Racism on UK Campuses

Ethnic minorities at British universities are discriminated against. What is wrong with this statement? Factually, nothing. For one, direct testimony affirms it – saying nothing of corroborative evidence in the form of witnesses, notes, conversation logs etc. Though perhaps one ought to preface it with the perfunctory disclaimer: ‘some’. It is true that not all ethnic minorities encounter or even perceive racism, and a long history of inter-sectarian conflict shows that bigotry is hardly the preserve of the powerful. ‘Some ethnic minorities at British universities are discriminated against.’ This is good enough for now.

Racism is common. A BBC survey conducted in 2008 revealed some uncomfortable home truths about British attitudes toward race, with 25%-40% of participants saying that they would discriminate against ethnic minorities. The same poll showed that, when provided a list of BNP policies including the option of repatriating second and third generation immigrants, two thirds of the participants expressed some favour.

Racism on campus is also common. 1 in 6 ethnic minority students encounter racism while in higher education according to an NUS report. Black students are also statistically less likely to receive a first class degree, despite entering the university with the same qualifications as their white peers. These findings – the upshot of a two year study into minority experiences in British universities – reflect salient features of the debate surrounding race and social advancement on a broader level. That is, that majority populations are conferred a degree of privilege in societies where whiteness continues to be recognised as the norm.

Even more alarming, there appears to be an undercurrent of suspicion within some student communities over the education boards’ ability to tackle incidents of racial discrimination. In other words, some students suspect leading universities of promoting institutional racism.

In 2011, The Guardian, surveying a broad spectrum of students from non-autochthonous backgrounds, “found that almost one in three students… did not trust their institution to deal with complaints fairly.” Students expressed concern over whether an administrative body would acknowledge an incident as racist, regardless of the victim having perceived it as such.

These preconceptions that the University would not be a reliable means of following-up incidents of racial abuse has led some victims to take action for themselves. While studying in Hallward Library, 3rd Year student Emily Davenport experienced racist abuse over her BBM network. In the space of a few minutes, she received multiple messages later described as “appalling and hurtful”. Davenport raised awareness of the incident by setting up a campaign on Facebook. The page entitled ‘Hate Racists? Name and Shame’ accumulated over a hundred members from the student community in just a few hours. The matter was eventually solved when Nottinghamshire police were contacted the following week.

Not meaning to gainsay incidents such as these, they might better be seen as outliers of a more insidious effect. Racism in British universities is often non-deliberate. Ethnic minority students recount feeling isolated and adrift in leading UK universities without being the object of any overt discrimination. The report revealed that minority students believe that they are more likely to encounter racism or face being ostracised in a Russell Group institution because of the predominantly white student body.

Marginalization – while not manufactured with intent – is ubiquitous across universities. Students allegedly feel ill equipped to contribute in seminars because of the ‘Eurocentric focus’ of university syllabuses. Most participants strongly agreed when asked if they believed they would benefit instead from subject choices that correlate with their own cultural experience.

This year’s tailored prospectuses, with their promises of cosmopolitanism, will no doubt belie the unfortunate ‘some’ who experience discrimination within or at the hands of educational institutions. It’s easy to become resigned to the view that education can never be extricated from its traditionalist roots. However, the robust internationalism of Nottingham is a monument to a community dedicated at all stages to contending with this. Racism in modern Britain is so often to do with a mistaken belief in the fixity and singularity of national identity, but the diversity of the student body provides an opposition to these relict institutions too great to be ignored.

Izzy Scrimshire 


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