This guest blog marking the publication a year ago of Living Black at University has been kindly provided by Sam Kingsley, Senior Belonging, Equity and Engagement Manager at Unite Students.
As a Black woman, imagining a future where Black students flourish in all areas of their university experience is not only essential to my wellbeing, it is also rather easy. The difficult part is understanding how this might be realised. When we published Living Black at University 12 months ago, the research findings were not surprising to me, and the comments and data told an awfully familiar story. The students that shared their thoughts, feelings and experiences reinforced what we already know – that accommodation is a hugely impactful part of the university experience, and that racism exists within that very experience.
The recommendations provide a glimpse of hope that those experiences can be changed; that if we work together, as accommodation providers, universities, and key stakeholders across the higher education sector, we can realise the future that Black students deserve. This doesn’t just mean a more welcoming, safe and comfortable accommodation experience, important though that is. It also means looking beyond the academic experience to address the inequalities that Black students face in higher education: inequalities that lead to under-representation of Black students in some institutions; inequalities that lead to the Black awarding gap.
While commissioning and publishing research like this provides valuable insight, I believe it also comes with a responsibility to ensure it leads to lasting and meaningful change. As an organisation and as a sector we can – and will – respond to all recommendations laid out within the research, but a quality response can only be achieved by selecting the areas in which we can be most effective. All of us have to select actions that align with our purpose, values, strategy, and the impact that we would like to have on the experiences Black students have when they come to live with us.
The first recommendation asks universities and accommodation providers, to collaborate to eliminate racism from all areas of the student experience, including student accommodation. Many universities have already committed to programmes centred on decolonising the curriculum and are dedicated to aligning with the principles set out within the Race Equality Charter. The research found that Black students felt the efforts to decolonise within the higher education sector have focused solely on learning, and that their accommodation still felt like a White space. Expanding decolonisation efforts to all areas of the student experience, including accommodation, allows us to consider student experience as students themselves do it – as a holistic experience rather than a compartmentalised one.
On 7 March 2023, there is a conference that brings DEI [Diversity, Equality and Inclusion] and accommodation professionals together across the sector to do just that. It allows us to have honest conversations; to discuss and better understand the ways in which we can work together to create more equitable environments in which Black students can thrive. It offers a unique opportunity to begin to discuss what decolonisation looks like within the student accommodation space and begin to take meaningful action and share knowledge that will enable the creation and strengthening of more equitable environments.
In the Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler writes, ‘I realise I don’t know very much. None of us knows very much. But we can all learn more. Then we can teach one another. We can stop denying reality or hoping it will go away by magic.’ A reminder that there is strength in numbers, but it is not enough to merely hope that things will change. Therefore, it makes sense that the research points to collaboration and unity as its first recommendation. Knowledge sharing and collective intention will drive a renewed and sustained effort to turn the findings into action. Consistency and accountability will ensure continuity of those actions.
Listening remains the most important piece of the puzzle. Radical, right? But seriously – tune in. Black students have bravely told us what they are experiencing and what they need. As institutions, as organisations, as allies, as humans, we need to lean in and listen to Black students and each other, and then actively participate in responding to what they have shared.
We may leave with more questions than answers; change, after all, is uncertain, but that curiosity will drive innovation and together we can create change.
To book a free place at the Living Black at University: Creating Meaningful Change conference, sign up at Eventbrite.
Other entries in the HEPI Living Black at University blog series can be found here.