How can we help Black students to settle in at university?
25 October 2023
A key finding from last year’s Living Black at University report was that a lack of culturally relevant services in many UK cities contributed towards many Black students feeling like they didn’t belong at university.
As part of the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University, we wanted to take action so that Black students could more easily acclimatise to university life. Here’s how we co-created a new resource to support Black students moving away from home for the first time.
Published in February 2022 and based on the research of Halpin Partnership, Living Black at University was the first report to look into the experiences of Black students in UK student accommodation. One much-discussed finding was that Black students often struggled to find culturally relevant services in their new university city such as suitable haircare, international foods and Black mental health services. This contributed towards lower feelings of belonging: just 43% of Black students felt like they belonged at university compared to 61% of White students – an 18-point gap.
To address this, the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University committed to create a guide template that accommodation teams – in collaboration with their students – could use to highlight where these services could be found in their city, helping Black students to settle into their new city. This supported two of the report’s recommendations:
- Recommendation 2: Improve acclimatisation and integration activities for all new students and extend the period over which these activities take place
- Recommendation 7: Universities and accommodation providers should collaborate to ensure mental health and wellbeing support is available, accessible and appropriate for Black students
In collaboration with Newcastle University, and in line with our organisational commitment to create room for everyone, Unite Students agreed to create and pilot the guide in the 2022/23 academic year.
Newcastle pilot phase
For the last two years, Unite Students has taken part in the 10,000 Black Interns scheme, which creates paid internship opportunities for Black students and graduates over the summer. Two of our 2022 interns, Jessica Eve and Andrew Nartey, were given the opportunity to create the Black services guide for the Newcastle pilot over the summer of 2022, researching culturally relevant services in the city and inputting them into our student website. It was important that the resource was created not just by students, but for students.
The Newcastle guide – which not only spanned hairdressers, mental health support and international supermarkets, but also places of worship, Afro-Caribbean societies and mentorship opportunities – was launched in October 2022 for Black History Month and emailed to all students living with us in Newcastle.
The feedback received was resoundingly positive, so we created a toolkit that would help other institutions to make their own guides, which was launched at the Living Black at University Conference in March. This has been used for the 2023/24 academic year by the University of Kent and the University of Leeds.
And, with the guide proving a success in Newcastle, we took the decision to roll out guides for all 23 of the cities in which we operate. As with the original guide for Newcastle, we tasked our 2023 cohort of 10,000 Black Interns to create them. Over the summer they researched Black services across each city, created social media videos for our student social media channels and shared the word through blogs, at our Living Black at University HE workshop in London and on our Accommodation Matters podcast:
How would the directory have helped our interns at university?
The interns all had different experiences of university and where they chose to study. Some, like Belonging, Equity and Engagement intern and recent London School of Economics and Political Science graduate Nanu Viatoshir, had chosen to stay local with belonging in mind: “My main reason for choosing the university I attended was because I knew that there would be Black people and Black services around the corner.”
Ilwaad Yusuf, a Psychology student at the University of the West of England who interned in our Brand team over the summer, had also stayed local – but still had need of some signposting to relevant services: “My experience was very different [to the other interns] as I commuted to my university in the city where I was raised. But even then, I found myself seeking out resources like financial scholarships and mental health providers that truly understood my background.”
“Knowing all of this would’ve been very helpful [for me] a year ago; that’s why I think this guide is going to be very useful,” said Tobi Adeleke, a Mechatronics student at the University of Manchester who interned in the Data Protection team. “I would have found the mental health, societies, and barbers’ section of the directory the most useful when I first started university – I would have been able to avoid managing a haircut I don’t like because I went to a barber that couldn’t understand me!”
“[The guide] would’ve helped maybe to widen my range of choices for university because I chose London due to being scared of going to a city and not having these cultural services,” says Nanu, on reflection.
But although it wasn’t an option for her in her time at university, she had high hopes for its impact on Black applicants looking at less diverse university locations: “I feel like it can help Black students to know that[…] they can have any university choice. They can aspire to attend any university[…] and not allow their skin colour to be a limit to where and where they can’t go.”
You can find the full Black services directory on our student website. The 2022/23 Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University report is coming soon – follow our LinkedIn account or sign up to our Higher Education newsletter to stay up to date with all our latest announcements.