Does student accommodation meet the needs of Black students?

13 May 2021
By Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students
The effects of exclusion and racial inequality can cause or exacerbate wellbeing issues, including in student accommodation - and that’s why we’re commissioning a major report into the Black student experience for the start of the 21/22 year. Jenny Shaw shares more about this groundbreaking research.

Events over the last year have prompted all of us to think more deeply about racial equality, diversity and inclusion. One of the key take-aways for me has been the idea that it’s no longer enough to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist. That means examining the systems, structures and operations within our control, to consider how they could perpetrate inequality and exclusion.

Early in 2020, before the lockdown, I spoke with a number of students living in purpose-built accommodation about community, safety and sense of belonging. While diversity and inclusion was not an explicit focus, the students involved in the research were diverse, and issues around race naturally came up in conversation. 

One student, who was active in his students’ union, said that some Black students had told him they didn’t feel safe on campus unless other Black students were around. That thought was very much in my mind when a group of Black women students had a conversation in a focus group about their first meeting. On the surface it was a simple chat about how they became friends, but from their expressions and body language there seemed to be an unspoken understanding about why they were immediately drawn to one another.

In a different focus group, a male student talked about how he was often perceived by others as threatening, even though his personality was very laid back and non-aggressive. He was sure it was because he was Black.

There were things here I knew we needed to understand better. In common with the wider student accommodation sector, our frontline teams are highly diverse - but the same is not true at higher levels of management. In fact, it would be fair to say that student accommodation is largely designed and managed by white people. How, then, can we be confident it meets the needs of the whole diversity of students?

At this point, we took the decision to commission research into the experiences of Black students in purpose built student accommodation. We wanted to hear from Black students themselves about their experiences in halls, to elevate their voices and to drive change as a result. 

We are very pleased to be working with Halpin Partnership on this research. They bring a wealth of relevant experience to the project as well as – very importantly for us – a Black research team. Over the coming weeks they will be surveying students and running focus groups with both students and accommodation staff.

While we are keen to improve the experience for Black students who live with us, we realise there will be interest in these findings across the whole of the student accommodation sector. 

The introduction of the Race Equality Charter challenges universities to improve their performance across all aspects of the student experience and, as we’ve found, the experience of Black students in student accommodation is under-researched in the UK. In fact, one of the few data points available comes from research we carried out in 2017; that Black, Asian and minority ethnic students were on average less likely to report feeling socially integrated in their accommodation compared with white students.

Field research will take place over the next few weeks and we’re keen to hear from a wide cross section of students and staff in PBSA. If your organisation or institution would like to take part, please head to the project page here.

In the last year we have seen the transformations that can happen if we really take time to listen Black voices. Now it’s time to listen – and respond – to Black students talking about their experiences in student accommodation.

Read more about Black Inclusion Week here.

f
Enjoyed this article? Give it a like
Jenny Shaw is Student Experience Director for Unite Students. She has previously worked for three UK universities and as a consultant to national HE sector organisations prior to her time at Unite Students.