Tackling racial discrimination in our universities

They’re supposed to be enlightened institutions of learning, but too often workers and students in universities face racism, says Tim Roberts. Luckily, UNISON is helping to do something about it

Shelves full of library books

This week I attended a Black workers event at one of the region’s universities jointly organised by UNISON and our sister trade union UCU.

Some of those present shared their experiences of workplace racism. I was saddened – but not surprised – by the fact that so many of the testimonies did not relate to historical experiences but incidents that occurred in the last 12 months.

I was a UNISON steward at a university over 20 years ago. After the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, many vice-chancellors committed to taking bold proactive steps to tackle racial inequality in higher education. As I listened to the lived experiences of our members, it was clear that not much has changed

UNISON is one of the largest unions in the higher education sector, supporting 50,000 members working in universities. We are committed to doing all that we can to tackle institutionalised racism that is still pervasive in the sector.

Last year our union was represented on the national Universities UK racial harassment advisory group which was chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of University of East Anglia.

We made sure that this sector guidance referred to the need to involve campus trade unions in developing policies and procedures to tackle racial harassment in universities and to support Black staff (and students) in creating campuses where staff can work and students can study safely.

Many of the union’s most recent high-profile campaigns have created fairer workplaces for Black workers, including insourcing campaigns across London universities such as SOAS, Kings College, Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, the University of London and just this week at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The vast majority of the outsourced cleaners, security staff and caterers we’ve been fighting to bring back in house are Black and/or migrant workers. They had worse terms and conditions, pay, sick pay, annual leave entitlement – the lower tier of the two-tier workforce.

The insourcing campaigns have brought parity and respect to those staff who are now on the same terms and conditions and have access to the same defined-benefits pension scheme as other university staff.

Despite what has been achieved so far, too many Black staff in higher education still face the injustice of racism and inequality at work every day. Racial discrimination is not only morally wrong and illegal, it wastes talent, hurts staff, impedes the provision of quality education and holds the sector back.

Trade unions are not separate from our members. We provide a structure and support for them to get active and deliver the change they desperately need in their own workplaces.

Much of what I heard at the meeting angered me but I was heartened as I listened to the discussion about what people wanted to do about it, with members committing to taking action to tackle the issue.

While our existing Black activists pledged to lead the campaign other members recognised that they need to participate if it’s going to be successful. Workers are always stronger when we stand together. I look forward to hearing about the success of their anti-racism campaign in the weeks ahead.