“We hate the blacks.” These were the words allegedly being chanted in a halls of residence at Nottingham Trent University, revealed to the world in March via a shocking viral video.
A month later, Sheffield Hallam University opened an investigation of its own when a banana was thrown at a black student during an ice hockey match.
In May, the University of Warwick suspended 11 students, after the discovery of racist and anti-Semitic messages being shared via a Facebook group.
With such troubling stories making regular appearances in the media, it seems as though our universities, thought to be havens of education, culture and history, are becoming hotbeds of intolerance.
This is far from a new trend, though. Indeed, Baroness Valerie Amos, the UK’s first black woman to lead a university, has spoken recently about the “deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes which need to be overcome” in the UK’s higher learning institutions.
With the ability to easily share video and photographic evidence of these incidents via social media, and high-profile figures such as Labour MP David Lammy vocalising the need for greater diversity in universities, what we’re actually seeing is a spike in the media coverage of the most extreme events. What we’re in danger of though, is being blind to the fact that incidents such as these are only scratching the surface.
I think there is a serious problem with racism in our universities, but it’s more deeply rooted and has broader consequences for wider society than many of us actually realise. The media covers cases of what psychologists characterise as “old-fashioned racism” - overt acts of physical and verbal abuse. The incidents that were reported in Sheffield, Warwick and Nottingham fall definitively into this category.
However, this attention risks diverting awareness away from the modern racism that is having just as much of an impact on BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) students.
The term “modern racism” has only come to the fore in recent years. As actions that we would now class as “old-fashioned racism” have become less acceptable in wider society, racism has evolved to become more subtle, though no less damaging. In the workplace, for example, it can take the form of BAME people struggling to earn the same roles, responsibilities and recognition as white people. There may be no abuse, but the fact remains that BAME people are discriminated against on account of their race.
One of the most deeply entrenched examples of modern racism in universities is the black attainment gap; whereby a disproportionate number of black students graduate with worse degrees than their white classmates.
There’s also a double standard that dictates how many BAME people actually win a place at a university. In the UK, BAME people are 50% more likely to go to university than their white peers. This sounds very positive, until you realise they are less likely to attend the more prestigious universities. Some research has even found that minorities need to get better results than white students to obtain places at the most prestigious institutions.
Oxford University, for example, has received considerable criticism from David Lammy for its failure to take a proportional number of black students. Cambridge University has even admitted that it needs help to increase the diversity of its students.
There’s evidence to suggest that minority groups must also pay more for the same education opportunities as their majority peers. In the UK, university candidates of Indian heritage are two-and-a-half times more likely to come from fee-paying schools than white candidates, while Chinese candidates are five times more likely. This is despite the average income of minority parents being lower than that of white parents.
I’m in no way trying to downplay the importance of stamping out old-fashion racism. Despite its namesake, it’s clear that it still exists. We must be careful, however, that we aren’t distracted from the quieter racial bias that is at play in our universities.
A university is a place of knowledge, acceptance and new ideas; setting an example for the wider world. This is something that they must be reminded of, and the presence of modern racism is something that has to be tackled as diligently as that of old-fashioned racism. Only then can they truly live up to the global esteem in which they are held.