Racial inequity plays out in university accommodation as well as the classroom

Accommodation is rarely mentioned in discussions of inequalities, but it may be a key piece of the puzzle. Jenny Shaw reports on Unite Students research on black students in halls

Jenny Shaw is HE External Engagement Director for Unite Students

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.

3 responses to “Racial inequity plays out in university accommodation as well as the classroom

  1. An interesting publication, being slightly cynical I can’t help wondering if in part this is a nationwide power play by a student accommodation supplier, some of the recommendations whilst appearing sensible may not be so:

    2. “Improve acclimatisation and integration activities for all new students and extend the period over which these activities take place.” I agree this needs attention, however our current ‘international’ students pay for their ‘pre-sessional’ tuition and experience, so who will be paying? Associated with this, our largest group of pre-sessional students are Chinese, and through the influence of their Governments money, via the Confucius Institute and their embedded staff, those students are ghettoised as a monolithic group for ease of CCP enforcers control, perhaps a good thing as their racial treatment of black races when mixing takes racism to a much worse level.

    5. “Improve the representation of Black people as employees to reflect the diversity of students.” This maybe impossible to address effectively, both from the currently tiny potential pool of applicants and by defining ‘black’ in a lumpen way solely on skin colour without recognising the very different ethnicities and cultures your disenfranchising by doing so. So assuming appointing a few ~3% (percentage of black people in the UK according to the 2011 census) ‘token’ blacks from a different ethnic culture to that of the students may well lead to even greater problems, most naïve white middle class activists don’t/won’t understand as to them it becomes a simple box ticking exercise.

    6. “Universities and accommodation providers should work together to create intentionally diverse and inclusive student accommodation.” See both of the above, intentionally mixing those who don’t wish to live together can be dangerous, we had a student arrested a few years ago as he as a practicing Muslim who had been placed in a halls flat with non-Muslims who he had no desire to mix with, he was relentlessly bullied by two Jewish girls in the next flat and as he had no-one to talk with or support him he finally snapped and took one of the girls prisoner at knife point, thankfully the Police managed to get her released without physical harm (mental harm however is a another question).

  2. There is danger of a new kind of racism being bred by these sorts of reports. One which flattens the true diversity of experience across a ‘racial’ group, i.e. ‘black’ students.

    The American writer Albert Murray, mainly in his book The Omni-Americans, contended that the “insights that can be derived from sociology and other behavioural studies are far too superficial to yield meaning that properly defines a group of people . . . social science tends to turn rich and uniquely textured lives into generalized abstractions and to overemphasize the hardships of life.

  3. Hi Darren, you make a valid point that there is no single Black experience. The diversity of experiences among Black people is acknowledged in the definitions section of the online appendix. The findings were derived from common experiences discussed by students the focus groups with the (Black) research team and were considered significant and widespread enough to be included as findings of the research. They were also informed by the quantitative data.There is no claim that these are universal experiences for students of Black heritage, nonetheless they represent genuine issues experienced by Black students in accommodation and, as such, need to be addressed.

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