Porters' should be a source of student welfare, not policing Louis Ashworth for Varsity

Amid ongoing reports about students facing racial discrimination at Cambridge, Varsity has spoken to multiple students from ethnic minority backgrounds about their experiences being subjected to “racial profiling” by their college porters. Students’ claims include being treated with suspicion, feeling unsafe in their own colleges, and being stopped upon entry far more frequently than their white friends.

This comes just a month after Varsity published a Feature detailing how Black students are four times less likely to achieve a First Class result in their exams than their White and Asian counterparts, and follows cries from students for the University to crack down on so-called “race realist” Nathan Cofnas due to his “racist” remarks.

Max told Varsity that they do not feel comfortable on their own because of how often they are stopped by porters: “I go everywhere with [...] my [college] wife who is a white girl. I feel there [are] very few colleges I’ve been able to go into without being questioned and basically harassed.”

"I could just be standing somewhere and be seen as a threat"

Max describes one incident when, while waiting for a friend outside a toilet in Gonville & Caius College, they were approached by a porter: “He was like, ‘Hi, can I help you?’ and I was really confused because there were a lot of people standing around and I was the only Black person.” They go on to say that the porter told them they “look a bit lost,” and asked them what they were doing there.

Incidents such as these have significant impacts on the lives and mental wellbeing of students of colour at Cambridge. Max expresses how “nervous” it makes them that they “could just be standing somewhere and be seen as a threat.” They now refuse to go to places like other colleges unaccompanied by their white friends, and actively avoid King’s College. 

King’s College, despite being known among students as the ‘anti-establishment’ college, is no stranger to allegations of racism by its porters. In 2018, Varsity reported that Churchill academic Dr Priyamvada Gopal held a four-month boycott from supervising students at King's College following what she called a “recurring problem” of racial profiling and aggression from porters. She later told The Guardian that she had heard “20 to 30 testimonies” from students detailing experiences similar to the ones outlined in this article. 

On one occasion, Max tried to enter King’s, but says the porters refused on the grounds that they were holding a coffee cup. The student said they had never heard such a reason before, describing it as “one of the most pathetic experiences” they had ever had. 

In 2020, the End Everyday Racism initiative released a report which found that “over half of all racist incidents reported happened in a college environment” (52.8%). The report also noted that “racist incidents perpetrated by college porters” was a “repeated occurrence”. 

A second report released in October 2023 reasserted calls for anti-racism training mentioned in the previous report: “The urgent need in collegiate Cambridge for porters to receive extensive training on non-discriminatory practices, identified in EER’s last report in 2020, persists.” 

"We need care, not cops"

This sentiment was echoed by Harvey Brown, the SU Welfare & Community Officer, who accused porters of “[perpetuating] many of the violences endemic within the Metropolitan Police,” and slammed the University for allowing the continuation of such incidents to become “disturbingly normalised”. On how colleges can better prioritise the welfare of students, Brown says “we need care, not cops.”

The report also noted that witnesses who reported their concerns were not taken seriously, something which Max says they have run into themself. Even among their white peers, they described being told “You just need to have confidence guys, just walk in with confidence,” when discussing encounters with porters when attempting to enter other colleges. “They think it's all about confidence and they don’t see it’s a thing about their whiteness.”

Imposter syndrome, the phenomenon of feeling like you do not belong, is something  the students interviewed said they felt more strongly than their peers because of their treatment by porters. One student told Varsity: “I already feel like I shouldn't be here and now I have these older white men telling me that too.” They went on to share that throughout the whole University, their own college, Newnham, is the “only place [they] feel welcomed […] making it a very limited experience.”

"I've had more racist experiences at Cambridge than I have had in my entire life"

Another anonymous student told Varsity that they had even been stopped entering their own college’s grounds. Anita felt this was definitely a racially charged experience, and said that their white friends had “never been stopped” and had “all given each other their CamCards and walked in and out of college like it was nothing.” On the other hand, Anita says they are stopped by porters frequently; so, they now always choose to wear their college puffer to avoid being checked.

Both students agreed that the racism they face is specifically a Cambridge issue. Max only realised the extent of the problem when asked about their experience by a friend: “I realised as I was speaking to her I've had more racist experiences at Cambridge than I have had in my entire life.” Anita agreed, detailing that “In London I've never had problems, people treat you as an individual.”

Anita believes the discrimination issues at Cambridge are not just confined to racial prejudices, however. They describe feeling like “people bring their views of Islam into question when meeting me, as if I am the religion.” 

On how colleges can better support students and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, one interviewee expressed a need for better “sensitivity training” for porters, especially those with a professional background in policing and the military. However, the student said they understood “the importance of having porters trained in military or policing backgrounds for security purposes.”


Mountain View

Why are Black students four times less likely to be awarded a First?

The SU Welfare & Community Officer also told Varsity: “We will be working with students on tackling harm to students in colleges, through the Disciplinary Reform Action Group and developing cross-college networks to improve porter recruitment. Any student experiencing harassment or discrimination from porters can find out more about available support and options for reporting harm here.”

A spokesperson for King's College said: "King's is committed to providing an environment free of discrimination and harassment for its staff, students and visitors. When entering the College, students and University staff are asked to show their identification, and visitors are asked to present their tickets. Signs at the College entrances [...] indicate that food or drink can only be brought in to the College by King's members."

A representative for Gonville & Caius College said: "We would take any complaints extremely seriously. Students who have any concerns are encouraged to contact their Tutor, the Senior Tutor, or follow the published complaints process with details of the events."

The names of students have been changed.