Academics and student leaders have told MPs of their frustration at the denial of and the lack of practical action to tackle the “ingrained institutional racism” experienced by black students and staff on university campuses.
Nicola Rollock, a professor of social policy and race at King’s College London, said examples of racism within academia had been “trivialised beyond belief” by the media despite leading some of its victims to consider suicide.
Rollock said: “We are not talking about a single, one-off, isolated incident but women and other colleagues across the sector have been subjected to, and continue to be subjected to, sets of systematic behaviours that undermine and exclude colleagues of colour over a period of time.
“In other contexts that would be described as bullying. In other contexts it would described as abuse. But because the topic is one of racism it is relegated to the sidelines.”
Rollock, an expert on the careers of black female professors, told MPs on the women and equalities committee of cases involving black academics’ treatment at the hands of their employers “that were so upsetting and so traumatic and so shocking that it led them to consider taking their own life”.
She added: “So I want to be absolutely clear, when we are talking about everyday racism, we are not talking about the odd raising of an eyebrow or the odd slight. We are talking about systematic, ongoing undermining and patronising behaviour that comes under the banner of everyday racism.”
Rollock’s comments were supported by David Richardson, the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, who said it was clear that “ingrained institutional racism” was behind the differences in top grades awarded to white and black students.
“My view is that we need to move on from that debate and actually progress with dismantling that institutional racism,” Richardson said. “It’s been 15 years or longer that there’s been a 20% degree-awarding gap at institutions, and in that time that awarding gap has not diminished.
“I think we just have not taken the time to address these covert issues that are impacting students from black, Asian and minority backgrounds and leading to those degree awarding gaps.”
Rollock said: “If we are to move forward in a meaningful way – and some colleagues may see this as controversial but I see it as necessary – then we will have to consider the levers that are going to actually encourage, or perhaps force, change. And we are not just dependent on goodwill, more reports or individual commitments.”
The committee also questioned Larissa Kennedy, the national president of the National Union of Students (NUS), over the accusations of antisemitism that have dogged the organisation. Kennedy said the NUS had acted “incredibly swiftly” on complaints of antisemitism including those from the Union of Jewish Students.
“We are looking forward to this inquiry and have opened ourselves up even more than was asked … because we believe that any change that we need to see has to be a commitment to real transformative change that reckons with the structural issues here,” Kennedy said.
“As national president I do deeply regret that we are at this point but I also really welcome that we are able to kick off this work that is truly about transformative change.”