On Thursday 9 June 2022, HEPI is hosting its annual conference, ‘Challenges for the future? The student experience, good governance and institutional autonomy’. Register here.
The third in this blog series on Living Black at University was written by Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students. Find out more about Unite Students’ Commission here.
‘I was the only Black person in my halls.’
‘I didn’t know where to get my hair done or get cultural foods I ate at home.’
‘My flatmates keep touching my hair and commenting on my food, my clothes, my background.’
These are common things you hear from Black students about their time in university accommodation, settling into their new environment, surrounded by people they’ve never met. When students apply to university, they’re often met with glossy prospectuses showing hugely diverse student populations, and students looking like they’re having the time of their lives. For some students, this is a reality, but for many others, especially Black students, this is not the case.
Choosing accommodation depends on affordability, access to services, demographics and much more. These elements are crucial to creating an environment where students can either thrive or survive. For Black students, accommodation choices shape their first taste of university. It’s been commonplace that where Black students have been the only Black flatmate in their flat or even halls, they’ve been subjected to being probed about their hair, their cultures and their backgrounds – and have often felt intimidated by the presence of security in halls, often questioning their belonging there. It is often not the welcoming environment they are told they were coming into.
It is because of this that we hear Black students often talking of generally difficult university experiences. Where they live should be a place they feel safe, free and open to be themselves, but when they are subjected to such a negative experience in their homes at university, it puts the rest of their experience in jeopardy. Lectures and navigating the academic experience become more about proving the validity of their experiences than valuing their voices and perspectives. It creates an environment that tells them ‘prove your worth being here’ rather than ‘you belong here, and you have equal power to contribute to this space’. We see the academic impact of the university experience on Black students through awarding gaps, and detrimental impacts on outcomes following university. The disparity in Black students going onto further study, as highlighted in the Leading Routes’ The Broken Pipeline – Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Funding report, is perhaps the most blaring indicator that students are struggling to make a home in the university communities they are a part of.
Mental health is also heavily impacted. The language of mental health is different in both the vocabulary used, and the behaviours exhibited. Where Black students have negative experiences in accommodation, loneliness and isolation are heightened. Black students have spoken about how the lack of community and lack of culturally competent care they experience at university has an impact on them. Often, the barriers Black students face are not only racialised experiences, but also linked to cultural differences. The ways of navigating mental health have been difficult for Black students who often don’t see other Black staff or counsellors, and don’t have a means of engaging with support services in a way that is accessible to them. Only recently, initiatives like Black People Talk have made great strides in really enacting new and open methods for breaking down the stigma around mental health in the Black community. In accommodation, the mix of settling in, meeting new people and co-living can be an intense experience for all, but particularly for Black students, it is one that has not been so positive in the support that has been provided over the years.
Lastly, it would be remiss not to talk about the sheer levels of racism, discrimination and harm students come to during their time at university. In large part, many Black students have spoken of their time in accommodation, with flatmates making them feel uncomfortable in comments about hair, food and culture, and being inappropriate. In the Unite Students’ Living Black at University report, 54 per cent of Black students spoke of their experience of being a victim of racism. Experiencing racism can often be flattened into interpersonal interactions, but it is often enabled by environments that allow for ignorance and lack of safety and protections for minoritised students. In 2020, security staff allegedly racially profiled a student at Manchester University. Racism also takes place in interactions with flatmates and course mates where Black students often feel left out or hyper-scrutinised, and staff teaching curricula and practices that exclude non-western culture and narratives, and telling them as absolute truths.
Experiences in accommodation are a formative part of shaping every students’ time at university. Black students have, for years, struggled to feel a sense of belonging from when they move away from home to student accommodation, and that set the tone for their time at university. For many, it has awakened racism in a form that has felt more direct and visible than they ever experienced before. For others, it had set the scene of an uninclusive, unwelcoming and painful time navigating a space they were now a part of.
We all have a task to do more and do better to support Black students beyond mentorship schemes and unconscious bias training. We must identify the structural and systemic barriers that reproduce these experiences, and we must look forward, with students leading the way, to a more welcoming and accessible university experience for Black students, with accommodation experience setting the right tone for them to thrive at university.
Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday 9 June 2022.