Racial harassment in Cambridge colleges: Do the numbers reflect reality?

The Cambridge Tab conducted an investigation into racial harassment complaints at Cambridge colleges


CN: Racial harassment and discrimination

As far as the figures go, the University of Cambridge now seems more racially inclusive than it has ever been. An official statement on A-level results day claimed that the incoming cohort of freshers would be “the most socially diverse ever”, and the University has since elaborated on this, announcing that they’ve admitted a “record number of black students” this year, with 137 Black undergrads starting at Cambridge in October.

The most recently available statistics show that the number of BAME students admitted is also at an all-time high of 26.8 per cent of the undergrad population, as of the academic year 2018-19.

Numbers are certainly rising, but what can be said about the lived experiences of ethnic minority students in Cambridge, experiences that cannot be so easily summarised by statistics? What tends to hit the headlines are what appear to be isolated incidents at the University, for example, a Black student physically prevented from walking into Catz, or a lecturer reading a racial slur aloud during class discussion.

However, what the stats can tell us is that of 132 universities, Cambridge received the largest number of formal complaints from October 2014 to April 2019, implying that perhaps these incidents are not as isolated as they appear. It remains unclear, however, as to whether this number refers to reports made to individual colleges, or to the University itself.

To find out more about college reporting specifically, The Cambridge Tab conducted an FOI (Freedom of Information) investigation, asking all 31 colleges about the number of racial harassment complaints received over the last five academic years, and how each of these cases was handled. At the time of writing, 21 colleges have responded to our request.

A summary of the figures

Here is a full list of responses from Cambridge colleges detailing the number of racial harassment complaints they received:

Christ’s: Zero complaints over the last five years

Churchill: Zero to five complaints in each of the last five years

Clare: Zero to five complaints over the last five years, zero to five of which were resolved

Clare Hall: Zero complaints over the last five years

Corpus Christi: Between one and five complaints which were dismissed after investigation

Emmanuel: Zero complaints over the last five years 

Fitz: Zero to five complaints over the last five years 

Girton: Zero complaints over the last five years

Gonville and Caius: Zero complaints in 2019-20, not applicable for all other years

Hughes Hall: Eight complaints in 2019-20, zero to five complaints over the previous four years

Jesus: One complaint over the last five years, which was resolved 

John’s: Zero complaints over the last five years

Kings: “At most five” complaints over the last five years

Magdalene: Zero to five complaints over the last five years, zero to five of which were resolved

Murray Edwards: Zero to five complaints over the last five years, zero to five of which were dismissed

Pembroke: Zero to five complaints in each of the last five years, zero to five of which were resolved in each year

Peterhouse: Zero complaints 

Queens’: Zero complaints over the last five years

Sidney Sussex: Zero complaints over the last five years

St Catharine’s: Zero to five complaints in 2019-20, zero complaints over the previous four years

Trinity: Zero to five complaints over the last five years, all of which were resolved

The higher numbers

Of all the Cambridge colleges to respond to our FOI request, Hughes Hall reported the highest number of racial harassment complaints over the last five years, with eight formal complaints made in 2019-20. When approached for comment on these numbers, a spokesperson from the college told the Tab: “These [figures] are not representative of the existence of racism at Hughes Hall, since they also include incidents which happened outside the college, or where the alleged perpetrator was not a member of Hughes Hall.  We believe that the figure is indicative not only of the fact that we have a very diverse intake but also that we worked hard to install and promote reporting mechanisms for such incidents, and committed to listen to and act on resulting reports.”

Further detail included a statement that: “Hughes Hall has one of the most international, and culturally and racially diverse student bodies of collegiate Cambridge”, and that “we have made a commitment to encourage the reporting of racial harassment and to take all such reports seriously, and will continue to do so.”

Most colleges that received under five complaints over the last five years have chosen to disclose information within a bracket from zero to five, in order to protect anonymity. In certain colleges, the bracket of zero to five encompassed the entirety of the last five years, whilst at others, it was used to disclose cases within each of these years. Additionally, some colleges have listed the outcome of cases as either resolved or dismissed, whilst others were not able to specify the decisions that were made.

The lower numbers

Whilst nine colleges reported a total of zero to five incidents over the last five academic years, a further eight colleges reported zero cases at all within the same time frame. Among these was Peterhouse, who claims to have never received a complaint of racial harassment since record-keeping began.

Rahul Solanki, Ethnic Minorities Officer at Peterhouse, suggests that the college’s zero-tolerance policy towards racism has kept this figure from rising: “As far as I am aware, no student has come to me with any complaints of racial harassment in Peterhouse, nor have any been received by the previous Ethnic Minorities’ officers. If there were to be any complaints raised, there is a clear racial harassment policy in place, involving the impartial investigation of any incidents. Students and staff who do commit racial harassment potentially face grounds for disciplinary action.

“Do I think the college is free of unconscious bias? No, that’s something we are all affected by and have to work on. Would I say that there has never been an incident of racial harassment in college in recent years? Of course, not, there’s probably a variable proportion at every college which are unreported. However, I’m very proud of the progress the college has made, especially in recent months.”

When approached, the college declined to add an additional comment to the figures they provided.

On reporting

Across all Cambridge colleges, the number of racial harassment complaints made each year remains in single figures. It is difficult to determine whether this is truly representative of the number of reports made because, as previously mentioned, students can choose to either report an incident to their own college or through the University reporting system. Students reporting through the University do so through OSCCA (the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals) by filling in a “Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Form”.

We spoke to the Cambridge SU BME Campaign about the reporting process, and how it differs from a college to University level. Roshni Parmar-Hill, Chair of the Campaign, said: “A lot of students think going through the college system might be easier than the University one because it’s familiar. But systems vary so much from college to college. The university system, I feel, has a more rigorous process. Students will likely be more supported on a University level because of the procedures in place, whereas with colleges, there might not be a formal timeline or writing of records.”

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Today is the launch of @yourcambridgesu , the Students' Union that combines both CUSU and the Graduate Union! . This change also leads us into becoming the SU BME Campaign, and we will be modifying our public profile accordingly. Though our name has changed, we are still committed to our steadfast anti-racist and representational position within the Students' Union. . For now, enjoy this graphic of the 2020-2021 committee (using our exciting new branding!), and a summary of the brilliant BME Sabbatical Officer role, introduced this year, with the incumbent officer, Howard Chae: . "As BME Officer for Cambridge SU, I'll be working closely with Roshni, Mia, and the other officers on the Committee to lead the SU BME Campaign. I'll also be making sure that the SU is placing anti-racism at the forefront of all its campaigning, and that BME students' concerns and priorities are voiced at all levels of the Collegiate University."

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The Campaign’s BME Officer, Howard Chae, gave further insight into the college reporting system: “There are many layers of bureaucracy that a student has to go through to file a complaint. For a lot of colleges, this process can be extremely ad hoc and unsynchronised.

“If a student discloses an incident to their tutor, that tutor needs to signpost them to the different support services available, but the issue is that the tutors themselves might not be aware of those services”.

The way colleges handle incidents is not uniform across the board, and this has the potential to create issues such as those that Roshni and Howard have mentioned. The University system, however, is not without its own faults, as Howard went on to explain: “When you go to the University’s Office for Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals, you’re not automatically referred to the Advice Service, or the University Counselling service, both of which might benefit a student. It’s important that students know that there are people they can speak to, as currently, a lot of people feel like they can’t get anything meaningful out of reporting harassment”.

In response to these comments from the SU BME Campaign, a spokesperson from OSCCA provided a written statement: “The opportunity to meet with a member of OSCCA (usually the Investigator) is offered to all students thinking of reporting. When meeting with students they are provided with an overview of reporting procedures; be that our Informal Complaint Procedure for Student Misconduct (newly revised for October 2020), the formal Student Discipline Procedure, or a college or police procedure. Colleges have their own procedures and where complaints relate to college staff then college procedures will need to be followed.

“Students are directed to the support available to them through an initial meeting, through the OSCCA webpages and via the forms used to report to the University. These support or advice services (from college, the Sexual Assault & Harassment Advisor, the University Counselling Service, the Student Advice Service, or from another source) are services that usually require a student to self-refer.”

These “layers of bureaucracy”, as the SU BME Campaign has suggested, have the potential to confuse students. In addition, the formal reporting of a racist incident must go through a single form, which covers both sexual misconduct and harassment of any kind. Students may thus be unsure about whether they are going through the correct system, as there is no specific procedure for racism, nor is there an explicit mention of racial harassment on the Student Complaints “Reporting harassment, bullying, discrimination or sexual misconduct ” page.

However, Howard does think that the positive effect of this is that “it covers the nuances of harassment. That for example, a woman of colour might report an incident of sexism and racism within the same complaint. The problem for us is less about the University’s definition of ‘harassment’ and more about building trust.

“There’s not enough data to track or monitor cases, and some colleges have reported zero cases in the last few years. We know this is not reflective of the situation, and the fact is that these procedures only capture a very small fraction of harassment that takes place”.

If the figures that have been presented to us are indeed not representative of the extent of racism at the University, then it is important to look at cases that never reached the formal complaint system at all – the ones which were never reported.

On not reporting

 It remains unclear the exact proportion of racial harassment that goes unreported in the University, but Howard from the BME Campaign is certain that “the figures [above] are definitely not a full or accurate representation of the extent of racial harassment at the University. What they do show is that students are not aware of the procedures that exist for them. And where they do know, they do not trust these procedures or have confidence in them to be reporting cases of harassment.” 

The Cambridge Tab interviewed an anonymous student who experienced harassment during their first term in college, about their attitude to reporting incidents at the time. They said: “I’ll admit that when I experienced racial harassment in Freshers’ Week I didn’t even consider reporting it. I think it was less that I felt uncomfortable going to my college and speaking up, and more that the thought of enduring that process was much less appealing than confronting the person myself.

“I think as minorities, we become so used to micro-aggressions and harassment that handling the situation feels simpler than turning to authority. I also think the fear of being labelled the ‘angry black girl’ that will report anything and everything (especially in Freshers’ Week) just made me more inclined to sort it myself.

“Since learning about the incident, my college and other senior members of staff have been incredibly supportive, but the worry that I could report something and not be believed remains in my head. I’d like to think that I would report any serious incidents in the future, but if I’m being honest, I’d rather not discuss my trauma with senior staff members, on top of the chaos that is Cambridge life.”

Roshni from the BME Campaign highlighted similar reasons that students have given for not reporting incidents in the past. She believes: “With legalistic procedures, students may not have the emotional capability to wade through all that jargon. On top of that, students who have dealt with trauma may be gaslighted, and led to believe that what they’ve been through was not ‘harassment’. I think that’s a big thing that Cambridge as a culture needs to address. No matter how big or small – it doesn’t need to be that somebody’s punched you for it to be harassment, it can also be a very small microaggression.”

Beyond reporting

Where figures of formal complaints in colleges appear to give an incomplete picture of racism in Cambridge, a new independent research project, End Everyday Racism Cambridgehas attempted to fill in the gaps, encouraging members of the University to give anonymous testimonies, detailing their experience of harassment.

Launched in 2018 by Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa and Dr Ella Macpherson, both professors at the Department of Sociology, the project has since collected 117 reports, 53 per cent of which were said to have taken place in a college setting.

These are testimonies of “everyday racism” that do not need to meet the University’s definition of harassment, nor do they need to have occurred in a college or academic environment. Witnesses of discrimination who have not experienced racism themselves are also encouraged to report incidents. A representative of the End Everyday Racism project spoke to The Cambridge Tab about how they have been able to gather this amount of data, and what it has shown: “It is likely that people witnessing or experiencing racism prefer to use our platform because it gives them a sense of validation and solidarity. Our data shows that there is an ingrained feeling of powerlessness when it comes to officially reporting a racist incident that one has experienced or witnessed. Respondents have suggested that they either feel like they cannot officially report the incident, or believe that even if they do file a complaint, it will not lead to any consequences, be it on the level of the perpetrator, or of institutional change. Often there is a status hierarchy between the perpetrator and the perpetrated, which exacerbates the situation.”

The project is launching its first report on 16th October, based on these testimonies from students and staff all over the University. Speaking about the report, the project’s representative said: “The result is a picture of continued everyday racism at the University, highlighting how much still needs to be done to create a supportive environment for black and minority ethnic students, and to create a genuine zero-tolerance approach to racism in Cambridge.”

Perhaps the key difference between the End Everyday Racism project and the formal complaints procedure at the University or in colleges is that it looks beyond reporting, beyond the numbers, and is ultimately interested in an individual’s experience, without necessitating disciplinary procedure.

As Howard says: “The problem is not just that there is a low number of students reporting, that’s merely a symptom of a much bigger issue. When we talk about procedures and the people who are or are not reporting, it’s important to remember that the conversation should never end there.

“The conversation that we should be having is about what we can do to build spaces where students are not being racially abused or harassed. A place where students feel that they matter, and their experiences matter.” The research conducted by End Everyday Racism, and the tagline on their webpage, “Your story matters”, is perhaps one step towards that endeavour.

You can learn more about the University’s formal complaint procedure, here, and find a form to share your experience with ‘End Everyday Racism’, here. The ‘End Everyday Racism’ report will be publically available from 16th October, and a Zoom link to the launch event (at 1 pm on the same day) can be accessed here

The University press office has also been contacted for comment.

Cover Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, ‘End Everyday Racism’ via YouTube, Cambridge University via Twitter