The Misguided Moral Panic About Racism in British Universities

The Misguided Moral Panic About Racism in British Universities

Wanjiru Njoya and Doug Stokes
Wanjiru Njoya and Doug Stokes
17 min read

According to one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted by the European Union, the U.K. is one of the least racist societies in the world, and what racism that remains is diminishing.1 These trends have been helped by the U.K.’s university system, which has educated millions of people across the globe and long been at the forefront of progressive social change and the promotion of equality of opportunity in Britain.

However, in October 2019 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a series of reports that purported to show that racism is widespread in Britain’s higher education sector, to an extent that is “seriously damaging to individuals and our society.” The reports argued that the problem was so large it could only be properly addressed by new laws and regulations.

The reports triggered a moral panic, both among those who’d compiled them and among the sector’s leaders. Rebecca Hilsenrath, the Chief Executive of the EHRC, argued that universities were “not only out of touch with the extent that [racism] is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue.” Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities U.K., which represents 136 British universities, described the findings as “sad and shocking” and called on vice-chancellors to make racial harassment a top priority. Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students—the independent regulator of higher education in England—described the EHRC’s findings as “deeply troubling.” Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), the U.K.’s largest academic trade union, said: “Universities should be safe spaces for all staff and students, free from harassment and discrimination, but this report shows there is still much work to be done to make this a reality.” Universities Minister Chris Skidmore, a Conservative Member of Parliament, called on all senior administrators to prioritize “a zero tolerance culture” when it came to all types of harassment and said it was “simply not good enough” that some senior leaders were not tackling the issue. Ms. Grady said the “minister is right to call for a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of harassment and hate crime, but he must be ready to back this up with sanctions where the sector fails to act.”

The EHRC’s findings are a bit perplexing, given that the U.K. is one of the least racist places on Earth and its universities among its most progressive institutions. This essay attempts to solve this puzzle. First, we examine the data used by the EHRC to underpin its conclusions and show that they do not support the claim that there is widespread racism in the U.K. academy. Second, we examine some of the other data that have been cited to promote this narrative, such as the number of ethnic minority employees at British universities and the attainment gap between ethnic minority students and their peers, and find that they, too, suggest the sector doesn’t have a racism problem. We conclude that far from showing that British universities are riddled with racism, the data clearly show that they are remarkably inclusive, non-discriminatory institutions. And in the final part of this essay, we look at the negative impact of this moral panic on free speech and intellectual freedom.

The EHRC and racism in British universities

In October 2019, the EHRC released a series of reports that purported to show deep and systemic racism within the U.K.’s higher education sector. These reports were picked up by media outlets around the world. The key claim was that 24 percent of all ethnic minority students and nine percent of white students surveyed had experienced racial harassment on campus since starting their courses. This figure comes from a report called ‘Racial harassment inquiry: survey of university students. In total, 1,009 students were surveyed. The report also showed that in the academic year 2018/19, 92 of the 1,009 students surveyed, or eight percent, reported experiencing racial harassment (p.13). However, there are a number of problems with the data and the methodology.

First, although the non-white population of the U.K. is ~13 percent according to the 2011 census, ethnic minority students make up 20 percent of the entire student population in the U.K. In total, 504,292 ethnic minority students were studying in British universities in the same academic year covered by the EHRC survey (2018/19). Of the 1,009 students surveyed by the EHRC, 526 were ethnic minorities, which is 0.1 percent of the total U.K. ethnic minority student population. That is quite a small sample to base such shocking headline figures on.

For example, the Guardian reported that “the equivalent of 60,000 students nationwide” had reported or experienced racial harassment. It’s worth saying that although the sample used in the survey was small, when strict assumptions are satisfied, sample sizes of that size are sufficient to reduce the standard error of the sample mean to within acceptable limits. Yet, due to issues with sampling bias, this is unlikely to be the case with survey data. When using data based on surveys, it is common for researchers to conduct multiple samples in an attempt to mitigate such problems. A less traceable but more important issue is the lack of sensitivity analysis performed on the independent variables represented by the questions asked by the EHRC. To be confident of the results, it is very important to establish how sensitive the outputs are to changes in the inputs. In this case, how much do specific definitions, phrasing, and questions contribute to the overall figures reported? Given the sweeping legal changes called for by the EHRC as a result of their analysis—changes that would affect the entire U.K. university sector—a more robust methodological analysis should have been done.

Second, the EHRC released another report: ‘Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged.’ This report was based on an inquiry targeted at “people with direct experience of being racially harassed and those who had witnessed racial harassment taking place or supported a victim of it.” (p.21) The inquiry gathered evidence over a three-month period and closed in February 2019. It was designed to gather evidence from a three-and-a-half-year period between the start of the 2015/16 academic year and January 2019. In total, the authors received 845 responses from students and 571 responses from staff, and found that 585 students and 378 staff personally experienced racial harassment, according to the report. (p.21) However, very few of these episodes, or any other similar episodes across the U.K. higher education sector, were reported to the authorities:

Universities received an average of just 2.3 total staff complaints of racial harassment, and 3.6 total student complaints of racial harassment, between the start of the 2015/16 academic year and January 2019. Around four in 10 institutions in our university survey (38%) reported having received no complaints of racial harassment from staff; around three in 10 (29%) received no reports from students. Almost one in five institutions (18%) received no complaints of racial harassment from either group.

British universities employ 670,000 staff and teach 2.3 million students annually. Given that the EHRC had specifically targeted respondents who had suffered racial harassment, we can be fairly confident in the robustness of their data about the prevalence of the reporting. What does the above tell us? In a three-and-a-half-year period, where 9,200,000 students passed through the U.K.’s higher education institutions, 0.006 percent of students reported incidents of racial harassment to their universities. Of staff, just 0.05 percent made complaints. The authors of the report attribute this “under-reporting” to a lack of confidence on the part of students and staff in their university’s ability to address the problem. (p.10) However, students in the EHRC’s own reports were asked how well they thought their university was tackling the issue of racial harassment and they were fairly positive:

One in seven (14 percent) students said that they felt their university was handling the issue of racial harassment very well (scores of 9–10), a further one in four (23 percent) felt that the university was handling the issue fairly well (scores of 7–8). Less than one in twenty (three percent) students said that their university was not handling the issue at all well. Four in 10 students (39 percent) felt unable to answer the question and selected ‘Don’t know’. (p.27)

Racism is a scourge and forms of racism and harassment should always be tackled robustly. However, the data above do not seem to indicate that the U.K.’s universities are hotbeds of racism. On the contrary, the EHRC’s own findings corroborate the work universities have done to tackle racism on campus. Specifically, while two percent of ethnic minority students felt that racial harassment was a big problem and eight percent somewhat of a problem, six percent did not know, 14 percent were neutral and 70 percent ranged from a response of not particularly a problem to no problem at all. (p.27) When ethnic minority students were asked how worried they were about being personally subjected to racial harassment at their place of study, 87 percent responded from neutrality through to not at all worried, with the latter the largest group at 43 percent of the total. (p.26) The vast majority of ethnic minority students reported no problems and where they had reported racial harassment were happy with the outcomes. In a total of almost four years, universities across the whole of the U.K. had dealt with an average of one complaint of racial harassment a year, with only three percent of those students who did report racial harassment feeling unhappy with the ways in which their universities had handled their complaints.

Wider elements of moral panic

Beyond the ECHR’s reports, British universities have also been castigated for the underrepresentation of ethnic minority staff and what is referred to as an ethnic minority student attainment “gap.”

On staff numbers, the data again do not support the narrative. Advance HE is one of the leading statistical and data gathering organizations for U.K. universities. In its 2018 statistical survey, it concluded that between 2003/04 and 2016/17 “the proportion of all staff who were U.K. white steadily decreased (from 83.1 percent to 73.0 percent), while all other groups increased, most notably those from non-U.K. white backgrounds (from 8.3 percent to 13.9 percent).” Moreover, during this period “the proportion of all staff who were UK BME [black and minority ethnic] increased from 4.8 percent to 7.6 percent, and the proportion of non-UK BME staff from 3.8 percent to 5.5 percent.” It continued: [T]he difference in proportions between white professors (11.2 percent) and BME professors (9.7 percent) was small at 1.5 percentage points” although there are significant differences between ethnic minority groups, “for example, 15.8 percent of U.K. Chinese academics were professors compared with just 4.6 percent of U.K. black academics.” (p.131) So the reality is that the percentage of U.K. white staff, as a proportion of all staff, is declining, while the percentage of U.K. and non-U.K. ethnic minority staff is increasing. Indeed, the percentage of ethnic minority staff employed in Britain’s universities—13 percent—mirrors almost exactly the percentage of ethnic minority citizens in Britain’s population.

What about the attainment gap? Baroness Amos, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, has argued that universities would be failing “a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME (Black and minority ethnic) attainment gap…It is important that universities act and are transparent in their approach so black, Asian and minority ethnic students are given the best chance of success. Inaction is not an option. Universities should be places where opportunity and aspiration come together.” Amatey Doku, Vice President of the National Union of Students, has argued that “universities have presided over significant gaps in attainment between BME students and white students for far too long” and called on “all senior leaders in the higher education sector” to take “proactive steps…to eradicate these unjust gaps in attainment once and for all.” This gap is taken to be part of a broader pattern of structural injustice and inequality linked to race. Universities U.K. has argued that the ethnic minority attainment gap “does not exist in isolation within higher education, but is part of the wider structural nature of racial inequality in the U.K.”

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) 29 percent of white students attained first class degrees in the academic year 2017/18, while 13.5 percent of black students did. It is this disparity that has led to accusations of racism and racial inequality. However, the data also show that 21 percent of Asians and 25 percent of mixed race students also got firsts. When we move down the scale to a 2:1 U.K. degree classification, 47 percent of whites, 42 percent of blacks, 44 percent of Asian, and 49 percent of mixed race students got 2:1s. If, as has been asserted, differential attainment is indicative of racism, why do mixed race and Asian students get roughly the same number of firsts as white students? Similarly, how do we explain that when it comes to 2:1s, all student pass rates are broadly similar? For the charge of racism to hold, we would have to believe that this racism is so insidious that it differentiates between races and then fails to have any effect when it comes to that tier just below.[2] Moreover, this racism somehow makes itself felt in spite of the fact that exams and essays are marked anonymously by examiners, with the marker having no idea of the identity or race of those they’re marking.

In any basic social scientific Inquiry, it is incumbent upon the researcher to analyze a range of variables that may help explain observed outcomes. For example, a majority of black students come from state schools and state school students overall, black and white, tend to do less well at university than their private school counterparts.[3] This suggests that it’s socio-economic status, not race, that accounts for the attainment gap. Indeed, the demographic least likely to participate in higher education in the U.K. is poor white British boys, while Indians and East Asians tend to have the highest incomes and educational outcomes of any racial group, including whites. According to the Office of National Statistics, employees from the Chinese ethnic group earned 30.9 percent more than White British employees in 2018.

Another issue is that ethnic minority participation is disproportionately concentrated in a small number of mostly lower tier London-based universities that have been created since 1992, where a below average number of first class degrees are awarded.[4]

It is important to note here that we are not seeking to ‘solve’ this problem or provide the answer. The attainment gap, insofar as it’s real, is a problem that has many causes and no single or simple ‘solution.’ We should investigate multiple independent variables as possible drivers of the dependent variable (here, ethnic minority attainment), and assess how much variance each variable can account for. Research that just looks at one variable—racism—is unlikely to throw much light on the real causes of the problem.

Having examined the data around issues of racism in U.K. universities, we hope we’ve shown that the narrative of U.K. universities as hotbeds of racism does not hold together. We aren’t saying that racism doesn’t exist within U.K. universities, and we agree that where it does it needs to robustly dealt with. However, the data we’ve discussed don’t support the hyperbolic claims about the nature of life on British campuses. Unfortunately, this narrative has been used to push highly illiberal and authoritarian practices, including policing human interactions for alleged ‘microaggressions’ and a movement to ‘decolonize the curriculum.’


The EHRC reports we examined above, as well as the other data that purportedly show the under-representation of ethnic minorities among university staff and the ethnic attainment gap, are being cited by university administrators as a reason to ban “microaggressions.” These are defined as brief, intentional or unintentional everyday interactions that send denigrating messages, usually to ethnic minority students. It is this type of ‘racism’ that is the most common form of racial harassment recorded by the EHRC reports. What are some examples? These range from a lecturer’s body language, ethnic minorities being given less work than their white peers, other students refusing to share elevators with BME students, and the supposedly pernicious effect of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, which has allegedly introduced a “cold wind” on campus.

There are a number of problems with this data. First, and most obviously, the concept of microaggressions is reductive insofar as it ‘racializes’ everyday interactions. Interactions that may well be awkward, confrontational or entirely innocuous in the mind of the ‘perpetrator’ are interpreted through the lens of racism by the ‘victim.’ This can lead to witch-hunts, bullying or ‘weaponized’ accusations designed to target academic staff or students.

Second, inherent within the concept of microaggressions is a circular inquisitorial logic whereby the denial of an accusation of racism is itself an act of racial microaggression (what Wendy McElroy calls “Kafkatrapping”). In a recent book that seeks to chart the alleged racism of the U.K. academy, Katy Sian argues that there is a “liberal, post-racial culture of denial, operating within British universities” that has “meant that the daily realities of racism experienced by racially marked academics, are obscured and difficult to pin down, as white members of staff are unable to conceive of themselves as perpetrators of racism.”[5] Sian castigates U.K. universities for seeking to create a post-racial culture of equality of opportunity that itself is taken as evidence of racism. The “post-racial imaginary” denies “the prevalence of racism,” according to Sian. She goes on: “Such denial works to reproduce dangerous notions that race no longer matters, that it has already been dealt with, and that it no longer needs to be on the table…” By denying racism “senior managers are not only revealing that they do not take racism seriously, but also that they wish to actively maintain systems of racial inequality, rather than dismantle them.” (p.174)

Echoing Sian’s ideas, the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University Koen Lamberts is currently paying 20 of his students £9.34 an hour to monitor and report other staff and students for racist microaggressions to help “change the way people think about racism.” If an alleged perpetrator suggests that the accuser is “searching for things to be offended about” this is considered further evidence of racism and itself recorded as a microaggression.

Decolonizing the curriculum

Many British university staff are now using the data about the prevalence of racial harassment on campus to advance the cause of  decolonizing the curriculum. In one of this movement’s defining texts—Decolonising the University by Gurminder Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and others—a group of left-wing activists lay out their strategic objectives. They seek to “radically transform the terms upon which universities exist” by “subverting curricula, enforcing diversity, and destroying old boundaries.” In their “radical call for a new era of education… Decolonising the University provides the tools for radical pedagogical, disciplinary and institutional change.” This movement has enjoyed a fillip as a result of the EHRC’s reports with a number of senior academic managers across the U.K. now prioritizing the decolonize movement as part of their efforts to address alleged structural racism on British campuses.

For example, King’s College London is one of the U.K.’s leading universities and its Principal, Ed Byrne, has committed his institution to “decolonize the curriculum and liberate education at King’s.” In practice, this means scholars are being ‘encouraged’ to teach subjects and theories that activists and university administrators deem important, in ways they think is best, and that represent the politics and worldview of the radical Left. Baroness Amos, a vocal advocate for the movement and the director of SOAS, captured the sentiment well. The movement is interested in “who is on the reading lists, how much are you enabling a critique of different approaches to subjects, who is being recognized as being someone who can make a valuable contribution on this? That applies as much to science subjects as it does to arts and humanities subjects.” The assumption here is that academics do not reflect on their ideas, the nature of their literature and indeed are less able to judge the ways in which they teach their recognized areas of research excellence than self-appointed activists “subverting curricula, enforcing diversity, and destroying old boundaries.” Equally worrying seems to be a patronizing racial essentialism that equates scholarly value with the colour of a scholar’s skin rather than the quality of her ideas. By extension, students are infantilized as unable to adjudicate between competing worldviews, challenge received wisdom or think and engage critically with their studies.

How did we get here and what can be done?

In many ways, U.K. universities are caught between a rock and a hard place as the expanding scope of anti-discrimination law based on the Equality Act 2010, together with the vicarious liability of employers for alleged discrimination, creates an environment in which legal considerations increasingly regulate the minutiae of daily interactions. The scope of individual autonomy is rapidly being eroded by measures designed to engineer an inclusive society, with an increasing number of mandatory training courses to regulate staff and students on how to interact with each other in typical day-to-day situations—what to say to each other, what questions are acceptable to ask, the words and topics that should be avoided, what to think, and the risks and dangers of jokes and banter. Such training forces its recipients to view human interactions through the lens of racial differences and encourages everyone to scrutinize their daily interactions for signs of possible transgressions. This may well be driven by a desire to eradicate harmful inequalities but it ends up creating an atmosphere of suspicion and doubt about the ‘unconscious biases’ that may be lurking in others’ minds. If not sending an email to a student of color counts as a microaggression, and supporting Brexit represents a “cold wind,” how could this top-down ‘cultural change’ not increase anxiety and fear around everyday interactions?

As Richard Epstein has argued, any legal framework that abandons classical ideals of formal equality in which all people are equal in virtue of their humanity, and chooses instead to prioritize specified group features as “protected characteristics,” is bound to limit the scope of individual liberty. The preoccupation with protecting certain designated victim groups from discrimination causes us to overlook the increasingly oppressive nature of the new campus rules. What began as a laudable desire for racial equality has led to the present situation: the prospect of being guilty of unconscious bias, even in the absence of any discriminatory intent, based on multiple alleged microaggressions that together are said to add up to unlawful conduct. The EHRC report warns:

The perpetrator of the microaggression may not have any harassing intent. Therefore, whether their behavior amounts to harassment is likely to depend on the effect it had on the victim. However, microaggressions that do not meet the Equality Act 2010 definition of harassment could lead to behavior which does meet the definition through repetition or escalation of the behavior.

The ideals and aspirations behind such measures are not in doubt. But the methods chosen to achieve the stated goals, namely an ever-expanding definition of unlawful conduct that depends largely on the perception of the ‘victim,’ must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. We should not abandon basic norms of respect, fairness and rational adjudication.

The EHRC reports have led to a toxic mix of moral panic, garbled virtue signaling, a fear of reputational damage, and an alignment of senior university management with highly authoritarian and illiberal trends that threaten to degrade respectful interaction on U.K. campuses and shrink academic freedom and autonomy. Going forward, we predict a major schism between universities that prioritize truth and those that prioritize social justice, as Jonathan Haidt predicts. For Haidt, social justice universities are committed to overthrowing power structures and alleged privilege and see viewpoint diversity as an obstacle rather than a virtue. Conversely, truth universities inculcate an environment whereby “flawed individuals challenge each other’s biased and incomplete reasoning. In the process, all become smarter.”

As the U.K. leaves the European Union, and as global competition increases with East Asia, U.K. universities will enter an increasingly competitive global higher education market, with students ever more aware of their post-degree careers and the signal their university degrees send to prospective employers. Similarly, parents will ask what kind of institutions their sons and daughters are attending, if, in the context of very high fees, their children are subjected to inquisitorial ideological policing and political dogma instead of learning how to think and study. Could this be why undergraduate admissions at SOAS fell by 37 percent between 2016 and 2018? It would be a fundamental mistake for U.K. universities to go further down the “decolonizing” road. Those universities that wish to thrive in what we predict will become an increasingly competitive market should distinguish themselves through a commitment to open intellectual inquiry, equality of opportunity, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom. These are the qualities that have long made U.K. universities among the best in the world. We should not sacrifice their reputation on the altar of ‘social justice.’

1 For more see  Evans, M. D. R., and Jonathan Kelley. ‘Prejudice Against Immigrants Symptomizes a Larger Syndrome, Is Strongly Diminished by Socioeconomic Development, and the UK Is Not an Outlier: Insights From the WVS, EVS, and EQLS Surveys.’ Frontiers in Sociology, vol. 4, 2019.
2 Higher Education Statistical Analysis (HESA). What are THE students’ progression rates and qualifications? Higher Education Student Statistics. UK 2018/19.
3 Bachan R. ‘The Drivers of Degree Classifications. UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment. University of Brighton. 2018, November. 
4Five charts that tell the story of diversity in UK universities.‘BBC. 2018 May 24. 
5 Sian. ‘Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities.’ Springer International Publishing, 2019. p.26.

EducationFree SpeechMoral PanicsracismTop StoriesU.K. Universities