Osaro Otobo suggests accommodation pressures are particularly acute for Black students
The university welcome period is one of the most critical periods in higher education. For students, the first days and weeks can set the tone, not only for the year but for the entire duration of their degree. And key to this is accommodation—where students spend a big proportion of both their time and money.
In recent days and weeks, we’ve seen students already panicking about their accommodation for next year. Some have slept overnight in queues for estate agents, some have signed for houses without even viewing them—a stressful situation for anyone.
But all this is so much more stressful for minoritised groups of students—especially if they have struggled to integrate during the welcome period, something that we highlighted last year in the report from Halpin/Unite Students, Living Black at University (LBU).
This report recommended a number of actions for universities to take to help integration, and even though Freshers’ Week is long over, there are still plenty of things they can do. In fact, the report made clear that actions should continue throughout the year.
One of its recommendations was to “improve acclimatisation and integration activities for all new students and extend the period over which these activities take place”.
Black UK students are disproportionately the first in their families to attend university and are most likely to be from Participation of Local Areas (Polar) 1 and 2—parts of the country with the lowest proportion of young people attending university.
These students have less experience of the UK higher education system than others and therefore may take longer to acclimatise and find it more challenging to integrate. Indeed, some students surveyed for the report stated that they gravitated towards universities that they knew had a high population of Black students to make integration easier.
Many international Black students said that they would like welcome information to be drip-fed over a longer period—but they’re not the only ones who think this would be helpful. Improving acclimatisation and integration activities would be beneficial not only to Black or Black British students, but to other students from under-represented or marginalised groups and, ultimately, to all students.
Another recommendation was for universities and accommodation providers to work together to create intentionally diverse and inclusive student accommodation.
Current practices in some institutions have led to the rise of ghettoisation. Universities and accommodation providers should be deliberate and transparent about how they allocate rooms, by, for example, making clear if there is a safe space allocated for LGBTQ students or a space for international students.
Lack of integration harms inclusion and does not expose students to diverse perspectives. Segregation also has historic links with traditions that are racist and reflecting this is negative, especially for students of colour. Ghettoisation should be prevented, and conscious efforts made to reflect the diversity of the student body in all areas of accommodation. A more thoughtful process in assigning flatmates should be created to foster a more diverse and tolerant space.
There are a few other things universities can do now to help. First, they can reach out to students and offer support.
Universities should contact students—either in person via the accommodation team or via email—to ask how their first weeks or months have gone. Some students may be struggling in silence, and a friendly email or chat can make the difference between a student staying or dropping out of university.
Second, they should offer access to support and advice, and be clear about how students can offer feedback and make a complaint if they need to. During the welcome period, Black students may have experienced racism. Universities need to be aware of this possibility and to ensure that there are accessible processes to allow students to move from their accommodation, if they have been the victim of racism and discrimination—or for other reasons.
Accommodation spaces can, unintentionally, end up being not very diverse, which can have an impact on Black students if they find themselves the only one in a block of 30 people. Accommodation teams should be aware of this, and be on hand to offer support and advice on how to connect with other students who share similar interests and experiences. Universities should then review processes to ensure that it does not happen again the following year.
Then, universities need to be aware of information overload. Students get bombarded with so much information during the welcome period that it is not realistic for them to retain everything. Universities can help by ensuring key information can be accessed in one place throughout the year so that students can refer to it.
While integration events are shaped with all students in mind, they often end up being tailored to home/UK students aged 18 to 21. This can lead to minority groups feeling that they don’t belong. One answer is to continue having ‘welcome’ type events throughout the year, with accommodation teams playing a key role in organising inclusive events in their spaces.
Leaving accommodation teams out of university welcome steering groups makes it more difficult to fully acclimatise students in their accommodation and to facilitate tailored events for specific demographic groups.
Universities can also have an influence on private accommodation providers. They can encourage diversity and inclusion by incorporating diversity training requirements into nominations agreements, and can promote best inclusion practice to landlords of houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) by issuing guidance as part of accreditation schemes.
Research is often left on a shelf and forgotten. But some institutions are already using Living Black at University to make changes. Unite Students, which commissioned the research, has created a commission to respond to the findings and recommendations at a national level, involving influential organisations such as Unipol and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). Changes should happen through new national policies and access to toolkits enabling universities to do this work themselves.
A positive relationship of trust must be developed with Black students, in which they are believed and supported when they experience discrimination in any form. Meanwhile, everyone working in the sector needs to consider these recommendations and to commit to decolonising student accommodation.
Osaro Otobo is an equity, diversity and inclusion consultant and a higher education consultant at Halpin Partnership