Unite Students, in partnership with HEPI, has launched a new research – Living Black at University – which reveals that on average black students have a poorer experience in student accommodation compared to their white peers.
The report, which was produced by Halpin, explores the lived experience of black students in university accommodation, covers both university owned and private purpose built accommodation. The research includes national survey data and prioritises a deep dive into the underlying issues in students’ own words, resulting in a nuanced but practical set of recommendations for anyone running student accommodation.
The issues raised match those commonly found in other organisations and institutions, and society as a whole, though that is not to minimise them. The experience of racism and exclusion, and the lack of processes to address them, take a toll on the mental health of black students. Over half of black students surveyed had experienced racism in their accommodation and three quarters said racism has some level of impact on their mental health.
This report is challenging, but has the potential to open up a new front on which to fight that most intractable of sector issues, the black awarding gap – which in the 2019-20 academic year stood at 18.7 percentage points.
Gary Loke, in his 2020 article, showed that unless further action is taken it will be 2085 before the awarding gap between black and white students closes; a date which is clearly unacceptable. He also shared a useful breakdown of data: the gap is larger for black male students, Muslim students and older students. While action taken within student accommodation is unlikely to address the latter group, the research touches on specific issues faced by the first two.
The report’s findings on mental health are also important given OfS statistics on the awarding gap between black and white students with a mental health condition, which stands at 26.8 percentage points.
The role of accommodation in addressing inequality
Student accommodation is rarely mentioned in discussions about how we tackle these inequalities, even though halls of residence are as old as feudalism. Purpose-built student accommodation has undergone a huge expansion and diversification over recent years, and its identity as a sector in its own right has developed during that time. I believe the time is right for it to be considered as an important stakeholder for change.
Accommodation affects the overall student experience in terms of retention, mental health and self-rated success. Over the last decade our research has highlighted opportunities to improve student experience by focusing on loneliness, belonging, preparedness and sense of safety in accommodation. Through in-depth qualitative research we have been able to bring a deeper understanding of how these things play out for black students in accommodation, and what can be done about it.
This new research is a broad study and has limitations, but it is the first research in the UK on the experience of black students in purpose built student accommodation. It is not the last word on the subject, indeed I hope it will be the start of a much longer conversation. Most importantly, the report provides a platform for black students to share their experiences in accommodation in a way that allows us all to take action in response.
Living Black at University was launched on 3 February 2022.