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Living Black at University

by Shaun Horan, Susie Hills, Osaro Otobo, 'Teleola Cartwright | May 13, 2021 | News, Strategy & Transformation

Project Background and Information

The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 had a profound effect on the understanding of institutional racism in the developed world. Within Unite Students it empowered Black employees to speak about their experiences, which in turn challenged Unite Students to accelerate their diversity and inclusion work and improve their understanding of how to lead such change at a senior level.

Both the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector and university accommodation teams are predominantly led by white people, as evidenced by the lack of diversity in senior leadership teams and in professional bodies. This has led Unite Students to question how well this sector, serves the needs of Black students.

Ultimately this report will generate practical recommendations for private PBSA providers and universities to help them to understand the experiences of Black students in accommodation, address any areas of institutional racism and equip them to provide an equitable and inclusive experience.

Why is the research taking place?

Unite Students commissioned this research to draw together the data that they have already collected about the experiences of ethnic minority students, and to make sense of it through in-depth qualitative work that will highlight the experiences of Black students within student accommodation (university halls and private PBSA). The research aims to allow Black student voices to be heard, and to capture the experiences and reflections of Black employees.

What is the definition of ‘Black’ in this research?

The experiences of students are not homogenous. An example of homogenisation would be the term BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) or BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) which groups together those who are non-white. Further, in much research, such as that by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU, which has now merged with other organisations to make up AdvanceHE), the terms BME or BAME are used exclusively to refer to Home/EU students and exclude international students. The experiences of Black students differ from those of Asian students, mixed-race students and others not racialised as white. Further, the experiences of international students are important to this research.

Self-identification is not particularly helpful when dealing with social constructs as we are asking individuals to use classifications they had no part in developing and may not ascribe to. Further, self-identification imposes a responsibility on those from already marginalised groups to work out where they fit within a social construct. It is society, rather than the individual that racialises people, and for those defined as ‘Black’ it is a term that identifies a group of people who have been racialised as Black, not those who self-identify as such. The rapper Akala, for example, discusses his mixed Scottish and Jamaican ancestry but holds that from an early age it was his blackness that meant he was also racialised by others – be they school teachers, peers, or the police – as ‘Black’. This is reminiscent of the ‘one drop’ rule in Jim Crow legislation. In this report the term Black is therefore used to include all those who are racialised as Black, and the participants were asked to identify their racial identity not as a marker of self-identification but as a reporting of how they are identified by others.

Why are other people from different ethnicities being consulted in this research?

For the survey, it is important that we have something to compare Black students’ experiences against and a baseline of all student experiences. Therefore the survey needs to go to as many students from as many backgrounds as possible and then the Black student voice will be isolated in the analysis, whilst being able to compare it with the full data set. Comparing the data from all students with the data from the Black students will highlight the differences in student experience more clearly.

Who will be undertaking the review?

Halpin Partnership (Halpin) is a specialist higher education consultancy, drawing on a team of Consulting Fellows who have a breadth of experience and expertise across diverse fields in the education, public and corporate sectors. For this project we have a skilled Black-led research team.

Halpin was appointed by Unite Students in March 2021 to conduct an independent review of Black students’ experience of accommodation, following an open and competitive tendering process. Biographies of the review team are available below.

Following a period of open consultation, the review team will present its findings and recommendations to Unite Students later in the year.

Halpin’s response to frequently asked questions about the review can be found below.

External support from partners

If you are an organisation or institution and would like to express your interest in supporting this research by promoting this website to students and staff so they can fill out the survey and take part in focus groups and interviews, please contact unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com.

Review Timeline


  • Introductory Meeting with Steering Group
  • Information Request
  • Literature Review


  • Surveys Disseminated


  • Surveys Close
  • Discussion Groups with Students
  • Interviews with Students and Staff
  • Analysis of Findings and Development of Recommendations


  • Research Peer-Reviewed
  • Findings and recommendations to be presented to Steering Group

August onwards

  • Final Report Dissemination
  • Implementation of recommendations

Review Consultation

The review consultation period will remain open from May to June.

Virtual Discussion Group sessions for students will be held in June via Microsoft Teams. Dates are to be confirmed and we will update this page in due course.

Should you wish to attend a session, please send your name and preferred session to unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com. Spaces will be limited so we please ask that you only book a space on a session if you intend to attend. We also request that you only attend one session.

Share your comments

A survey has been set up for staff and students to complete, which anyone is welcome to take part in.

  • STUDENTS: Please fill in the survey here.
  • STAFF: Please fill in the survey here.

Students who fill in the survey can enter a prize draw to win a £500 gift voucher.

For the student focus groups we are offering £25 gift cards to participants.

Halpin is keen to gather as much information as possible. If you are unable to attend a virtual focus group session or you would prefer to send comments regarding this topic with the Halpin Review team via email, please do so via unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com or use the comment box below.

Please note, all comments are confidential to the Halpin Review team. We will record the names of interviewees and focus group attendees for the purposes of scheduling. Any comments included in our final reports will not be attributed to any individuals.

Review Team

There are several members of the Halpin team working on the research project. Each team member will have a specific focus or area that they will be covering and more details on their remit and biographies are below.

‘Teleola Cartwright, Consulting Fellow (Lead)

Olorunteleola (‘Teleola) Cartwright has worked in race equality since graduating with her LLB in law in 2013. In 2015, she began focusing on race and education, working first supporting those affected by school exclusions before moving into the higher education sector. ‘Teleola has experience auditing public sector and educational institutions, leading multi-agency projects on inclusive education and designing and delivering CPD on inclusive teaching, learning and assessment practice. She is respected as an expert on race inclusion in higher education and this has led to her giving conference presentations, including as an invited keynote; providing evidence to the Parliamentary Education Sub-committee; and co-authoring a journal article on decolonising the curriculum. ‘Teleola was BAME Attainment Project Lead at the Faculty of Business and Law, University of Northampton, and prior to that a Project Coordinator at Wellingborough Black Consortium.

Osaro Otobo, Consulting Fellow (Project Manager)

Experienced in leading changes in student democracy and governance and also in student equality, diversity and inclusion. Osaro studied at the University of Hull for her undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science and a master’s degree in Cancer Imaging. She was elected for 3 successive years to work in the best interest of students at Hull; she was a postgraduate student trustee and a two-term President at Hull University Students’ Union. From lived experiences, she created the Make Diversity Count campaign which is calling for all UK organisations to have a robust discrimination policy which sets out how they deal with complaints of discrimination more effectively and transparently. She believes in ensuring all students, especially those from liberation and widening participation groups, are supported effectively throughout their education journey. She also believes that student voices should be at the heart of an evidence-based approach to implementing change and getting meaningful long-lasting results in the higher education sector. Osaro recently conducted a research project for Halpin on the impact of Black Lives Matter on universities in the UK with a report released and a webinar on the findings taking place earlier in November 2020.

Shakira Martin, Consulting Fellow (Advisory)

Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College, and founder of Founder of The Class of 2020 #DigiProm. Outgoing National President of the National Union of Students UK, representing 7 million students across Further and Higher Education, most recently successful leading on an organisational turnaround strategy. Shakira pioneered NUS’s Poverty Commission, shining a light on the barriers still facing working-class people accessing FE and HE. She is one of only a handful of people to hold the post from an FE background, and the first black woman to have held the role in NUS’s 96-year history. Shakira was undertaking a teaching qualification when she began her career in student politics. She was elected the Vice President Further Education at NUS in 2015 and represented FE students in this role for two years prior to Heflin President. Shakira’s campaigning credentials are well established with major wins under her belt on student representation, funding, and access. She makes regular local and national media appearances and is passionate about equality in education in terms of access and outcomes.

Susie Hills, Joint CEO & Co-Project Director

Susie supports HEI leaders and teams, often during times of significant change. Susie has worked with a number of clients on customised and high-profile reviews with HE clients and sector bodies including UCL, the University of Bath, UUK and QAA. With a background in senior-level fundraising, she has since worked with universities, schools and educational institutes on assessments that have led to transformational campaigns. She is a champion of best practice governance and is responsible for developing Halpin’s cross-sector governance expertise. She has led high-profile, complex reviews of governance processes which have informed strategy and led to operational change. Known for her thought-leadership, Susie is in demand as a conference speaker and writes regular commentary for the higher education sector. Susie is a champion of best practice in governance and is responsible for developing Halpin’s cross-sector governance expertise. She has also worked with dozens of clients in the charity and education sectors in the UK, Ireland, Middle East and USA to achieve fundraising goals, develop fundraising operations and deliver leadership training. Susie was listed in 2019 as one of ‘50 Leading Lights’ by the FT in recognition of her work on kindness in leadership, and shortlisted as one of ‘40 Women to Watch’ in the 2021 Digital Women Awards.

Shaun Horan, Joint CEO & Co-Project Director

Shaun Horan has over 20 years of senior-level university management, reputation, income generation and external relations. He draws on a strong legal background, advising some of the leading names in higher education and nonprofits and overseeing complex projects and assessments at critical periods spanning fundraising, strategy, and governance. He has a wealth of leadership experience.
Shaun has a deep knowledge of the UK higher education sector and in particular an understanding of the politics and sensitivities in the Irish HE sector. He is valued by his clients for his ability to listen, analyse, and find ways through multifaceted problems. Shaun has delivered governance and strategic projects with universities including Bath, Nottingham, Sussex, Manchester, Maynooth, Queen’s University Belfast and Dublin City University.

Dr Nick Cartwright, Consulting Fellow (Peer Review)

Dr Nick Cartwright (PhD, MPhil, PGCert, LLB, SFHEA) started lecturing in 2000 and is currently a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Northampton. Nick is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and researches education and inclusion from a critical race theory standpoint. Nick’s research argues that racism and patriarchy are endemic within HE and his recommendations on how to decolonise academia have led to articles in academic and policy-focused publications, as well as by-lines in WonkHE, HuffPost, The Guardian and The Independent.
Outside of academia, Nick has worked with the United Nations in Panama, Austria and Croatia developing and promoting their Education 4 Justice (E4J) initiative which promotes a culture of lawfulness and justice through education. Nick advocates that whilst education does create and perpetuate oppression and inequality it can, and should, promote justice and equality.

Useful Information

As part of the review, Halpin will be drawing on some useful higher education sector specific resources and journal articles relating to the experiences of Black students:

Mental Health Support Information

If you are a student or member of staff in need of mental health support please reach out to your university and students’ union for guidance and resources.

Here is some information and resources you can access for free:

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How was Halpin Partnership selected?

A public tender process was undertaken.

2. What experience does Halpin have of research projects?

Information on the review team and their experience can be found above.

3. What should I do if I have questions about the review and/or would like to share my views?

The review consultation period will remain open until June. Consultations will include interviews and discussion groups. To ensure confidentiality throughout the process, a dedicated email address has been set up where you can send your comments and questions directly to Halpin: unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com.

Virtual discussion groups with be held via Microsoft Teams. We will update the times and dates in due course.
To attend a session please send your name and your preferred session time and date to unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com.

4. Is the review independent?

The Halpin review team is entirely independent of Unite Students as well as other providers and universities that may take part in this research. The review team has no conflicts of interest in undertaking this work and the majority of the senior management team at Unite Students is not involved in the review in any capacity, other than as potential interviewees.

The review team’s points of contact at Unite Students are the Steering Group – unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com. The review team has complete access to relevant documentation and information will be provided as requested.

The Halpin review team will provide our findings to the Steering Group in June 2021 and will undertake a process of fact-checking. This will be to ensure that we have not included factually incorrect information or missed any key points of information or evidence. Any changes that are made after that point will be made at the discretion of the Halpin review team, based on the information and evidence provided and after full and careful consideration.

5. Will the findings be published, and if so when?

Halpin’s findings and recommendations will be presented by Unite Students later in the year. Unite Students is anticipating publishing the report in full, as well as disseminating it in various forms for different audiences,

6. Will the review consider best practice from outside the sector?

The review team includes experts with experience both in and outside of the higher education sector. This wider experience and knowledge will help to inform the recommendations.

7. What is the process for the review?

The review process includes a wide variety of activity to ensure engagement with staff and students across the UK. The review activity started in April with the consultation phase starting in May and ending in June.

8. Will you share data and consultation findings with Unite Students during the review process?

Sharing consultation findings is not part of the review methodology. Halpin will provide analysis of findings and recommendations, but our notes will not be provided to the Unite Students.

All data will be destroyed at the end of the contract between Halpin and Unite Students, in line with our Data Protection policy as detailed here.

9. How will you ensure anonymity and confidentiality?

We will record the names of interviewees and discussion group attendees for the purposes of scheduling. All comments made are strictly in confidence and our reports will not attribute any comments to any names.

10. How can the Halpin review team be contacted?

The Halpin team can be contacted via unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com.

Halpin Partnership has a trusted relationship with its clients and operates with sensitivity, discretion and confidentiality. We do not comment on client projects to third parties and will not be making any comments on the research undertaken for Unite Students.

For any media enquiries, please contact the Unite Students team via unitestudents@halpinpartnership.com.

If you have questions regarding Halpin and the services we offer please visit our main website at www.halpinpartnership.com or contact info@halpinpartnership.com.


If you have any questions, please contact a member of the research team:

Susie Hills, CEO and Co-founder (Project Director)

Shaun Horan, CEO and co-Founder (Project Director, cover until May 2021)

Osaro Otobo, Consulting Fellow (Project Manager)

‘Teleola Cartwright, Consulting Fellow

Editorial Note

Throughout our work, we have chosen to capitalise ‘Black’ but not ‘white’. This decision was based on advice sought, and further reading supports this.