The high-profile apology of disgraced LSE lecturer Dr Satoshi Kanazawa last week was the latest in a disturbing spate of incidences of racism at prestigious UK universities. With students complaining about racist lecturers and statistics showing shocking discrepancies in admissions data at some of our top universities, is racism a serious problem in UK higher education?

Dr Kanazawa, a lecturer in the management department at LSE, was the author of a high-profile blog called ‘The Scientific Fundamentalist’ on the website Psychology Today. He became the subject of an internal enquiry at the university after a public outcry followed his publication of one blog discussing “why black women are far less attractive than white, Asian and Native American women”. A plethora of Kanazawa’s own students raised a vigorous protest after the appearance of the article, with student union officer Sherelle Davids declaring “as a black woman I feel his conclusions are a direct attack on black women everywhere.” Though the offending blog has now been removed, a brief perusal of the site suggests that Kanazawa’s students are likely to be left unsatisfied, as columns with titles like “Are all women essentially prostitutes?” have, amazingly, been allowed to remain.

Racism in higher education hit the headlines twice this week, with another high-profile story centring on Nottingham University student Rizwaan Sabir, who was arrested by police and kept for seven days in solitary confinement after he downloaded a document on Al Qaeda training as part of the research for his counter-terrorism PhD.

Sabir implied in an interview that his arrest came after the university reported his activities to the authorities, in spite of the fact that the document was available for download from his faculty website and was also for sale at major retailers like Blackwell’s and W H Smiths. He protested that he was arrested solely because he was a Muslim and because of his race. He claimed “I was arrested because I was brown skinned and had a beard and because I was most peoples’ stereotype of what a young terrorist looks like.” He suggested that racism and racist assumptions about his beliefs and motives essentially turned his academic degree into a horrifying experience of accusation and interrogation. It resulted in a false record of terrorism conviction that led to him being frequently stopped and scrutinised for some time afterwards when trying to travel abroad. Nottinghamshire Police have now agreed a compensation settlement of £20,000 in the case, but the implications for students from ethnic minority backgrounds choosing whether to study at UK universities must be significant.

On a more general scale, concerns about racism in admissions to UK higher education have existed for some time. A Freedom of Information request by MP David Lammy earlier this year resulted in the reluctant release of damning statistics regarding the percentage of students successfully gaining places at prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Oxbridge have long employed the defence that their high numbers of white, middle and upper class students result from the numbers of applications they receive from students of differing backgrounds, but this excuse was swept away by the evidence that emerged in April. Regardless of applicant figures, Lammy’s request compared the numbers of students applying with those who succeeded in being awarded a place, proving that a white student living in the UK had a one in three chance of success compared to a dramatically lower one in six chance for a black applicant.

When the data was divided by college even starker divides appeared, with one Cambridge college (Newnham) presenting a 67% success rate for white applicants compared to a paltry 13% for black students. The divide was shown to exist professionally in higher education too, with the startling revelation that of more than one and a half thousand academic and lab staff at Cambridge University, not a single one was black at the time of the enquiry.

Perhaps most strange of all was the revelation that at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, when the information was arranged in order by college, it was the all-female colleges whose statistics showed by far the widest gap between admissions success for black and white applicants. Whilst the universities protested that the discrepancies between college-to-college data were too small to be statistically significant, the gulf in figures between the women’s colleges and the mixed colleges was far too great to be so simply swept under the carpet, but no explanation for this enormous inequality has yet emerged.

With tuition fees set to soar to £9000 in 2012, elitism and narrow social profiles are likely to become a still greater problem at our top universities. For the sake of equal access to higher education, of social diversity and racial equality, it has never been more important for UK universities to wake up and correct this unacceptable bias. From the dismissal of academic staff making racist comments to the strict and invasive investigation of admissions procedures, no steps are too radical to right this ignored wrong. As MP David Lammy declared, “If Oxford and Cambridge are ashamed of these statistics, they are right to be”.