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Belonging: How we’re creating room for everyone at Unite Students

15 June 2022

We are proud to publish a new three-year Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging (DEIB) and Wellbeing strategy. This marks a shift away from the phrase ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ (EDI) and towards new language which highlights the importance of belonging and more accurately captures the holistic nature of inclusion.

At Unite Students, our purpose is to provide a Home for Success. That means going beyond offering a room in which to sleep or a place to work, and instead creating an environment in which people can grow and thrive. ‘Home’ means different things to different people, but fundamentally, it needs to be somewhere people feel they belong.

The purpose of our journey is to create a space of belonging for people who live and work with Unite Students. Language is a powerful tool and the inclusion of the term ‘belonging’ allows us to more accurately communicate and embed the values and aspirations of our organisation. Developing the language of inclusion is a pivotal step, allowing us to recognise how far we have come, as well as define our future ambition.


 ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging (DEIB) and Wellbeing’ is the new EDI

While EDI may be a familiar term, language is always evolving. One example is a recent move away from the previously commonplace acronym ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), which was abandoned by four of the UK’s major broadcasters in 2021. This was because it combined the needs of a diverse array of ethnic groups and thus obscured each group’s specific needs.

In our own Living Black at University report earlier this year, we saw how the needs of Black students differed from those of (for example) Asian students, and how even within the Black student demographic there were significant differences between the needs of domestic and international students – so it’s clear that more precise terminology and data can be used to better understand and therefore include marginalised groups.

As such, we are moving away from the term ‘EDI’. Last year, Pathik Pathak – Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Impact Lab at the University of Southampton – recommended in a Wonkhe blog that the sector move away from ‘EDI’ and towards the phrase ‘Equity, Diversity and Belonging’.

At Unite Students, we’ve followed this lead in part, and have now adopted the umbrella term of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) and Wellbeing.

The importance of belonging is clear, but the shift to ‘equity’ is also important. By referring to ‘equity’ instead of ‘equality’, we are recognising that providing equal opportunity isn’t enough to support equal outcomes – when what is needed is equal access to opportunity and making sure these opportunities are truly accessible for everyone. Equity means giving everyone the tools they need to excel, while also creating a dynamic and inclusive environment where every individual can thrive.

Finally, the intersection of inclusion and wellbeing is vital. Different groups may need different types of wellbeing support, and so looking at wellbeing through the lens of inclusion allows us to consider the range of support that may be needed to achieve social, physical, mental, and financial wellbeing. DEIB and Wellbeing are not mutually exclusive – they are intrinsically linked.


The benefits of belonging

A sense of belonging can be described as a feeling of acceptance, welcomeness and safety. Research by the Harvard Business Review and BetterUp has found that employers whose employees report a high sense of belonging experience on average a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover, and 75% fewer sick days taken.

A sense of belonging is also vital for students who live with Unite Students. In our survey of last year’s university applicants, 92% said they wanted to feel a sense of belonging and community in their university accommodation, but 59% were afraid they wouldn’t fit in. Research from the University of Liverpool found that a low sense of belonging for students was associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness – all factors that negatively impact on student outcomes, continuation and retention.

By supporting our employees and the students who live with us to feel like they belong, we’re supporting a better student experience, and supporting our university partners by playing our part in creating a positive university experience for their students.


How does belonging interact with diversity, inclusion and wellbeing?

We are a diverse organisation, made up of c.1,800 employees from more than 24 ethnic groups. We also have 74,000 students living in our buildings in 25 UK cities, more than a third of whom come from outside the UK. Our residents and employees span countless different ethnic groups, races, social classes, cultures, faiths, ages, disabilities, gender identities and sexual orientations.

It’s unlikely someone will feel like they belong if they’re not included – and so we consider belonging to be the ultimate aim of all work pertaining to diversity and inclusion. It’s also clear from the research in this area that a sense of belonging supports positive wellbeing.


Our new DEIB and Wellbeing strategy

To meet the diverse needs of our employees and the students who live with us we have to listen, adapt and innovate. This is outlined in our new three-year strategy, ‘We are US: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Wellbeing Strategy 2022-25’.

In its foreword, Chief Executive Richard Smith summarises the core of the strategy as being “a deep dive into intersectionality, ensuring that our policies and procedures, development pathways and ambitions leave no one behind, regardless of characteristic.”

“This strategy redefines our commitment to being good neighbours, both to each other and to our wider community,” adds Unite Students’ Senior EDI and Wellbeing Manager, Sam Kingsley. “We recognise our responsibility to create healthier and happier workplaces, in which we can all strive for more equitable and sustainable futures.”

Some of the key actions outlined in the strategy include:

  • Communicating our DEIB policy to employees (Year 1): Already launched, the policy defines key DEIB terms and furthers the language and remit of the Equality Act 2010. Instead of referring to ‘sex’, we will now as an organisation be referring to ‘gender expression’ – which may not align with the gender assigned at birth – and we have retired the phrase ‘gender reassignment’ in favour of ‘gender affirmation’.
  • Upskilling our employees (Year 1): Through the Unite Academy, which provides support, training and development tailored to individuals within the organisation, we will be giving our employees the skills to mitigate unconscious bias by teaching the skills of conscious inclusion. This will enable employees to model behaviours that create healthy and happy communities and environments for themselves and for the students who live with us.
  • Supporting organisational leaders to model inclusive behaviours and language (Year 2): By equipping our leaders with the knowledge to include everyone working and living in our properties, we can pass on these behaviours to others and make sure that everyone really feels that they belong. Our executive board will take ultimate responsibility for achieving this, highlighting its importance to our organisation.
  • Increasing our diversity (Year 2): Through our Diversity Leadership Programme, we are committed to achieving more equitable gender representation by 2023, as well as increasing the representation of all protected characteristics across leadership and within our wider employee base by 2024.
  • Embedding our DEIB and Wellbeing work into the student journey (Year 2) and our local communities (Year 3): We will develop healthier, happier and more resilient communities by transforming the type and level of support we give our Resident Ambassadors, and being a good, responsible neighbour to our community partners. We look forward to sharing more information about this in the coming months and years.

Our vision is to provide a safe and welcoming environment where people feel they belong and that their individuality is embraced. Our ambition is to be leaders in this space, both in the sector and beyond. It’s about every individual being represented and being able to flourish – and in doing so, truly creating a Home for Success.

You can download ‘We are US: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Wellbeing Strategy 2022-25’ here, and read more about our DEIB work in our interview with Sam Kingsley, Senior EDI and Wellbeing Manager.

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