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Universities: Racism

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they intend to take to ensure that universities properly investigate allegations of racism by students, lecturers and staff; and what role the Office for Students will have in any such investigations.

My Lords, the Government take all forms of racism extremely seriously and expect providers to act swiftly to investigate and address reports of racist incidents. The Government are working closely with Universities UK and the Office for Students to support work to address racism and other forms of harassment in higher education, including the implementation of UUK’s task force recommendations. The Government tasked the OFS to support this, and over £2 million has been invested in projects tackling hatred and harassment.

My Lords, universities have a responsibility to ensure that they provide a safe, inclusive learning requirement but fail in some cases to treat racism seriously. Twenty-five per cent of universities surveyed admitted that they lacked central records of racist complaints, some did not specifically record racist incidents, and just five said that staff who investigated complaints received specific anti-racism training. Does the Minister share my concern that without concerted action, the widened access a diverse intake brings is threatened, and that there are few mechanisms and fewer trained staff able to deal with racism at our universities?

My Lords, we are concerned, and there is no place in our society, including within higher education, for hatred or any form of harassment, discrimination or racism. Higher education providers have clear responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and should discharge their responsibilities fully and have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law to investigate and swiftly address incidents reported to them—by the way, this includes having enough resources, especially staff. The Office for Students was set up to champion students, and it is right that it works closely with universities to fund them to tackle this important issue.

Yesterday, the United States special envoy on global anti-Semitism came to this House. He told us that global anti-Semitism has risen, in part due to anti-Semitism taking place on campus. The Jewish Leadership Council, of which I am vice-president, met the Minister, Chris Skidmore, a short while ago, and he wrote to every vice-chancellor asking them to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Despite that, Jewish students are still having to pay for security on campus. Has the Minister received a reply from the vice-chancellors, and what steps are being taken to ensure that all universities adopt this definition?

I am aware of the meeting and the letter which Minister Skidmore wrote—on 16 May, I believe. I can tell my noble friend that there have been some replies, so I believe that the message is getting through. However, I am the first to say that there is more work to be done. King’s College London has adopted the IHRA definition, but I believe that that happened before the letter was written. Just to complicate matters, we have to respect institutional autonomy as regards how higher education providers operate, although obviously government has a role.

My Lords, last week I was speaking at a sixth-form college where the students were almost entirely black and minority ethnic. They were thrilled when one of their bright girls got a place at Cambridge, and devastated when her father refused to allow her to go on the grounds that she must live at home and go to a local university. What more can be done to encourage ethnic minority communities not to discriminate against girls in this way, and to ensure that they have the opportunities that others have, both before they go to university and afterwards?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. It is important to encourage more females to go to university, when it is right for them, as well as BAME students. I know that a number of universities, including but not exclusively Oxford and Cambridge, are doing a lot of work to try to encourage and improve entries from this particular group, and the work is getting through.

My Lords, when I was a vice-chancellor, there were clear regulations about how to handle allegations of racial discrimination or abuse of some kind. One knew exactly what one had to do: procedures would be set up, which I myself would chair. Perhaps these serious allegations that my noble friend has alluded to arise from the fact that vice-chancellors may be turning their attentions to other managerial matters and not to their fundamental responsibility, which is the welfare and well-being of students and staff.

The noble Lord is right that the welfare of students has to be paramount, and the OfS is tasked with that. However, there is more to it than that; the House may note that the EHRC is conducting an inquiry into racial harassment in higher education, which we welcome. Minister Skidmore wrote to the EHRC on 7 January regarding its inquiry to set out the importance of our understanding of these issues and how they are addressed by providers. Therefore, we very much want to follow through and are on the front foot as regards trying to understand more where the problems are and address them.

Has the Minister seen the report on the research by Dr Katy Sian on the racism and the lack of career progress that black, Asian and minority ethnic academics are facing in universities? The figures are woeful, and demonstrate, as she puts it, ‘institutional racism’ rather than meritocracy. Does the Minister agree with the recommendation that there should be far more transparency in terms of an audit, a statutory requirement for universities to report on the ethnic make-up of their senior academic staff and the progress they intend to make to change that picture?

Indeed, that is what they are tasked to do, through changes we have made in the transparency requirements of the Higher Education and Research Act. There is more to it: £1.8 million has been given for 45 projects. They are looking not only at online harassment—£480,000 has been given for 11 projects to tackle religious harassment. There are a number of strands in progress to make sure we are doing the maximum possible in this area.

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, will the Minister make inquiries to establish whether the guidance the noble Lord referred to is still in place and available to vice-chancellors and principals? It is clearly very important that, having been provided, it should be retained.

I will certainly check that, but I have no doubt that the guidance is there. The big question is whether we should be updating it. That will certainly come in the autumn, when the EHRC is due to report, so this is very much a work in progress.