On 3 February 2022 Unite Students published its report into the experiences of Black students in student accommodation. This was based on research we, a Black-led research team, were commissioned to conduct. Why though when we were asked to carry out this research were we so excited to be involved?

Well, for a very long time, the notion that “we don’t see colour” has become normalised throughout parts of British society, the focus being on equality of opportunity and creating a meritocracy – the view that everyone with merit can and will reach the highest level.

A number of academics, including Ian Law, Andrew Pilkington, and Nick Cartwright and ‘Teleola Cartwright have demonstrated however that universities are a racialised space and have functioned for a long time in a way that is institutionally racist. This argument underpins the calls from groups such as #BlackLivesMatter for actions to decolonise social structures and institutions, including universities and we were keen to be part of the response to this call to action.

The resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement created an environment in which Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are signing up in record numbers to programmes like the Race Equality Charter with their implicit acknowledgement of sector-wide institutional racism. Reports by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Universities UK (UUK) both exemplify this and point to a need for a top-down approach in tackling these issues. Both the EHRC and UUK reports focus on racial harassment, which they acknowledge is still a part of the student journey for many learners. Too often Black students must adapt to “new ways of being” to navigate the white space of HE and HEIs have been charged with disengaging Black students by failing to accommodate their identities.

It is the experiences of Black students particularly, within the context of student accommodation which is the focus of this project.

We know that student accommodation is a place where students spend a huge amount of their time and it counts for a big part of their expenditure – it is an integral part of the student experience.

We hear stories about the experiences of students in accommodation through word of mouth, social media, articles and news interviews, however, there was a lack of research focusing on the experiences of Black students in their accommodation. The EHRC and UUK reports demonstrate the wider context of racial harassment in UK HEIs, yet we found no substantive research on the lived experiences of Black students in accommodation.

According to the report on racial harassment conducted by UUK, there is very little consistent data collected on the nature, scale and prevalence of racial harassment, however, the report found that almost a quarter of students from minority ethnic backgrounds reported experiencing racial harassment at university.

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. Both staff and students report regular experience of microaggressions i.e., subtle, less ‘overt’ forms of racism. Racial harassment occurs in a wide variety of settings and from multiple harassers. Whilst this data does not specifically relate to student accommodation, it does provide evidence of the scale of racism within the HE sector.

The EHRC 2019 inquiry into racial harassment in HEIs found an underreporting of incidents of racial harassment. 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.

The failure of the sector to support victims contributes to the severe physical and psychological effects of racial harassment on both students and staff. The EHRC recognised that racial harassment affects mental health, wellbeing, sense of belonging, educational outcomes, and career progression. Depression and anxiety were widely reported, with 8% of students who had experienced racial harassment reporting that they had felt suicidal. The impact was similar among staff where three in 20 members of staff left their jobs because of racism.

Since 2006 the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), now part of AdvanceHE, have collected data about the experiences of HE students, including some data about their experiences in PBSA, annually through the Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES). However, the way in which the questions we reviewed were asked and the way the data was collated presented problems when trying to analyse it for our purposes; comparing experiences between different ethnic groups.

The use of ‘BAME’ is so broad that it is not possible to say with any certainty whether or not differences are masked in the data. For example, when the broad BAME label is 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.

In the SAES 2019 published report, the authors acknowledge that the changing HE landscape means that more attention is being paid to data from a more diverse student body:

“We have sought to ensure the Survey, including the way the results are presented, has developed in recent years to paint a more detailed picture about students with certain characteristics – most notably ethnicity, sexual orientation and living arrangements – and this continues this year.”

The 2020 dataset disaggregated data by ethnicity, although only for UK-domiciled students. The broad ethnic groups used were White, Black, Asian, Chinese, Mixed and Other.

This dataset also illustrates how aggregating students under the BAME categorisation can mask some inequalities. For example, when asked, ‘Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’, 6% of White students and 6% of BAME students scored their answer as 10 (completely worthwhile) indicating parity. However, within the BAME grouping, 9% of Black students scored a 10, which masked the fact that only 3% each of Mixed and Chinese students gave a 10.

In this dataset, however, the respondents were not asked questions that related directly to their experiences of accommodation. The published data, therefore, illustrates that there may very well be important differences between students of different ethnicities but, in relation to their experiences of accommodation, we simply do not know what these differences are.

HEIs operate within an unequal society and they replicate this, so that they often operate in an institutionally racist way is no surprise.

We know that many argue that this racism is endemic. In its report, UUK made several recommendations that looked beyond the colonised curriculum to the white spaces in which students function beyond their learning and teaching.

One might hypothesise that if racism is present in the learning and teaching spaces, it is also likely to manifest itself in other parts of the student experience including the spaces that students live, but we did not have the data to prove this nor to understand the extent that endemic racism impacts the experiences of Black students in accommodation. That is why this project is so exciting.

In our research we explored the experiences of Black students to capture data that will help the HE and accommodation sectors, and in society more broadly, better support Black students.

  • Osaro Otobo, Consultant, Halpin
  • ‘Teleola Cartwright, Consulting Fellow, Halpin
  • Dr Nick Cartwright, Senior Advisor, Halpin

To read the full report, visit Unite Group’s website here.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education.