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To make progress on the awarding gap we must also address the belonging gap

Closing awarding gaps is as much about the wider environment and experience as it is about what happens in the classroom, argues Jenny Shaw.
This article is more than 1 year old

Jenny Shaw is Higher Education External Engagement Director for Unite Students, and is seconded part-time to the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce

Last year Edward Peck, the government’s student support champion, told a gathering of student accommodation professionals that a sense of belonging in first year accommodation was an important contributor to student mental health.

The speech took place at the Joint Codes Conference last November and provided recognition for something we all knew – for resident students, feeling like they belong in their student accommodation is much more than a nice-to-have.

Let’s turn this on its head. Feeling excluded in what is supposed to be your home at university is not the basis for positive mental health, a good student experience and hardly conducive to academic achievement.

We’ve known for some years how important it is for students to develop a sense of belonging as part of their academic experience thanks to the work of Liz Thomas, but now it’s time to turn that spotlight on student accommodation. It could be a vital step in addressing a sector-wide issue that seems resistant to change – the degree awarding gap.

Mind the gap

The Unite Students’ Living Black at University report, published a year ago, found a significant “belonging gap” of 28 percentage points between Black and White students, specifically in relation to their accommodation.

Like the degree awarding gap, it is important that this is not framed as a deficit because it is certainly not the fault of the students themselves. The report outlined the many contributors to this gap, including exclusion, microaggressions and racism from other students and sometimes from staff, and incidents of racial profiling by security teams.

Lack of representation among accommodation staff was also raised, which became important when students tried to reach out for help resolving these issues. And the routes, and the rights, to complain were not made clear.

Other less obvious factors also contributed to a sense of alienation. Moving to a new city where familiar foods and haircare are difficult to find is challenging. We recognise the sense of ‘culture shock’ for international students, but we seem to have underestimated its impact on Black British students moving from a large city to a provincial town.

Students who spoke to the Halpin research team shared the daily toil of dealing with microaggressions and exclusion, the seeming futility of seeking help and the impact on their mental health. I repeat, this is hardly conducive to academic achievement. Moreover, students talk to one another.

We don’t know how many Black students have been put off moving away to university because they have heard these stories, but we have been given anecdotal examples since the research was published.

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It would have been easy for the student accommodation sector – university teams and private providers – to throw their hands in the air and declare that most of these things are outside their control, but that’s not what happened.

There has been a strong and sustained interest in this report. We know that it’s still being discussed in universities across the UK, action is being taken and that there’s a hunger for more granular recommendations, guidance and examples of good practice.

In response, the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University was set up to bring together sector leaders to produce guidance, share relevant research and practice and to build capacity in the sector for change.

Over the coming months, the Commission will be publishing a series of toolkits to help accommodation teams address the report’s recommendations, while calling for case study examples from across the sector – including students’ unions – to help share good practice. We are also holding a free conference in Newcastle on Tuesday 7th March to bring together university EDI leads and student accommodation leaders from across the UK.

It’s been encouraging to witness such commitment and momentum across the student accommodation sector, but there is still the risk that not nearly enough will change. If the wider higher education sector simply looks on and nods at ‘accommodation getting its house in order’ then we will have missed an opportunity.

Providing an equitable experience for Black students in accommodation is essential, but it addresses only part of the landscape of disadvantage that Black students face in higher education. To be most effective, it needs to be treated as a joined-up effort with academic and student support initiatives to close the awarding gap once and for all.

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