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The future of race and inclusion in student accommodation

22 November 2023

Hot off the launch of the new Living Black at University Commission report, we’re continuing our focus on the future of sustainability within purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) with this month’s episode on race and inclusion in student accommodation.

With Black students being the UK’s fastest-growing student demographic, greater inclusion of Black students is increasingly important for those who own and operate purpose-built student accommodation.

Our guests explore the impact of student accommodation on the awarding gap, what steps the purpose-built student accommodation sector has made towards greater race equity since Living Black at University was published in February 2022, and how universities and accommodation providers can make further strides towards race equity in future.

Hosted by Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students, this episode’s guests include:

  • tara leach, Senior Advisor (Equality Charters) at Advance HE
  • Rebecca O’Hare, Interim Deputy Director of Residential Services at University of Leeds
  • Sam Kingsley, Head of Belonging and Engagement at Unite Students

Jenny also shares some interview clips from March’s Living Black at University Conference, speaking to Andy Owusu, former Office for Students Mental Health Project Officer for Black Students at London South Bank University, and Osaro Otobo, Consultant at Halpin Partnership and project manager on the original Living Black at University report.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are the personal views of individual guest speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Students and/or Unite Group plc.


‘The future of race and inclusion in student accommodation’ episode transcript

Jenny Shaw: Hello and welcome to Accommodation Matters where, as always, we’re looking at the big issues in higher education through the lens of student accommodation. I’m Jenny Shaw, and today we are continuing with our mini-series that looks to the future on sustainability and social impact.

Now, three years ago, many of us displayed black squares on our social media profiles. We wanted the world to know that Black lives matter, and it was a time of real potential for change. That change has taken place in student accommodation, although it’s still early days. The sector has embraced the Living Black at University research in which Black students shared their everyday experiences in their accommodation and how that had affected them.

Now, it’s all too easy to read a report like this, to feel concerned, and then get distracted by other things. The Living Black Commission, a veritable supergroup of student accommodation professionals were never going to let that happen.

I’m delighted to have three members of the Commission on today’s show. To introduce my guest today, we have Rebecca O’Hare, who is the Interim Deputy Director of Residential Services at the University of Leeds. Hello, Rebecca.

Rebecca O’Hare: Hello, great to be here as always.

Jenny: Excellent. tara leach [sic] is the Senior Advisor for Equality Charters at Advance HE.

tara leach: Hello.

Jenny: Sam Kingsley is the Head of Belonging and Engagement for Unite Students. Hi, Sam.

Sam Kingsley: Hi, Jenny. Nice to see you.

Jenny: Brilliant. Let’s start. Let’s just dive straight in with a broad look across the higher education sector. tara, could you start us off? You’re a Senior Advisor to the Race Equality Charter. What is the trajectory at the moment on race equality in higher education? Just in general terms, are things getting better or worse, and why?

tara: I think that’s an interesting question. We do have some challenges in the sector across the board. I think that’s not unique necessarily to higher education, but obviously, it will be felt within higher education, and particularly within the students. We like to think of the positives at the moment in the sector, of which there are a few. We have a lot of support across the board from our members in terms of race equality.

One of the things that the challenges has given us is it’s allowed us to see that support that has come through from universities, but also, for example, from UUK. We have a lot of support from there, and have spoken very positively about the work we’re doing. We’re also seeing a lot of growth in the area as well.

Just looking at the Race Equality Charter (REC)… We’ve been around about eight years now, I think, and we now have 100 members – which is the most we’ve ever had – who are either have completed the application, have the Bronze award, or we now have two silver awards. The last round, we had two institutions actually moving through from Bronze, and brilliantly demonstrating their work in this area. It is quite interesting to see that growth.

In particular as well, we’re working with Welsh universities. We’re working very closely with the Welsh government through HEFCW [Higher Education Funding Council Wales], and supporting all of the Welsh institutions to go for REC as well. You just see that growth expanding across the UK. That’s been brilliant for us to be able to support.

Jenny: It’s really great to hear about that progress. I know we’ve talked in the past about whether any of those projects or any of those initiatives that are being put forward for the awards do include accommodation. Is there anything you want to say on that?

tara: That’s a tough one in, would like it to, but there’s some challenges around whether it could be included, particularly in the award. Mostly because most universities now have private accommodation. Similar to say how catering tends to be private, it becomes a much greater challenge for an institution to be able to go for the award, particularly in an area they don’t have as much control over because it’s private, it’s not run by the institution.

That said, there’s something to be said around the support that we can give to enable institutions to facilitate those conversations, to engage with all of the staff that are working on campus, and all of the students who are in accommodation as well. I think to be able to navigate that space, there’s a bit more work that would need to be done. It’s certainly possible, but the support is definitely there.

We could have those conversations with institutions to be able to address those issues that may not necessarily be directly focused on in the charter. Still, those issues are there, we can have those conversations.

Jenny: That’s really encouraging to hear. tara, we know that Newcastle University – who are also members of the Commission – have done a successful project for their Bronze Award, which centres around estates, and includes partnerships with private providers as well. Maybe there’s a template there or some examples there that might be inspiring to others as well.

tara: Absolutely. It’s a good starting place. We know that Newcastle’s been doing some really great work supporting their students. Definitely, one of the things that we are getting stronger on, but we know we have some more work to do is to get that good practice, those examples of good practice. That’s actually one of the projects that we’re working on this year, is either working through case studies, or being able to highlight some of the good practice that is in the sector.

While Newcastle may have included that in their REC charter, it isn’t currently one of the, say, for example, the data sets, it’s not one of the things they have to present on. It doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at the other work that they’re doing as well. There’s certainly something to look into to see how we can engage with the sector more on those issues.

Jenny: Yes, and it’ll be interesting to see how that develops over time now that student accommodation is really going up the policy agenda within the higher education sector. I’m really keen to go back to the original Living Black at University research. It’s hard to believe it now, but the experiences of Black students in accommodation have not been researched before, certainly at that scale before that piece of work.

I’m going to come around and ask each of you what stood out for you from that report at the time. Rebecca, can you maybe kick us off with that one?

Rebecca: Sure. I guess sadly, and I know lots of people have said this whether they’re on the Commission or working in the sector generally, but many of us were not surprised by the outcomes of the reports. The reason why is that when you work in student accommodation, and you’re physically placing yourself within buildings, you get a sense of how happy students are both individually and collectively.

You see groups naturally form, you get a sense of how they’re living together. You can see when and how some become isolated. I guess what upset me the most – and to be honest, a lot of it upset me, if not all of the report – was that lack of feeling comfortable, and that lack of sense of belonging they felt. That the students interviewed felt they could not be themselves. I guess to an extent had to mask their identity or elements of their culture, they’re just not free to be their authentic selves.

Then when I look at the sector generally and behind all the sleek marketing headlines, we all to an extent discuss accommodation being the space and the place to be yourself and feel at home. Many universities and operators discuss about providing more than a room, a place, an opportunity to grow, where an individual can grow as an individual, and that their residence is the place to be. I guess it’s a place where ambition lives, to quote one operator.

It’s quite a bold statement to say these things. If you strip that back and focus on the Living Black research where Black and non-White students are saying they cannot possibly exist and be their authentic selves, then none of what has been marketed can really be true or happen for any student who feel that way. If they don’t belong, then they won’t excel.

Jenny: Yes, that cuts absolutely to the heart of what we’re trying to achieve, doesn’t it? Sam, what were your thoughts?

Sam: I definitely wasn’t surprised by anything I read while we were putting the report together. What I was most disappointed about though was the continuous lack of cultural competence in the services that are supposed to support students who are going through discrimination, or feeling isolated and feeling alone. I think whilst some of my university experiences were very similar, I was just disappointed that still nothing had changed, and we still don’t have the training that’s necessary within different services across the university experiences, but particularly within accommodation.

The places that we send students to for help are not helping them, and they are having to look elsewhere, having to go back home, or spend more money to find somebody who can support them and help them. That for me just wasn’t good enough.

Jenny: Thanks, Sam. tara, we’ve got this really stubborn awarding gap in the sector, and it’s almost certain that these sort of issues are contributing to that. What were your thoughts?

tara: It’s funny that you mentioned the awarding gap, because when I was speaking previously about the challenges, one of the main challenges in the sector that we know, particularly for students, is around the awarding gap. I’ll link that into what I was going to say in terms of what I was most surprised in the report.

I don’t think there was any specific thing that I was most surprised in the report. I didn’t do my university degree in the UK, my undergraduate degree, but I did my postgraduate work in the United Kingdom. I was a student on campus, and I lasted on campus for, I think, three months. I got out of my contract, and I went and rented private accommodation because it wasn’t for me. I was an older student, but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy the experience of being a student in accommodation.

In my previous role, I worked in student support. While I wasn’t working in the accommodation team, I was in wellbeing so I was working quite closely with our colleagues who worked in the accommodation team. I was aware of some of the challenges. I used to get the security reports in the morning, so you’d hear about the things that were going on while we went home. We had the safety of going home to our quiet homes, and then the students – that’s their home. They’re here to study, but that’s their home. We’re not providing them with a homely environment.

Rebecca, you said something about the things outside the classroom. Working in student support, one of the things I always picked up on is that some of the students’ greatest challenges weren’t academic. It was all of the things that took place around their lives, whether it was personal, family, accommodation. If it was an international student, it could have been all sorts of things about their status, visas, all sorts of things. It was rarely their schoolwork.

If we can solve one of those outside concerns for students, we’d be doing quite a lot to help them to be able to study, which is slightly different than the awarding gap, because the awarding gap are focusing on the institution itself rather than student, but it enables them to study. It’s an extra barrier to education that other students don’t have to go through.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility as the institution – we’ve brought them here, we’ve sold them this story of coming to higher education; particularly international students, because they sacrifice a lot to come to our schools, they pay a lot to come to our universities.

It’s our responsibility to provide them with a welcoming environment where they can be themselves, where they can learn. I think for me, being on the Commission, some of the things that we discussed seemed just so obvious, particularly just having a guide of the local area when you arrive. I’ve been hearing things about that talked about for years. I get it, you go to a small town. “Where do I get my haircare from?”

I used to live in Lancaster, I did my postgraduate degree, and I used to go all the way to London to get my ackee, because I needed to cook. I might sound like I’m rambling, but there’s a few things that’s wrapped up in there in terms of our responsibilities, in terms of creating and enabling that safe environment for them to feel like they belong.

Jenny: Thanks, tara. We have been working through on the Commission, all the recommendations, we’ve been trying to drive forward change. What for each of you has been the most important action or change that has been taken forward? Sam, do you want to kick us off with this?

Sam: Absolutely. Picking up on what tara has just shared, I think the Black Services Directory is probably the thing I’m the most proud of. Being able to co-create content with Black students who have been paid for their work, who have created something that is going to impact other Black students is absolutely the way the sector should be working in terms of keeping the student voice front and centre of what we’re actually trying to achieve.

It’s not for me or anyone on the Commission to decide the right actions to take. It is for us to collaborate with the students to create the accommodation that they would like to live in.

I think the experience of working with Unite Students’ 23 cohort of 10,000 Black Interns was great, because, it left them with greater expectations of their experience and accommodation. For those who were going back into their second and third year, they were going back with a tool for the area that they lived in, which was great, but also an expectation of better service from the people at the front desk, from the complaints procedures process. They learned a lot, and they can take that back, share that and hopefully improve the areas that they all live in as well.

As tara said, it’s really simple. A service directory guide for any student is a really simple way of helping them to feel like they were thought of and valued before they even arrived. That’s really important to a sense of belonging. The fact that it has taken until 2023 to have one for Black students is just disappointing, considering that we have them across the sector for students in general without really considering the diverse range of students that we’ve got them for.

I think when you look at the ONS data that shows that Black students are the fastest growing demographic of applicants, universities and accommodation providers really need to step up and push these actions further.

Jenny: Thanks, Sam. Rebecca, what were your thoughts on that? What’s the most important action or change that you’ve seen through the Commission?

Rebecca: Just to bounce off what Sam was just saying, I couldn’t agree more with pretty much all the points that she made. I’m glad that you referenced that piece of data about Black students being the fastest growing demographic going to university, because I came across that point myself a couple of months back, and I’ve been using that data to advocate and ask for change in the areas that I have responsibility for.

When we looked at data within our own accommodation and our residence life model in particular, we saw that over 50% of our Residence Life Assistants were Black students, which is: 1, fantastic; but 2, interesting in the sense that Leeds is quite a White university. We knew that we had to put support measures in place for them and the roles that they have.

I guess I’m thinking back to actions that have taken place. One for me that was really pivotal and really amazing was the event at Newcastle back in March. It was quite a pivotal moment because it brought the Commission out and on the road, so to speak. It provided the opportunity for those interested in physically doing more the chance to gain some practical ideas around how to do that. I felt there was a real sense in the room that those who came, they cared, and they left with a sense of duty and a purpose to see it through.

What I really loved about that event in particular is that, without a shadow of a doubt, it was one of the most diverse conference events I’ve ever attended in my student accommodation career. It was truly one that placed a huge emphasis on the importance of student voice and the experience of Black students in particular.

I think that event, it really gave some food for thought for those who create conferences and conference agendas in the student accommodation space in the UK, and even further fields, because that’s been predominantly very White-focused for quite a long time. From memory, I think a Black student opened that conference. I’ve never seen that. That was pretty amazing for me, and quite a special event to be part of.

I think you can’t read that report. If you’re working in the sector, and you’ve read that report, and you’ve not done something with it yet, beyond going to a conference about it, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Well, why is that?”

Jenny: Thanks, Rebecca. There was something really amazing about that conference, wasn’t there? For me, I find it sort of recalibrated my expectations of what conference should look like. Now I’m going to other people’s conferences and looking around the room thinking, “There’s something wrong here. There’s something missing here.” We’ve also, we’ve got some short clips now from that very conference.

I spoke back in March at that conference in Newcastle – I spoke with Osaro Otobo, who led the research team, and also with Andy Owusu, who has led the OFS project on Black students’ mental health. These are live recordings. There is a little bit of background noise. It was a very vibrant conference, but let’s hear what they had to say.


Jenny: If there was one specific change you’d like to see in the sector, what would that be?

Andy Owusu: I would say more diversity in the staff. Once that is in place, it’d be like a trickle down sort of effect, wouldn’t it? Once you have staff members in place who have lived the experiences that we’re trying to sort of find a solution for, they will be able to come up with experiences themselves in terms of how they would have appreciated support back in the day, and what that support would have looked like.

Jenny: Is there anything that’s coming out of your research that you would like to see adopted right across the sector?

Andy Owusu: Definitely. Like, put together some toolkits. Like I mentioned at the presentation, there’s one that I’ve developed for the [London South Bank University] wellbeing team. I know across the country, not all wellbeing teams in different institutions are going to be diverse. What we can do is provide that toolkit, the wellbeing advisors, and DDS advisors can use to navigate their conversations or navigate their sessions with students of colour. It helps to bridge that gap of knowledge of like lived experience.

Jenny: Osaro, you did the original research, and now it’s over a year since that’s happened. What do you think’s next? What are the new frontiers in this work?

Osaro: I think one of the really important things for us to realise is, although this research has been out for a year, I think there’s still a lot of spaces that aren’t aware of this work. People who are aware of the report, you need to champion it in your institutions. You need to say, “Have you heard about this report? Oh, you haven’t? Oh, I’ll talk to you about this report.” I think still trying to spread the word is really important.

I think institutions need to think about what it means for them at a local level. That means consulting with their own Black students so they can have really tailored approaches. I think that’s really important. I guess maybe the third thing is not waiting to carry out the actions that we’ve suggested. Think about the next cohort of people coming in for arrivals. What can you change now? What are the small changes you can do now to make a big difference?


Jenny: There’s some thinking there about the future and how to make positive change. Rebecca, you’ve been making changes at the University of Leeds. Tell us what you’ve been doing.

Rebecca: I guess the first thing we did was, we created, like many other universities, we’re not alone in this, a Living Black working group within residential services, and took the time to review the recommendations listed in the reports, and critically analysed how well we were performing against recommendations, and then took some actions to make some initial changes.

I initially mentioned we’ve been aware for some time that our cohort of resident life wardens was predominantly White, and that our cohort of Residence Life Assistants (RLAs) was always more diverse, which we’ve always welcomed. This year, as an example, 55% of our RLA team identify as Black or non-White.

Then we had some gaps come up in our Residence Life warden team, so some roles became available. This year we worked much harder to seek out university staff members who came from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. We utilised particular staff networks, and pleased to see we were successful in filling four roles for individuals who we think, because of their professional and lived experience and ethnic background, will assist in better serving both our students and their RLAs.

Before, it’s not that it wasn’t on our radar, it’s just that we probably weren’t as proactive as we could have been in seeking those individuals out, and making them aware of the opportunities that were available. We also worked with Dr Nick Cartwright, who’s an academic at the University of Leeds, and did some work for the Commission as well, and ‘Teleola Cartwright, and so we recently completed a small but really important pilot project whereby they created and undertook and delivered a piece of research. We set out to understand the experience of Black and non-White students living in our accommodation.

A number of the findings were similar to those found in the Living Black work. Not much a surprise there, but it was expected, I would say. Then from there, they created and delivered EDI training for our Residence Life Assistants prior to them starting their role for our Residence Life Warden team. The feedback has just come in from that. It’s been very, very well received by our Residence Life Warden team, which I was delighted to see. They delivered ‘train the trainer’ style sessions for members of the Residence Life team so that they can go out and deliver the same training within residential services.

Then finally in August, another project we did was, we launched our new Residence Life website, and as part of that have created a particular section focused on Black life in Leeds. In line with the recommendations, the Living Black report provides a range of information on culturally relevant services, spaces for students to practice their faith, where to buy specific groceries and societies to join and things like that. Our intention is to expand that in early 2024, and make guides available for other groups within the university as well.

Jenny: Great. Thank you, Rebecca. It’s great to hear you mention ‘Teleola as well, because she plays such a fundamental role in the original research. Now, we were hoping to have Melissa Browne on this episode of the podcast from the University of Kent. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to be with us today.

Sam, you’ve been doing some work with her. What’s been going on at Kent?

Sam: As Rebecca mentioned, lots of universities have started their own Living Black at University working group, and at Kent, they’ve done that across all of the areas of the university, which I think is pretty special, actually. They’ve not just kept it in accommodation, and it’s just helped lots of people to realise the impact that just the smallest action can have on Black students’ experiences whilst they’re at university.

I was given the privilege of being invited to Kent as the catering team started to look at what they could do around the research, and making Black students feel more at home, giving them that sense of belonging. Melissa led a series of tastings at the University of Food from Black-owned vendors, so Afro-Caribbean food, and I was invited to one of those tastings.

When I met Melissa, it was at a conference, and she was crying after I’d given a talk with you, Jenny. That’s how I met Melissa. That’s how I always meet Melissa. She’s always quite emotional when she talks about this stuff. When she walked over to me with two Black students crying, I wasn’t surprised at her crying.

However, when I listened to the students and what they had to say, I thought I actually agreed with her. Although I didn’t cry, I was quite emotional, because these two students had gone to Melissa to say that they were really happy, and excited and proud that they would be able to get food from their catering service that is the kind of food that they wanted to eat, that reminded them of home.

What they also spoke about was the fact that they’d seen myself and Melissa up talking about the research, and why the catering service had taken this on. They were really excited because it showed them that they could get there as well. It’s just a reminder of tara’s point at the beginning that these are really simple things, really small things that make a huge difference to Black students. The representation of two Black women standing up and having a conversation made those students feel that, “Yes, I’m at university and I’m striving to be in those sorts of positions.”

Whilst they’re doing that, they will feel like they’ve been considered as part of the student body because we’ve considered what food they might like to eat whilst they are there.

I was also invited earlier this week to the Black Student Voices Summit, which also took place at Kent. The work that the Black Student Voices team have done as part of the Kent Student Union is to look at Black student experiences and its research by Black students for Black students. Again, it’s really drilling down into the smaller actions that can be taken in the short, mid- and long term that will really support Black students’ experiences at the University of Kent.

I think what’s been great about having those conversations and working together as a partner is that I can take that learning. I’ve been really inspired. My task lists have got longer, and I’m able to take that back, share it out with other partners. I think the thing that’s been the most special about working with the Commission is no one’s gatekeeping their learnings and their findings. Everybody’s sharing this information, and that recommendation one from the research about universities and accommodation providers collaborating with each other.

I think we’ve gone beyond that, and we’re working with broader sector bodies and various other organisations to actually make sure that this is something that we embed in the sector, and it doesn’t just stay in silo in one area.

Jenny: Thanks, Sam. Some really powerful examples there from the University of Kent, some powerful stories, something really important there as well about representation. tara, I don’t know if that’s something you want to talk about in terms of the wider sector?

tara: Yes, a little bit. Before I think about what I could say around representation, Sam, you mentioned what I said about, it’s really simple. I think for me, that’s the takeaway today, is that none of this work is out of this world. We didn’t create actions and activities and these projects as these amazing, groundbreaking pieces of work. It was all really logical, and practical, and actually quite simple. A lot of the times using the skills and the resources that institutions already have – they just haven’t thought to use them in this way. What I think is most important is it doesn’t happen organically.

It needs somebody in each institution to say, “Wait a minute, let’s think about this. Let’s try this.” Things may not work the first time. They may try one thing and it doesn’t work. You try something else. Also, when you do something to support one group of students, you’re also supporting other groups of students. We are talking specifically about Black students – but in effect, we’re not as well. We are supporting all students. By supporting Black students, we’re addressing gaps in our support of Black students. It’s a gap for all students as well.

In terms of representation, I’m not quite sure what I could say about it, but it is so essential. Even now in 2023 with TikTok, with all of the other social media things that young people use that I don’t have, we are seeing how important it is to see the right faces in the right roles. I recall – similar to what you were saying, Sam – I recall working in my previous role in an institution, and I was in student services, and I remember students coming up to me going, “Oh my goodness, I’ve not seen someone in your role before.”

It was really awesome to be there, but it’s also annoying that you are seen as the first person in that role as well! It’s just so essential. I can’t speak enough of how important it is for people to be able to either imagine themselves in a particular role, or just to see that this role doesn’t have to exist in one specific way.

Jenny: I remember Melissa saying that in some of her previous roles, she’s been there when the students were arriving, and the parents would come up, Black families to say, “Well, we’re going to be all right. We were worried, but now we know we’re going to be all right because you’re here.”

tara: Like I said before, that’s their home. We go home, we’re staff, we go home and leave them there at night to get up to whatever students get up to in the evening times, but that is their home. As a parent bringing their child, 18-year-old child, a grown person, but still a young person, and leaving them in somebody else’s hands, that’s a huge thing for a parent. That’s a lot of responsibility on us to ensure that they’re coming home as well.

Jenny: That’s beautifully put. Thanks, tara. We are going to look to the future in a minute, but first, I want to come back to you, Sam, if I can. We know now that more than half of purpose-built student accommodation is run by the private sector.

What should private sector providers be doing, and why should they do this work?

Sam: I think they’re both very big questions, Jenny. When I think of the why, there’s always a business case and a moral case. Ultimately, I think that it’s about what private providers value, and how they align that with Black students, with the university partners, with all students. We consistently talk about being more than just a room. Rebecca spoke about that earlier, what we’re marketing to students, what they see in the prospectus, particularly for international students.

If we really want to do what we’re saying that we want to achieve, this is probably – to me – the most important area to start with. As tara said, what we’re doing for Black students impacts all students. There needs to be a real understanding that before we can be a diverse population, we have to be an inclusive one. It’s really about the values that inclusion brings, and the experiences that create a space of belonging for our students. If PBSA wants to achieve belonging, then they have to reckon with the issue of, particularly anti-Blackness, but race in general, as the sector just hasn’t been designed with the thought of broader demographics in mind.

Now, what should they do? I don’t think that’s a question that I can answer, or any of us as individuals can answer. I think that’s almost the point of the Commission, isn’t it? Bringing people together, and tackling the recommendations of the report. In every meeting, we have left with a greater sense of urgency about getting things done as soon as we can. I personally have left inspired by the ideas and the thoughts and the commitment of people around the room.

Collaboration, I think, is key. I often talk about the most important recommendations being Recommendation 1, collaboration between the different parts of the sector, and Recommendation 10, building trust with Black students. I think if we actually action all of the recommendations, then that’s how we begin to build trust with Black students. Ultimately, that’s why it’s important for the private sector to do this work, because they need to build that trust with Black students in order for them to build a sense of safety and belonging in accommodation.

Jenny: Because that’s what we all want, isn’t it? I think this is now probably a good time to say that by the time this episode goes out, we will have a Commission report published, which has loads and loads of great examples, case studies, tips, and also a section, Sam, that you wrote on building a business case for this work as well. Do go and have a read of that if you haven’t done already.

Sam, I was very struck that you and tara as well, you talked about other demographics, and the impact on wider demographics of students of this work, and also the need to look beyond that “majority of population”, and look at the needs of all different demographics of students who are in or may come into your accommodation. One of the things that we talked about in terms of the Living Black research was how it brought things to light that people knew maybe, but had never made it into print before.

What else do you think that we are not seeing or not acknowledging within our sector? What should we be looking at in the future? What’s some of those new frontiers of inclusion work in the sector?

Rebecca: I think you’ve done a little bit of work already on, Jenny, but obviously, the experience of neurodivergent students is certainly going to require a lot more attention and research, I think. It’s great to see some initial work in that space already from Unite Students and yourself. The requests that people have for their accommodation, I think that certainly is going to be one.

How better we can do around supporting students from the trans community I think is really important within the world of accommodation. There are two such areas that I know have my attention at the moment.

Sam: I think really taking an intersectional approach to all demographics is probably what’s at the forefront of my mind, even within our own research, looking at Black students, whether they are from an Afro-Caribbean background or other countries that have indigenous Black people, looking at gender within that, looking at sexuality within that, looking at age. There’s so much to still unpick from just the Black population.

Therefore, when you start to have those conversations, as Rebecca just said, the trans question is going to come up. As a person with lived experience of being discriminated against because of multiple identities, I am hyper aware of the experiences of Black trans women, for example, in the UK, and how that might affect someone in accommodation is going to be very similar to broader society, and what we’re seeing in politics in particular at the moment.

The other big one for me is going to be social mobility and things around affordability, particularly given the cost of living crisis and the link between the most marginalised in society also having to deal with that affordability issue. Yes, I think they’re the things at the forefront of my mind.

tara: For me, I’m looking at this, obviously, with the lens of the charters in terms of how we support the sector. I’m thinking of the intersections as well, particularly for Race Equality Charter, that intersectional lens is very important. I would link that into thinking about the data, but it’s about how you look at that data, and that intersectional lens that you take. When you’re looking at the numbers, you’re not just looking at them in individual silos. Where are they overlapping? What’s the story? What’s the narrative that’s starting to come out of that?

That’s very much been embedded into the work of the Race Equality Charter, very much informs how we support institutions to think about their students in particular, and their staff. We’re also seeing this more within the Athena SWAN Charter as well. The obvious ones, because we do two charters, the obvious ones that our members tend to talk about is race and gender, but it’s not just race and gender. Rebecca, you talked about there’s more attention looking at neurodivergent backgrounds and issues for students. Why are we not looking at, for example, disability and gender?

It doesn’t just have to be race and gender. That’s important, particularly as a Black woman. That’s important, but it’s not the only thing. That’s the obvious one, but it’s not the only one. I think, for me, it’s about understanding what intersectionality actually means. I always have to give a shout out to my girl, Kimberlé Crenshaw, because we have to go back to the beginning of what she meant by the term. The EDI world can be so cyclical, and it can often be the newest, shiniest thing, “Woo, what’s that?” Then things get left to the side.

When you’re actually starting to think about the intersections, do you actually know what it means, and how you can use it, and how it can be a tool to help you start to understand who your people are, and how you can best support them? That then linked in with the data. I think that can be a starting point for institutions if they don’t know where to start.

Jenny: Thank you. Sam, did you want to comment on that?

Sam: I could talk about intersectionality all day, every day. I would recommend people go back to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original paper on intersectionality. That’s a really great place to start. There’s also an interview that she did with UK Black Pride about the fact that the word has been co-opted by other groups. The fact that she’s proud of that, that there’s a word that describes different people’s experiences.

As tara said, I’d like to go back to the beginning. Why did that word need to be created? Why did that concept need to be considered in the first place, and make sure that we don’t leave out the people it was created for?

There are lots of books. I always go back to people like Audre Lorde, who were talking about intersectionality before it was a word.

tara: Patricia Collins as well.

Sam: Absolutely. Angela Davis is another person that wrote about intersectionality a long, long time before we had a word for it.

Jenny: It’s feeling very much as you’re both talking that this is going to be essential knowledge for the future. As students come in with lots of different identities, understanding what that all means, and what that means for the way we run our accommodation. It’s potentially going to be very important.

tara: If you’re building your toolkit of knowledge, that’s the basics. That’s your foundation.

Jenny: Thank you. We are coming towards the end of the episode now. Just as a final question, I’d like to come round and ask each of you, what is one small thing that listeners could do to support inclusion in student accommodation? Rebecca?

Rebecca: I think inclusive student accommodation is accommodation that understands students are not and never have been a homogenous group, and that we need to build and operate in a way that is aware and supportive of this. I think that occurs from top down, and that those with a vested interest in building and operating student accommodation, because there are multiple operators out there, and we alluded to earlier that collectively they have the market share.

They need to realise the work they need to undertake both personally and professionally to recognise the privilege they have, because it’s a very White male-dominated industry, and the opportunity they have to use that privilege to make a significant and very much positive difference to those choosing to live with them.

I think that inclusive accommodation is run by those who take EDI much more seriously, who make it more than a marketing tagline, or sandwich it within some well-designed values and a poster in a reception somewhere. They look at the student demographic in their city and ask themselves, “Are our teams on the ground representative of this? If not, why not?” That they are hiring people and paying them well, experts in their space to review the work that they do, review how they operate, and giving them voice within senior leadership. That senior leadership is open to hearing some difficult truths and with intention acting upon them.

Sam: I think my main thing would be to really ask questions and stop making statements, stop assuming you know the answers, stop leaning into anecdotal stories that you heard a few years ago, and really start to ask questions to your student population, to your employees, to your partners.

Keep asking questions, and be really brave. It’s not something that you have to have all the answers to. In fact, the less answers you think you have, the better. It’s hard and people need to be more determined to do it. If you truly are an ally, de-centring yourself, and being brave, and standing up for those whose voices aren’t heard, using your privilege to ask questions is really the first place to start.

tara: I would say educating yourself. Part of that is not expecting Black people to educate you. You have the same access to the internet that we do. That’s really important, that expectation for the group that you’re trying to support or address to do the work. They didn’t put themselves in that position, and it’s not their responsibility to change the system.

Beside that is to be proactive about this work, and not just sit and wait for things to happen, and just be reactive. I think being proactive is really important here. Speak to students. I love that the younger generation – and I know I’m aging myself… but wow, they have a voice that I did not have when I was that age.

Lastly, I’d say it’s the direction of the institution to drive this work. I think a lot of what we talked about today are keen individuals who really want to see the change, which is great, but what happens when that individual leaves the organisation? Does all that work get lost? There’s something about the institution needing to be the driver of this so that there’s continuity to the work, but it’s also not dependent upon one or two people in a department who are keen.

We represent institutions. We’re doing the work on behalf of the institutions, and it’s the institutional priority. There’s something about that, and then senior leaders taking this on board as well. I think that is really important if we’re going to see the drive and the resources, and I mean by the money being put behind it. Because a lot of the work that we can do, that we’d like to do, it needs to be funded. We’re not doing things on shoestring budgets, which we’re all amazing, so we can do it, but that’s not the way it should be done.

Jenny: Thank you very much. Wise words from all three of you there. Thank you so much to all my guests today. It’s been a great discussion. Rebecca, tara, Sam, thank you so much.

Thank you as well to Ed and Jamie, our fantastic producers, and to Jen Steadman, who is a key part of the team that brings you these podcasts. Please do like and follow us and share the episodes with others, and if you have any ideas for episodes, if you’d like to be a guest, then please get in touch.

We are going to be back again next month with a special festive episode, but until then, you stay safe, stay inclusive, and stay fabulous. We’ll see you very soon.



The Living Black at University Commission report, published on 14th November 2023, is available for download now:

The original Living Black at University report, published in February 2022, can be found at the Unite Group website:

More information on Advance HE’s Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charters is available at the Advance HE website:

‘Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students’, a March 2023 report on neurodivergent students’ needs in student accommodation, can be downloaded from the Unite Group website:

The Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University website, featuring downloadable Commission resources, can be found here:

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