What to do if I experience discrimination at university?

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If you are facing discrimination from students or staff at your university because of your faith, culture, nationality, disability or sexuality you might be unsure what you can do to make it stop and report the individual(s) involved.

Every UK university has a complaints procedure when it comes to discrimination. You should read that in conjunction with this article.

What constitutes discrimination

A university is obliged to act if a student has faced discrimination based on:

  • Age
  • Sexuality
  • Disability
  • Race, including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • Gender
  • Marital status

Discrimination can be in the form of but is not exclusive to:

  • Cultural slurs
  • Using offensive and derogatory language
  • Physical aggression and violence
  • Exclusion
  • Making insensitive jokes

What to do before reporting the discrimination

Before you report the discrimination you are facing, take time to gather your thoughts. Write down what happened and talk to someone you trust.

The following organisations, university departments, and individuals can help you at this stage:

  • The Students Union
  • Students Services
  • The International Student Support team
  • Citizens Advice
  • Your course leader

Try and work out what you want to achieve by reporting the discrimination. It maybe one or more of these things:

  • For the discrimination to stop
  • For the university to review a decision they’ve already taken
  • A change in the universities policies
  • Money for financial losses or compensation – for example, for stress or injury
  • An apology
  • For the student or staff member to be reprimanded or dismissed

What laws are in place to protect you from discrimination at university?

In the UK there are laws to protect you from different forms of discrimination, including the Equality Act 2010 and the Race Relations Act 1976.

If you experience discrimination, verbal abuse, and/or physical acts of violence because of your race, culture, or religion, you can also report it as a hate crime to the police.

What responsibility does the university have to protect you from discrimination?

Your university is legally obliged under the Equality Act 2010 to protect you from discrimination. They are also legally obliged to not discriminate against you in relation to:

  • Admissions
  • How education is provided
  • Exclusion
  • Any other disadvantage, denial of opportunity or choice
  • Teaching
  • Assessments and exams
  • Facilities, including lecture halls, libraries, and IT
  • Leisure, recreation, entertainment, and sports facilities
  • Physical environment, or
  • Disciplinary procedures.

If you face discrimination, you can report it to your university informally. Talk to someone like your lecturer, Student Union representative, or international student support officer for help and support on what you should do next.

If the informal route doesn’t work, you can follow your university’s official complaints procedure. The compliants procedure differs from university to university.

What to do if you are facing discrimination from a member of staff at university

If you feel that a member of staff at your university is discriminating against you on the grounds of your faith, culture, nationality, disability, or sexuality then you can make a formal complaint using the universities complaints procedure.

In some case you may be able to make your complaint anonymously.

You can find out what your universities complaint procedure is via their website. You can also talk to the student services or international students support team.

If you would like to get help in making a complaint against your university, you can refer to the Government Equalities Office’s guidance on helping students decide if they have a valid complaint and how to approach and question their education provider.

If you are not satisfied with the way your university has dealt with your complaint, you can take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. This is an independent body set up to review student complaints in England and Wales for free.

Students in Northern Ireland can contact the Office of Northern Ireland Ombudsman. Students in Scotland can contact Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

What to do if you are facing discrimination from a student

If you are experiencing discrimination or being bullied on the grounds of your faith, culture, nationality, disability or sexuality then you can take the following steps to make it stop:

  • If you feel that it’s safe to do so, tell the individual(s) concerned that they are offending you
  • Report it to staff working at the university or the university security team
  • If you feel you are in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police
  • Make a formal or informal complaint via your course leader, student services, the students’ union or the international student support team who will help you resolve the matter

Your university will have a formal complaints procedure that you can access via the university’s website, the student services department or the international student support officers. And whilst complaints procedures differ from university-to-university you can expect to be kept informed and for the matter to be dealt within a reasonable period of time.

If you are not satisfied with how your complaint is being dealt with or the outcome of your complaint you can take your concerns to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales. The Office of Northern Ireland Ombudsman and in the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

These are independent bodies set up to review student complaints. They will assist you free of charge.

What to do if you are facing discrimination for your disability

If you identify as disabled you can seek help from your tutor or disability advisor at your university. If you are not happy with the outcome, contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service for advice.

What to do if your university fails to take action against discrimination

If you have followed the official complaints procedure and you are not satisfied with the outcome or are struggling to get your university to respond to your claims, you can seek the help of the Students Union. You can also seek help from one of the following places:

  • The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales, if you are studying in England or Wales
  • Scottish Public Services Ombudsman if you are studying in Scotland, or
  • The Office of Northern Ireland Ombudsman, if you are studying in Northern Ireland.

These are independent bodies set up to review student complaints. They will assist you free of charge.

Can I be thrown off my course for reporting discrimination?

No, you cannot be thrown off your course for reporting discrimination against a member of staff or a fellow student.

Do I have to report a case of discrimination immediately after the incident?

It is advisable that you make your complaint about discrimination as soon as possible. However, you are not obliged to do so in order for the university to take your claim seriously and investigate the situation properly.

However, do remember you will be asked to recount the act(s) of discrimination. Write down as much information as you can remember as soon as possible.

If you intend to take the matter to court, you have to do so within six months.