From haven to hell

Joseph Lee

It is a grim task, but if you had to guess which group reported the most incidents of racial hatred on college and university campuses, like me you might assume it was Pakistanis.

They are one of the largest groups of non-whites in the UK, and in recent years racial tensions have been heightened by wars in their home region, terrorist attacks by British Muslims and the demagoguery of anti-Islamic groups. Sure enough, a report by the National Union of Students, based on a survey of more than 9,000 students in FE and HE, found that Asian students were the most likely to fear racial abuse, with 48 per cent saying they were fairly or very worried about it.

That is depressing enough. But they were not the most likely to say they had been the victims of racial abuse. Perhaps surprisingly, that was Chinese students, 21 per cent of whom said they had experienced verbal abuse, threats of violence or threatening behaviour. They were also the most likely to say they had been physically attacked.

It's important to note that this is a problem specific to students and colleges, not merely one more example of racism in wider society. Studies of the problem of gangs have sometimes noted that colleges are seen as "safe havens" for students. But when it comes to racial abuse, that's not true.

Nowhere is a student more likely to be insulted, threatened or attacked because of his or her race than on campus: 42 per cent of abuse took place at college or university, compared with 16 per cent on the street. The notion that colleges and universities are bastions of political correctness is a myth.

So what have British students got against the Chinese that led one student to say, "Everyone who is from China is worried about their safety... and will choose to go home early, before it turns dark"?

Chinese students responded to the survey out of proportion to their UK population. That's because, to a large degree, they are not part of the UK population: they are international students. And that appears to be the trigger: more than one in five international students has been the victim of racial abuse.

This is shameful for Britain: it's as if the shocking assault on Malaysian student Ashraf Rossli filmed during the London riots last year were being repeated across the country. Prime Minister David Cameron said that attack left him "disgusted".

But he also presides over a government that is hostile to international students. As the Institute for Public Policy Research argued in a recent report, foreign students are wrongly classified as permanent immigrants, which will allow the government to show an illusory fall in migration before the next election when a wave of students returns home.

Perhaps the first step in addressing the abuse of international students is for those in power to acknowledge that they are not a burden, but an asset.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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