Universities need to know more about what it’s like to be Black in student accommodation

There has been little research into what it's like to be Black in student accommodation. Nick Cartwright and Unite Students want to find out.

Nick Cartwright is a senior lecturer in Law at the University of Northampton. 

Knowing what to do to address historic discrimination and systemic inequalities is not easy.

You do not need to spend long on social media before you’ll find a meme reminding you that doing nothing makes you complicit. However, riding in as a ‘white saviour’ – doing things to people – reeks of paternalism and reinforces racial hierarchies. There is a fine line between inaction and patience, but we must listen and collect evidence if interventions are going to move beyond mere tokenism and create real and sustainable change.

Whilst some of the projects to listen to marginalised voices can rightly be mocked – the messages are already written in six-foot-high letters on sidewalks – there is too little research into university students’ experiences beyond the curriculum, particularly their experiences in student accommodation. The curriculum however does not function in a vacuum and any project to decolonise the curriculum without addressing its context and the environments in which learners and teachers function is doomed to fail.

Since 2014 HEPI and AdvanceHE have collected data about the experiences of HE students, including some data about their experiences in accommodation, annually through the Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES). However, in their report published in 2019 they acknowledge that the changing HE landscape means that more attention needs to be paid to diversity data, and the 2020 data set was the first to disaggregate students previously grouped under the broad BAME umbrella which was masking inequalities. In the 2020 SAES however, the respondents were not asked the questions that related directly to their experiences of accommodation.

In 2019, Unite Students worked with HEPI and YouthSight to survey students: “to investigate young people’s transition to university, their expectations and their experiences…” the ethnicity data however was only broken down as White and BAME. These racial groups are so broad that it was not possible to say with any certainty whether or not differences were masked in the data, for example where the broad BAME label was used it may be that positive experiences of Afro-Caribbean students countered negative experiences of Asian students, giving the overall impression that all BAME students were having comparable experiences to white students. This in fact happened for many years with data showing the award gap for so-called ‘good degrees’, where the disproportionately high numbers of Asian students graduating with a ‘good degree’ masked the disproportionately low numbers of Black, particularly Caribbean, students graduating with the same, hiding the scale of the problem.

We do know that racism and patriarchy are endemic and that universities operate within a colonised society – and that they themselves replicate this and often operate in an institutionally racist way. We know that many argue that this racism is endemic and that in their 2020 report on racial harassment, Universities UK made several recommendations that looked beyond the colonised curriculum to the white spaces in which students function beyond their learning and teaching. We can surmise that this is likely to manifest itself in the spaces students live, but we do not yet have the data to prove this nor to tell the extent that endemic racism impacts upon the experiences of students of colour in university accommodation.

Living Black at university

The research currently being conducted by Halpin on behalf of Unite Students into the experiences of Black students in Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) and university halls of residence is therefore necessary and exciting. I would not say this if they were simply constructing another dataset – although that would be valuable. The research team has been tasked with making recommendations for the industry, and Unite Students, the biggest provider of PBSA in the UK, has made a commitment to use these recommendations to improve the experiences of their Black tenants. This could change sector norms so that student accommodation becomes less of a white space, and this can only improve the outcomes for students from marginalised groups. We need action, but it needs to be evidence-led and responsive to those it is intended to serve. This project bears the hallmarks of doing just that.

Whilst we await the recommendations of this vital research we cannot however afford to be complacent – race and racism exists and it is affecting the lives of our students and colleagues on a daily basis. According to the report on racial harassment published by UUK in 2020, there is very little consistent data collected on the nature, scale and prevalence of racial harassment yet almost a quarter of students from minority ethnic backgrounds reported experiencing it. Over half of staff who had experienced racial harassment described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race, and nearly a third had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes. The EHRC 2019 inquiry into racial harassment in HEIs also found that there is an underreporting of incidents. The reasons cited are a lack of trust in institutions to listen, to take the reports seriously, to investigate and make appropriate changes, and fear and concern that the victim of the racial incident may face severe personal consequences for the reporting.

Our sector has failed to properly support victims and the physical and psychological effects of racial harassment on both students and staff are severe. Racism affects mental health, wellbeing, sense of belonging, educational outcomes, and career progression. Depression and anxiety are widely reported, with 8% of students who had experienced racial harassment reporting that they had felt suicidal. The impact was similar among staff to the extent three in 20 members of staff left their jobs.

I have argued before that the endemic nature of racism in higher education needs to be acknowledged. This means acknowledging that a significant number of students and staff of colour experience racial harassment within our institutions. This creates an imperative to ensure that university students and staff have access to clear reporting mechanisms and that they are listened to and believed. It should not be the case that because the label of racist is rightly a badge of shame that we discourage students and staff from calling out racism when they experience it. Any instances of retribution for reporting racism like those alleged by Professor Kehinde Andrews must be swiftly dealt with. There must be meaningful action in response to instances of racism that advance a zero-tolerance attitude. Finally, we must ensure that the support services that are needed to support victims are there, are properly resourced, and are accessible.

If you are a student, recent graduate or work in student accommodation then the research team would welcome your input. All university students and recent graduates are invited to share their experiences here and staff working in student residences can share their experiences here. The research team will also be facilitating focus groups and analysing data provided by both universities and private accommodation providers.

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