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Living Black at University blog series: The issues with university complaints processes in accommodation and how they could be improved

  • 4 May 2022
  • By Osaro Otobo

The second in this blog series on Living Black at University was written by Osaro Otobo, Consultant at Halpin, Project Manager and Researcher for the Living Black at University report and Deputy Chair of the British Youth Council.

Unfortunately, it is very well known in the higher education sector that there is a problem with university complaints processes. There is no consistency across the sector. Students find themselves in a postcode lottery when it comes to the effectiveness of the complaints process at their respective institutions.

When a racist incident occurs at a university, often the victim of that abuse feels they need to carry the burden of proof. When a racist incident happens, it is often difficult to have any tangible proof or evidence that it took place. As seen in the Living Black at University project, when incidents happen in student accommodation, it is often a direct or an indirect verbal encounter. This brings up the issue of it being ‘their word against mine’, especially if there are no other witnesses around. 

I’ve worked in a students’ union and university before and have dealt with complaints, and I’ve spoken to other people across the sector that have had to deal with complaints, too. One of the things that really causes us great pain and disappointment is when a student trusts you and comes forward to make a complaint, you follow procedure by passing it up the chain, but then you and the student don’t know how the complaint is being dealt with effectively as proceedings and outcomes are kept confidential. This then leaves you feeling like you failed the student that came forward. It also leaves the student thinking you didn’t take them seriously and do a good job. 

When talking about protecting underrepresented groups, institutions and external accommodation providers may say they are doing what is required of them by law. Under the Equality Act 2010 it is not a legal requirement for organisations and institutions to have a policy visibly in place detailing what exactly the procedure for reviewing reports of racism and other forms of discrimination is. Too often, people complain about racism and discrimination in universities and their accommodation, only to find that their experiences get dismissed or not sufficiently investigated. It leaves the complainant feeling like their lived experience is not valid and that they are not protected in that space – this is especially devastating when that space is your living space, the place you call home. It means the student community loses trust in the institution and accommodation provider, and they won’t come forward to make complaints in the future, which leaves many students suffering in silence and influences the rest of their student experience. On another hand, there will be students that take matters into their own hands, which could lead to further verbal or physical conflict, refusing to pay rent, and reporting the incident publicly on social media and in the press. This can all be avoided if we go further than what is prescribed under the Equality Act.

I think the higher education sector needs to get to a place where it is not afraid to say how many racist incidents have been reported that year and what the outcomes were. I know institutions may fear being labelled as ‘the most racist university’ by the media if they have the highest numbers. However, if all students can see that all institutions were more transparent about this issue, are allowing themselves to be held accountable and are working on reducing the number of incidents, this can build more trust in the system. 

If a student complains about racism and feels that it has not been investigated fairly and effectively, we should empower and provide those students with the means of escalating it further, a specialist strand could be developed within the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to deal with this effectively. 

The Office for Students (OfS) has provided a statement of expectations to ‘prevent and address harassment and sexual misconduct’. The OfS have said they ‘cannot intervene in individual student cases to provide resolution or redress’. However, can the OfS hold whole universities accountable if they repeatedly fail to handle complaints of harassment and discrimination? Offending institutions should be held accountable by regulators. Universities are responsible for the environment created that allows for racism to flourish. The same is true with private student accommodation providers, if there are repeated failings in dealing with racist incidents, surely there should be some sort of sanctions?

Universities and accommodation providers must come together to work on creating safer and inclusive accommodation. The complaints policy should be visibly in place to all and should detail what exactly the procedure for dealing with reports of discrimination and racism is. It should include:

  • A timescale for ensuring it is thoroughly investigated as soon as possible. If there are any delays, they should be communicated to all involved.
  • A way for people to file a formal complaint in a safe and accessible manner. There should be a means of reporting anonymously as well as being able to talk to a trained member of staff within the accommodation setting.
  • An obligation for the university to document any proceedings relating to the complaint to ensure accountability. All parties would have a clear understanding of the outcome of the complaint.
  • Closure for all parties involved, especially the complainant: they need to know if there have been any sanctions and what the outcome was.
  • Wellbeing support for the victim of abuse: experiencing the incident, putting forward a complaint and waiting for the outcome can be a very draining and traumatic process.

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