preventing and responding to racial harassment

• ensure there are strong mechanisms for the scrutiny and challenge of guidance emerging from this group, and support for universities developing their own action plans

• ensure its work on student mental health is aligned with efforts to support staff and student affected by racial harassment

• write to the Information Commissioner to explore how universities can better understand the requirements of data protection legislation to support more effective complaints handling and redress

Please do contact us if you would like more information on the report or assistance in managing these issues, or if you would like to discuss the range of training courses we can offer for your senior management team, governing body, HR or student teams including:

• equality, diversity and inclusion

• prevention of harassment

• unconscious bias

• investigating and managing student/staff harassment complaints

• positive action

For more information contact

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