FE/HE Anti racism declaration reading: "We stand united against racism"

Steps toward tackling racism at college and university

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Last week resources to support conversations about race in colleges and universities were launched by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) in partnership with equality and diversity organisation Advance HE.

This is one element of the sector’s wider work over the past two years to challenge and tackle racism on campus and address issues of racism identified by students and staff from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups.

Identifying staff and student experiences

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged report published in October 2019 was highly critical of higher education’s progress on tackling racism.

The report found that students and staff from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups at universities across the UK commonly experienced racial harassment.

Around a quarter (24%) of students had experienced racial harassment during their studies. Of those students, 20% reported physical attacks while 56% had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes.

Students had also commonly experienced:

  • subtle ‘microaggressions’ – intentional or unintentional hostile or derogatory behaviours that make people feel unwelcome;
  • exposure to racist material or displays;
  • being ignored or excluded from group activities.

More than a quarter of staff experienced racist name-calling and insults.

The EHRC found these experiences resulted in some students leaving studies and staff leaving their jobs:

“Around 1 in 20 students who responded to our call for evidence said racial harassment caused them to leave their studies. Around 3 in 20 staff said racial harassment caused them to leave their jobs, with many more saying they were considering, or had considered, doing so.”

The report also found racist incidents were underreported by students and staff, while institutions were “overconfident in their complaint handling process”.

Following the report’s publication, SFC, EHRC and Universities Scotland held a seminar for colleges and universities to discuss the report. One of the themes emerging from the seminar was the need to support staff to approach conversations about race and racism confidently and constructively.

In March 2020, the SFC and EHRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) outlining the two organisations’ role in supporting universities and colleges to work toward achieving the report recommendations, as well as equality and compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED).

SFC then funded Advance HE to take forward the Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations’ project. The project is led by an Expert Group of equality and diversity practitioners, academics and college and university staff and students. Its work over the past year has included a focus on lived experiences of students and staff and webinars discussing race, racism and whiteness.

Bringing the sector together

In August 2020, colleges and universities signed up to an anti-racism declaration, which states:

“Racism exists on our campuses and in our society. Call it what it is and reject it in all its forms. We stand united against racism.” 

This important step toward a sector-wide approach to tackling racism has been described by Advance HE as a “landmark commitment”. It is endorsed by the SFC and the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead MSP.

Building further on this sector-wide approach, the resources launched last week provide institutions with leaflets and social media branding that can be used to raise awareness of the declaration and wider work.

Resources also include:

  • A guide on their use.
  • A document on microaggressions. This provides numerous examples of commonly reported microaggressions alongside an explanation of why they are offensive.
  • A Tackling Racism Diagnostic Tool to support institutions to identify how they can become more inclusive.
  • A Race Literacy Glossary looking at commonly used terminology such as ‘white privilege’ and explaining their context.
  • A Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance and the Scottish Race Project resource mapping out where aspects of the work fall within the Code of Good Governance.

At the launch, Chair of the steering group Khadija Mohammed said:

“It’s now time for critical action and accountability – the challenge will be to sustain the dialogue, as we move forward as a sector, in order to ensure our educational settings are racially just and inclusive spaces.”

The next phase of the work is underway; the SFC-funded Anti-Racist Curriculum Project has been established to look at developing an anti-racist curriculum.

In addition, Universities Scotland and Universities UK published Tackling racial harassment in higher education guidance in November 2020. This guidance also focuses on taking forward the EHRC recommendations.

Images and graphic featured in the Tackling Racism Diagnostic Tool

Work in progress

Following the publication of the EHRC report, university and college senior leaders in Scotland wanted to demonstrate their commitment to change. There is potential for the sector to lead the way on this issue: the anti-racism declaration provides sector leaders with a focus to make tackling racism a top priority for all institutions. The newly launched resources provide support and information for staff and students at all levels within an institution.

Lasting progress will require continued effort, with people who have lived experience of the issues of race and racism continuing to inform and shape the sector’s work.

In the aftermath of Brexit and COVID-19, those in leadership positions at colleges and universities must not lose sight of this work, as tackling racism on campus has the potential to benefit students, staff and the institutions they study and work in.

Lynne Currie

Senior Researcher (Education)