£100 fines, 3,000 word essays, and ‘strong’ words of advice: How British unis fail to punish racist students

Four students have been suspended for racism in five years. It’s no wonder students are going to social media instead


It's not been an easy few months for universities. Looking at the volume of stories about racism on campus, it might seem like a problem which has spiralled out of control.

Racism flowing freely in an Exeter law society group chat made national headlines. Two students from Nottingham Trent have faced criminal charges after chanting "we hate the blacks". A York student was called the n-word by an anonymous listener to her university radio show. A Southampton student left university over racist abuse. You can probably think of more not listed here.

Every one of these incidents happened on a different campus and involved different people. But there's one thing they all have in common: Students felt more confident getting justice by tweeting about their experiences and telling the press than they did by telling their uni. Students are losing faith in the universities' ability to tackle racism.

But why is that? University should be your first port of call when you find yourself on the receiving end of racist abuse by another student. It's the obvious option before the police, and universities have a duty of care to their students. Victims live in the same halls as their abusers, go to the same lectures, and are part of the same societies. "I don’t pay £27k for a white student to use uni WiFi to call me a n****r", as so eloquently put by Amara, who was recently the victim of a racist attack at York Uni.

The Tab has spent the last two months looking into why. Why don't universities do more? We've investigated exactly how universities investigate and punish racism, and the results are not good.

Of the more than 50 Freedom of Information requests we sent to the UK's top universities, several refused to tell us about racist incidents or didn't even record them. Of the universities that did reply, we could only find four concrete, specific examples of students suspended or expelled for racism across UK universities since 2013.

The rest of the incidents were dealt with using an interesting range of punishments: from asking the accused to write letters, to handing out £100 fines, asking them to write essays, or giving them "words of advice" or in some cases "strong words of advice". _____________________________________________________________

Read more about racism at uni this year

Exeter Law Society racist group chat messages exposed

A fresher filmed a group of students chanting ‘we hate the blacks’ outside her door in halls

Black Hallam student has banana thrown at him during Varsity Ice Hockey match

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Other light punishments also include letters of apology, signed undertakings of future good conduct, "restorative communication", written and verbal warnings and diversity training.

At some universities, such as York and Aston, there have been no formal complaints of racism made to the university in that time period. Hannah Joseph Asikhia, York SU's BAME Officer, says this isn't down to a complete absence of racism on campus, but rather because reporting racism isn't made easy. Hannah said: "The report form is so difficult and hard to find, the actual process is a hard one to get through with all the onus placed on the victim and with little actual punishment done." Hannah also points to the university's collegiate system as a reason for the low figures, an issue which also affects Cambridge.

Sussex punished one student who used racially offensive language on social media with a £100 fine. Loughborough also told us that punishments they'd given out included fines.

For privileged students, this amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist. "A fine isn’t going to do anything especially if you come from a very rich background, which tends to be the case with York," says Hannah.

Queen's University Belfast punished one student, found guilty of a complaint "in relation to racism", by making them write a 3,000 word reflective statement. The student was also given a formal warning and conditional discharge.

QUB aren't the only fans of written punishment. Hull like the "letter of apology". They dish it out for people who draw swastikas on class registers, and for those making racist and sexist jokes in their group chat.

Others have signed "an undertaking of future good conduct" alongside a written warning. It's a punishment UCLan have handed out, whether to students found to have made an "outburst of a racist nature outside the Students' Union bar", or "postings on social media of a racist nature."

In some cases, students found to have accusations of racism proven are given "words of advice", or in Sheffield, "strong words of advice".

Even reporting a racist incident as racism can be tricky. At Kent, campus security categorise incidents reported to them, but don't have a category for racism. At Manchester, specific data on racist incidents is not recorded, but logged in a category together with cases of "claimed discrimination, bullying, harassment and victimisation." UCL told us the information was too expensive to collect.

Some universities do appear to have more of a process in place than they used to. Whilst in previous years, Sheffield's punishments varied from "strong words of advice" to "undertakings", more recently each punishment comes bundled in a more standard, procedural set, including equality training and formal warnings.

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Matthew Bell, Ash Chandrahan, and Alex Crawford were part of the Exeter Bracton Law Society racist group chat exposed in March

The most frightening thing about our investigation? It's impossible to get a sense of the scale of the issue when universities don't disclose, and often don't know, how much racism is happening on their campuses.

We asked universities for the number of complaints by students on the grounds of racial discrimination, harassment, or related issues, and details and outcomes of the disciplinary procedures.

Many universities would not share exact details, with some choosing to share none at all, citing the sensitive nature of the information. Others did not record the specific information.

For victims of racism, this lack of transparency and clear punishment can put them off going forward, as they often aren't told about the outcome of their complaints. Speaking at the protest against how Sheffield handled the incident, Tyrell said: "I was at Varsity and got a banana thrown at me. It's been over a month now, it's been about six weeks, and today I got a phone call from the university about the incident."

Other students we've spoken to tell us of cases where victims of racism wait months to hear of an outcome, often to only receive emails from their university saying "we’ve dealt with it appropriately but we can’t tell you what they measure we’ve taken is'."

This leads to a choice, and goes some way to explain why many have forgone formal complaints in favour of social media. Faced with slow investigations and murky outcomes, drawing public attention forces universities to act to protect their reputation.

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Tyrell Pearce, a Sheffield Hallam student, had a banana thrown at him during Varsity in March

The pattern from all these statistics and students' experiences matter.

Beyond individual students getting off lightly for their actions, the lenient approach of universities means the problem of racism carries on as normal in institutions. "It does not create encourage prevention of racism on university campuses," says Hajira.

"Light punishments suggest that you can get away with racially abusing your fellow students," she adds.

Tyrell Pearce, the student who had a banana thrown at him said: "It's a shame, because if nothing is done no lessons are learnt, and more people will think it's okay to repeat the same behaviour."

Hannah agrees, and sees the light punishments as universities taking the sides of perpetrators of racism. "I think it makes uni inherently unsafe and uncomfortable," she says. "We continue to get more people promoting and acting out on hate crimes because they know they can get away with it.

"When the uni does that it fails to keep its promise in looking after and protecting the wellbeing of its students."

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Rufaro Chisango took to Twitter after recording students chanting "we hate the blacks" outside her door in halls.

If this is a bleak picture, it's not the end of the story. Students are angry and frustrated. It's impossible to ignore, and universities are starting to wake up, take notice, and do something about it.

Racism on campus isn't a new phenomenon. It hasn't sprung out of nowhere, as some who see the wave of reports in the media this year might think. Instead, students are exposing what's happening to them through the press and Twitter.

An investigation into a banana being thrown at a black student at Sheffield Varsity judged the incident to be racist, but decided not to punish the culprit for racist intent, instead making them apologise and do 10 hours of community service. Hajira Liaquat, chair of Sheffield uni's BME committee, organised a protest over what many saw as the university's inadequate response, which she says "was a tool for us to lobby the university to take racism seriously, because they have constantly tried to brush aside racism. It's more powerful to have students demonstrate their concerns personally."

With the university apologising for an "unacceptable" delay in their response, and pledging to set up a Task Group to tackle institutional racism, it's hard to call the protest and the attention around it anything but a success. "We really got university to listen, and I'm happy they have acknowledged their responses have been incompetent," Hajira says, but noted that "I think it's because institutions care about their rep."

And finally, we are now starting see universities punish students for what they've done. The severity of what's happening on their campuses is starting to hit home – they can't hide from Twitter and the press any longer. Investigations into chants of "we hate the blacks" at Nottingham Trent have resulted in two students being criminally charged. Members of the racist Exeter law chat we exposed have been expelled and suspended.

Over the past five years, such punishments have been vanishingly rare. Instead, absent of attention, universities have gotten away with dealing with racism in inadequate ways. But things are changing.

"The word 'racism' makes university feel incredibly uncomfortable because as an institution, they have a reputation to maintain," says Hajira.

"Historically, they have not dealt with racist incidents well enough at all"