6 lessons from the Living Black at University Conference
15 March 2023
What actions did our delegates take away from the Living Black at University Conference to create a more equitable living environment for Black students? Here are six key takeaways from the day.
Just over a year on from the publication of our Living Black at University report, more than 100 DEI and accommodation leads from across the UK came to Newcastle University – in the hall where Dr Martin Luther King received his honorary doctorate – to hear from Black students, network with likeminded professionals, and discuss what actions could be taken to support Black students at the Living Black at University Conference.
The event, held on Tuesday 7th March in partnership with the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University, CUBO (College and University Business Officers) and Newcastle University, featured sessions on subjects including Black students’ mental health, inclusive leadership and partnership working – many of them presented by members of the Commission.
If you weren’t able to attend, here are some of the most important messages we learned throughout the day.
1. Signpost Black students to culturally relevant services in your city
One of the most talked-about findings from the report was that of Black students feeling isolated when it came to needing cultural services, such as hairdressers experienced in working with Black hair, or international foods. The first action undertaken by the Living Black at University Commission was to create and trial a tailored local guide – referred to as a ‘cultural services template’ – that would support students to find these services in their university city. Unite Students and Newcastle University, already working together on a diversity and inclusion-focused partnership project, took forward this work.
As outlined in ‘Collaborative ways of working: Partnership approaches to belonging, wellbeing and safety’ by Kerry Watson (Regional Student Support Manager at Unite Students), the cultural services template for Newcastle was created by Jessica Eve and Andrew Nartey, who interned with Unite Students in the summer of 2022 through the 10,000 Black Interns programme. They researched relevant local services and businesses with Black heritage in the city and added them to the template, which was distributed to both students at Newcastle University and living in Unite Students’ Newcastle buildings through email and posters with QR codes in October 2022.
Feedback so far has been resoundingly positive, and all three members of the student panel were fans of the cultural services toolkit, feeling that this would have helped them to settle in at university. Osaro Otobo (Consultant at Halpin Partnership and Deputy Chair of the British Youth Council), who worked on the original Living Black report, said, “You don’t think in advance that you’ll struggle to find haircare when you move away to university. [The template] will save students time, as they won’t have to figure everything out for themselves.”
Gino Obaseki, fellow panellist and an MSc student in Social Innovation at Glasgow Caledonian University, added: “These things add to your confidence when you arrive at university.”
Unite Students is currently looking at rolling the template out across its portfolio, and a toolkit to support universities and accommodation providers with developing their own cultural services template was launched at the event – this can be downloaded now from the Living Black at University Commission website.
2. Make inclusion work a collective responsibility
In the words of keynote speaker and Living Black at University Commission chair Professor Iyiola Solanke, “Change should have many owners.” It was clear from the response to the Living Black at University report and the conference turnout that many people in the sector who are passionate about creating a more equitable living environment for Black students – but, both at the event and in meetings of the Commission, it’s become clear that this work sometimes becomes the remit of just one person, creating one point of failure when there’s a change of personnel or things get busy. This was cited as a key barrier to change by the student panel.
To effect holistic, meaningful change, buy-in at all levels of universities and accommodation providers is vital – and that was the key message of ‘Creating meaningful change in student accommodation’, presented by Melissa Browne (Deputy Director of Commercial Services and Estates at the University of Kent and Vice Chair of CUBO) and co-host Rebecca O’Hare (Assistant Director of Residence Life & Accommodation Office at the University of Leeds).
They recommended hosting a meeting with senior accommodation leaders and other relevant departments – such as student support – to present the key findings and recommendations of the report, followed by an open discussion, to establish the work’s importance. This was underlined by Melissa powerfully sharing her own experiences of her son’s challenges in student accommodation, which ultimately resulted in him moving home during his first year.
3. Collaborate with Black students
With a focus on Recommendation 2 – “Improve acclimatisation and integration activities for all new students and extend the period over which these activities take place” – Melissa and Rebecca also recommended that university steering groups and accommodation teams consulted with Black students to ensure the correct information and events were available to both domestic and international Black students.
This advice around working collaboratively with Black students ran through into the next presentation, ‘Supporting Black students’ mental health’, hosted by Andy Owusu (Office for Students Mental Health Project Officer for Black Students at London South Bank University) and Nicola Frampton (Insight Manager at Student Minds). They shared a litany of reasons why Black students may be less likely to report mental distress while being more likely to experience it, including cultural stigmas, isolation and alienation, a lack of representation within mental health services, culture shock and racism.
Among the findings that Andy shared from the Black Students Mental Health Project, one was the vital importance of co-creating resources with students so that they were genuinely relevant and communicated in a way that really resonated with students and built trust.
4. Never stop learning – or supporting others to learn
It goes without saying that delegates were in the room to learn from our speakers and take new ideas back to their organisations, but a willingness to learn and develop is a crucial ingredient of sector-wide change – particularly through staff training, which can reach the thousands of frontline accommodation staff that support students’ living experience.
In ‘Staff training and development’, Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed (Assistant Chief Executive – Standards at Unipol) shone a light on the fact that small student accommodation providers across the UK, which provide the sector with some 200,000 beds, may not have easy access to meaningful race training and development. Unipol – who oversee the National Codes which establish best practice in running student accommodation – are currently developing a framework to support smaller organisations to do this well, and new training modules based around allyship and inclusion, already offer some free training courses to members.
In the afternoon, Sam Kingsley (Senior Belonging, Equity and Engagement Manager at Unite Students) also offered an interactive taster session of Unite Students’ new inclusive leadership training, based around the 5 C’s – Commitment, Core Principles, Courage, Communication and Cultural Competency – with delegates encouraged to open up about their strengths and areas for development within each of these areas.
5. Identify gaps in your complaints data
Recommendations 8 and 9 of the Living Black at University report both touch on the importance of reporting and complaints, and in ‘Using complaints to drive change’, presenter Jo Nuckley (Head of Outreach and Insight at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator) acknowledged the challenge of viewing student complaints as a positive for the sector. But in her own words, “Complaints are free feedback” – as well as being proof of students’ trust in the university or accommodation provider to resolve issues.
As such, it’s just as important to look at the reports that aren’t being made as those that are – as these give insight into which groups feel they won’t be heard, what issues don’t make it the full way through the process, and whether students understand the reporting process.
6. Focus on the small interactions
Across a day packed with insight and interaction, one of the most consistent themes that came through was how important human connections were in building trust – in line with Recommendation 10: “Accommodation providers should work to build a relationship of trust with Black students.” Seyi Gachegua – a first year Law student at the University of Birmingham and 10,000 Black Interns graduate at Unite Students – cited on the student panel that even the simple act of accommodation staff knowing his name increased his trust in them.
Another small way to boost trust is to humanise services. Andy Owusu raised the importance of using familiar names and faces – such as lecturers – to raise awareness of and build trust in university mental health services, while Jo Nuckley suggested that complaints email addresses came with a human name and a face, as this improved the perception that the complaint would be addressed.
She shared another simple way forward – the act of apologising to a student who submitted a complaint: “In my role, I’ve learned that the word ‘sorry’ is one of the most powerful tools we have.”
Near the start of the day, Melissa Browne addressed the room and asked everyone who felt daunted by the scale of change to raise their hands – almost every delegate put their hand up. But small actions like this highlight how progress doesn’t have to involve huge investment or reinventing the wheel. It can be achieved incrementally – because even one step forward gets us closer to that shared goal of creating an equitable living environment in which all students can thrive.
The cultural services toolkit is now available to download from the resources section of the Living Black at University Commission website.
You can also submit case studies about your institution’s work to improve the living experience of Black students for inclusion in a Commission report – more information on that is available from Unite Students’ website.