This blog was contributed by Jenny Shaw, Higher External Education Engagement Director at Unite Students.
So much of student life is shaped by the experience of being in student accommodation. Living in a student community, making new friends, meeting people from different backgrounds, managing day-to-day life independently are all learning experiences in their own right. Moreover, the sense of belonging, support and safety within that community of peers provides a foundation that can increase the ability to study well and thrive at university.
But if things go wrong – if that community does not feel comfortable, supported or safe – then this compromises wellbeing and mental health, the ability to study and, in some cases, the ability to remain at university. In this sense, accommodation teams carry a huge, and often under-recognised, weight of responsibility.
Through our insight programme, working closely with HEPI, Unite Students has previously pinpointed hidden areas of disadvantage around mental health and loneliness, a sense of belonging and preparedness for university, and the ability to seek support. These are all things that have an impact on academic progression, student retention rates, and student wellbeing.
Today we publish a report highlighting the disadvantage and racism experienced by Black students in UK student accommodation and the impact this has on them. We are calling for sector-wide action on this sector-wide issue, both to address this wrong and to gain further traction on two known issues: namely, the Black awarding gap, which sees Black students being awarded the highest grades at lower levels than White students, and the lower continuation rates for Black students with a mental health condition.
The initial motivation for the research came from a piece of qualitative research we carried out in January 2020. We ran a series of focus groups and interviews around the sense of community and safety within student accommodation. In these focus groups, I heard a number of concerning experiences from Black students including:
- A Black male student telling me that people assumed he was going to be aggressive because of the colour of his skin
- Black women expressing relief at meeting other Black women on arrival at their accommodation
- That some Black students only felt truly safe on campus when other Black students were around
In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd focussed global attention more acutely on the racial inequities that Black people face not only in the US, but everywhere. And what I’d heard in those focus groups was just a small part of that.
We knew so little about the experience of Black students in accommodation, but we urgently needed to know more. And by that, I mean not just Unite Students, but anyone who operates student accommodation. And so, this project was born.
In commissioning the Living Black at University research, launching today, we wanted to listen to the experiences of Black students across all types of purpose-built student accommodation to elevate those voices and give them a platform. And we wanted recommendations that we – all of us – could put into practice. We’ve been lucky to work with the Halpin team on this project, who have been very helpful in developing the scope and delivering a ground-breaking piece of research.
If you work in, or are in any way responsible for, student accommodation, I hope you will read this report. It contains some uncomfortable truths: that Black students experience racism and exclusion, and we make it difficult for them to report this; that they are less likely to feel safe and comfortable in their accommodation; that it’s difficult to find culturally relevant services; that all these things affect their mental health.
But because what happens in student accommodation affects students so deeply, I hope you will see, as I do, the opportunity this research offers us: to create a more supportive and inclusive environment for Black students and, by doing so, to help create a more equitable sector.
To learn more about the research and to download the report, please visit https://www.unite-group.co.uk/living-black-at-university.