During the current pandemic, the England Students Office has taken two major actions.
One, it is fair to say, focused on sexual harassment and misconduct. It was a reaction to the outrage created by the Everyone Invited campaign website, which features testimonials about sexism and violence against women in more than half of UK universities. The resulting “statement of expectations” for higher education institutions is premised on the principle that all students should be protected from harassment and sexual misconduct by other students, staff and visitors.
The second intervention saw OfS seeking to reassure institutions that they are prioritizing all necessary measures to support students during this difficult time. And institutions have indeed responded to support their students – in part thanks to OfS funding announced in 2018 to support innovative collaborative approaches to improve student mental health outcomes.
During the pandemic, OfS also made up to £ 3million available to mental health charity Student Minds, to lead the development of a targeted support program to complement health efforts. mental health already in place in universities.
So far, so good. Both of these initiatives are laudable strides forward – though it’s disappointing that it took a social media campaign to push a public body to take far-reaching action to tackle harassment and sexual assault.
But if the OfS is serious about rewriting the book of higher education – rather than just releasing the press release – then it needs to launch a race initiative as well.
The disproportionate health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic on ethnic minorities have highlighted the underlying institutional inequalities. But the regulator has still not gone to the heart of the problem of students from ethnic minorities: racial discrimination.
The truth is that for many students from ethnic minorities, mental health issues are the result of racial harassment. But the extent and severity of this harassment is such that it deserves specific regulatory attention beyond the general OfS approach to mental health.
A 2015 US study found that racism leads to many mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, distress, psychological stress, and post-traumatic stress. He also noted that the fear of racism itself can undermine the good characteristics of mental health, such as resilience, hope and motivation.
In the UK, a 2018 report from the Synergi Collaborative Center observed that ‘racism is a form of stress, both in its most overt forms and in the form of microaggressions, where there is no ‘major incident but the awareness of being treated and responding to it in a less than equitable way on the basis of race ”.
More worryingly, a 2016 study found that racial discrimination likely has cumulative effects on mental health that operate not only across time, but even across generations.
Therefore, by addressing mental health but not specifically racism, OfS may be guilty, in the case of many ethnic minority students, of addressing the symptom rather than the cause. Even its funding of mental wellness projects lacks any specific reference to issues resulting from racial harassment. This is difficult to understand given the commendable responsiveness to student concerns demonstrated by the regulator’s other initiatives.
A 2018 report in the newsletter Medical News Today have shown that racial prejudice leads healthcare professionals to use different pain thresholds for ethnic minorities. Does the OfS also have a higher threshold when it comes to addressing the mental well-being of students from ethnic minorities who have experienced racial harassment?
The regulator must immediately take a first step in requiring institutions, as a condition of registration, to collect and report incidents of racial harassment. After all, how can we even begin to fix this problem if we don’t have data on it?
It is likely that students from ethnic minorities have experienced thousands of incidents of racial harassment over the past decade of industry inaction. Will there need to be a catalog of them like Everyone else for the OfS to intervene in a direct and positive way? Does the governor really want to be like a nonchalant mechanic who will only grease squeaky wheels?
David Mba is pro vice-chancellor (research and business) at De Montfort University.