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Living Black at University Blog Series: The violence Black students experience at university should remind us that Access means little without inclusion

  • 22 June 2022
  • By Mia Liyanage

The fifth in this blog series on Living Black at University was written by Mia Liyanage, the author of our HEPI Debate Paper 23,  Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities. Mia is a decolonisation advocate and the former Co-Chair of Common Ground Oxford, a student movement challenging racism, classism and the legacy of colonialism in both the University and the city of Oxford. She is currently Race Equality Charter Officer at Goldsmiths, University of London and an Associate at Advance HE.

Find out more about the Unite Students’ Commission here.

What motivates students to take on Access and Outreach work? Time-consuming and often unremunerated, students are rarely doing it for the perks. For some, Access work is a means of giving back to an institution we feel has been the making of us. For others, it’s a commitment to social mobility and equitable access. For many, especially those of us with backgrounds or identities underrepresented in higher education, it’s both. Engagement in Outreach work, however, is rarely as high from students from underrepresented backgrounds as our institutions would like – and, from my own experiences, I’ve seen it dwindle as students progress through their degrees. This lack of engagement is often accepted without interrogation, and Access and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies alike unfold without addressing it. But what if the way we approach access to university – and our failures to link it adequately to inclusion at university – make it more difficult for our minoritised students to engage in Access work?

Living Black at University, a new report from Halpin and Unite Students, throws the experiences of Black students in university accommodation into sharp relief. As a former student activist now working in anti-racism in higher education, I know all too well how students’ lived experiences can remain invisible to their institutions. This report reveals, for instance, that 75 per cent of Black students have had their mental health impacted by racism and 54 per cent of Black students have experienced racism in their student accommodation. As someone deeply passionate about foregrounding student voices, it’s fantastic to see qualitative data harnessed in this report to confront institutions with the true impact of their structures, policies and environments. Evidence such as this demonstrates that our universities are not neutral spaces; that, to paraphrase Angela Davis, our systemically racist society demands that our institutions be actively anti-racist.

The report makes key interventions for our sector. It shows that EDI efforts must be led by specificity: the barriers Black students face are distinct from those that impact other marginalised identities, and should be treated as such. It demands that we look at issues like awarding gaps holistically in a context where they are frequently misinterpreted through deficit-model thinking. Policies to counteract awarding gaps for Black students and students of colour often aim to equip minoritised students with skills they are assumed to lack. Similar thinking is baked into the labelling of these as ‘attainment’ gaps – terminology that places the onus for this failure on students rather than on institutions. On the contrary, this report shows us that awarding gaps are caused by far more than what goes on in the classroom. I have written previously about the need to decolonise the whole university – decolonisation’s co-option as an industry buzzword seems to have also limited its usage to curricula in many spaces. This report gives me the language to explain the decolonisation project’s relevance to areas such as Student Services, Wellbeing and Counselling. 

The barriers facing Black students are misunderstood on the learning and teaching side, too. Contrary to what many of us assume about student engagement and awarding gaps, the 2021 Student Academic Experience Survey from HEPI and Advance HE found that Black students consistently show the highest levels of engagement, and the highest incidence of skills development, despite juggling high levels of working, volunteering and caring responsibilities relative to students of other ethnicities. 

However, the learnings from this report apply to Access and Outreach, too – an area which does not always adequately consider race. Reading the report brought to mind my own time at university, where I was heavily involved in both Access and Outreach work and anti-racist student activism. As students from underrepresented backgrounds committed to social justice, Access work seemed a natural avenue for students of colour. But the experiences my Black peers faced when they returned to their colleges each night – where in some cases they were the only Black student – were deeply violent. The different but related experiences my fellow students of colour and I had were impossible to square with the impression of a fair, open, world-class institution that we had formed at Open Days. And now, as Outreach Ambassadors and Access Officers, we were expected to pass that impression on to others like us – all while our institution failed to see or deal with the exclusion, othering and discrimination we were experiencing. As we grew to wonder as our degrees progressed – what is access without inclusion? And having not experienced the latter, could we really continue to engage in the former?

Speaking to friends about my ideas for this article, we laughed wryly about ‘the Access to activism pipeline’ – a trajectory so well-known to us but so unknown to, or at least unacknowledged by, many institutions. I had similar conversations with peers while on a recent panel in Oxford focused on student activism. Dark humour aside, we discussed how we had each made calls on when, how and whether to engage in Access work. Each person’s decision-making was deeply personal, but we were all guided by the desire to tell prospective students the truth about what they might experience, while being pragmatic about the opportunities attending our institution could bring. 

Selfishly, as current students, we were desperate to see more faces like ours on campus and – most importantly – to hear their perspectives on our courses and in our common rooms. After a while, though, many of us had such poor experiences that pretending otherwise to young people felt like a waste of energy, and we turned to work that challenged our institution’s poor record instead. We struggled with feelings of co-option, all too aware that our university wanted our faces to grace their prospectuses while shying away from the work required to make our staged smiles genuine. Our institution, like many others, had focused on Access while ignoring inclusion. 

We struggled with feelings of co-option, all too aware that our university wanted our faces to grace their prospectuses while shying away from the work required to make our staged smiles genuine.

Living Black at University is not merely a set of unfortunate facts about the impact of systemic racism in student halls. It is a rare glimpse into the myriad factors that affect Black students’ sense of belonging. Many seem to think there is no place for these discussions in Access and Outreach work; that admitting an institution has work to do will damage its reputation with prospective students. I tend to find it is not transparency, but opacity, that gives students pause. Ultimately, students of colour know that our society is racist – and they certainly do not expect their campus to be the exception. Denying that our progress on Access does not match our progress on inclusion only confirms to prospective students that something is being hidden from them. Instead, these issues should be afforded the nuance, recognition, and consequent action that Black students – and all minoritised students – deserve.

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