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Embedding diversity and inclusion at Unite Students

26 September 2023

In June 2022, Unite Students launched a three-year Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging (DEIB) and Wellbeing strategy. More than a year on, we outline the progress we’ve made against the strategy, and some of the ways in which we’ve embedded diversity, inclusion and belonging into Unite Students for the benefit of both students and employees.

In the 18 months since publishing Living Black at University – the first major research report into the experiences of Black students in UK student accommodation – a common question has been: what are Unite Students doing as an organisation to create an environment in which minoritised and marginalised students and employees can belong and thrive?

To lay out our strategy in this area, we published ‘We are US’, our first DEIB and Wellbeing strategy last June. Belonging isn’t always included in the scope of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) work, but a sense of belonging is a fundamental aim of this work and is associated with a wealth of tangible benefits, as explained in this blog about the importance of language in equity and inclusion efforts.

The strategy set out objectives to incorporate diversity and inclusion into our people-facing policies, improve governance around DEIB and wellbeing, educate our employees on DEIB, and support our leadership to model inclusive behaviours.

Launching a strategy is one thing – but 18 months on, what progress has been made against its aims and objectives, and what new initiatives have been introduced to support diversity, inclusion and belonging within Unite Students?


Instinctive Inclusion learning programme

One of the cornerstones of our strategy is supporting employees to work on conscious inclusion – that is, consciously recognising how words and behaviours impact others and making an effort to ensure that these are inclusive in practice – in order to create a culture of instinctive inclusion, achieved when inclusive language and behaviours become automatic, benefiting both students and employees.

Creating a framework for instinctive inclusion was a key focus in the first year of the strategy, and in October 2022, the first ‘Instinctive Inclusion’ training was launched through the Academy, our commitment to lifelong learning. This training, which is mandatory for all employees to complete by the end of 2023, consists of two 90-minute interactive online sessions accompanied by a workbook. Sessions are put on over weekends and during night shifts to ensure that employees in all roles can access it. This is just the first part of the ‘Our Journey to Instinctive Inclusion’ learning programme, with further learning programmes to follow for those in leadership roles.

Additionally, in order to recognise employees who went above and beyond to foster an inclusive environment, our 2022 internal Star Awards featured an ‘Allyship Award’. This was won by Dave Booth, Student Safety Manager (Nights) for Durham – you can read our interview with him here, or watch below:


New policies, procedures and pathways

Another objective was to improve DEIB governance “ensuring our policies, procedures and pathways create a framework for a safe and inclusive environment.” Our DEIB strategy launch came alongside a new DEIB policy for employees, which received commendation from Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBT rights organisation.

In March 2023, we rolled out an extensive new family leave policy, which included provisions for adoption, surrogacy, shared parental leave, those using IVF to start a family and those whose babies require neonatal care after birth – with the latter being introduced through Culture Matters, our employee forum.

Richard Morris, Head of Operations (Financial Planning & Analysis) and a Culture Matters representative, spent the majority of his two-week parental leave in hospital when his newborn was rushed back into hospital shortly after coming home for the first time, and only had four days at home with his son before having to return to the office.

“I knew there was a lot of company support, but my wife and I thought there could be more for parents who are in and out of hospital with their baby and the business really listened to that,” he said in our March interview. “Culture Matters is an integral part of employees voicing what they think is right, for both colleagues and the company. We raised that if your baby is hospitalised from birth, you could be unable to spend time with them when they are discharged because your entitlement to leave might have ended – we are delighted families will benefit from these updates.”

A new, externally-benchmarked menopause policy and guidance on transitioning at work will also be published later this year. The latter is the latest output of our commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion, which includes being Gold Sponsors of National Student Pride; we have also committed to a piece of research for 2024 about the LGBTQ+ experience in UK student accommodation.


Embedding the findings from Living Black at University

The 10 recommendations of the Living Black at University report were a learning curve for Unite Students as well as the wider sector, and following the report’s publication, we convened the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University to embed the recommendations across the Higher Education sector, in line with the report’s first recommendation – “Universities and accommodation providers should collaborate to eliminate racism from all areas of the student experience, including student accommodation.”

In the past year, through the Commission, we have published three resources to support both the wider sector and Unite Students in making progress on race equity. [More information on these resources, and where to find them, can be found here.]

However, we’ve also worked on the recommendations internally. The introduction of the Instinctive Inclusion training supports Recommendation 3 (Introduce meaningful race training for peers and staff), while our internal Better Data, Fairer Workplace campaign to collate employee diversity data is one step towards embedding Recommendation 9 (Accommodation providers should routinely collect, analyse and publish relevant data on the racial diversity of their residents and employees, as well as outcomes of reporting and investigation of complaints).

Our updated Home Charter for 2022 included strong commitments to the students who live with us, such as a zero-tolerance policy of harassment of any kind, with racism and xenophobia named among other types of prejudice as behaviour that would not be tolerated in our properties – feeding into Recommendation 4 (Accommodation providers should confirm a commitment to tackling racism, both in their internal policies and in their student behavioural agreement or charter)These commitments will be taken forward into our new Community Living Agreement for 2023.

Last year, we worked with Newcastle University to trial a Black services guide to signpost Black students in Newcastle to culturally-relevant services such as international supermarkets and hairdressers with experience of Black haircare. With the trial having been a success, we will be rolling guides out to all 23 of our cities in the coming weeks – with more information coming soon.


What’s next for diversity and inclusion at Unite Students?

While we are still on our journey to be a more diverse and inclusive organisation, this early work has borne fruit; at the 2023 International Diversity and Inclusion Awards, Unite Students were awarded both the Diversity Champion Corporate Award and the International Inclusion Award, and we have also been awarded a ‘Good Practice’ rating in Manchester Pride’s All Equals Charter.

But there is more we want to achieve in this space, in order to become a more inclusive and diverse organisation – so there’s plenty more in the pipeline for the year ahead. A raft of new resources to support employee wellbeing are being put together, including a new Employee Support Framework and digital wellbeing platform for employees.

Two further Instinctive Inclusion learning programmes are also in development; the first – aimed at all employees in leadership roles – was trialled in Bristol in June, while a second programme will be for the most senior leaders in the business. These programmes will allow inclusive practices to be modelled right from the top of the business, one of our most important Strategy objectives.

To complement this and encourage employees at all levels to keep learning and developing in this area, we have also developed short, self-led CPD (Continuing Professional Development) learning programmes to support employees to develop their knowledge around protected characteristics, with data from our annual DEIB & Wellbeing survey used to identify the topics on which our employees would like to learn more.

In addition to the roll-out of the Black services directory, our Resident Ambassador scheme – which is being expanded for 2023/24 – includes a greater focus on diversity and inclusion. We’re achieving this through monitoring the diversity of Resident Ambassadors and training ambassadors on how to run inclusive events, to ensure that everyone feels included.

Creating a space of belonging for all is a marathon, not a sprint. At Unite Students, we will continue to push ourselves forward on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging to ensure it’s a Home for Success for everyone who lives with or works for us.

You can read more about our student wellbeing programme, including our Support to Stay framework, here.

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