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Why there’s a new Living Black at University report

14 November 2023

Living Black at University – Unite Students’ 2022 report on Black students’ experience in UK student accommodation – raised vital issues for the Higher Education sector. But the report and its 10 recommendations were only the start of a journey.

Jen Steadman, Commissioning Editor of the new 2022/23 Living Black at University Commission report, explains why there’s a new Living Black at University report, what it covers and what’s next for the Commission.


Living Black at University: what and why?

In early 2020, we spoke to students about community and safety in their accommodation. But a pattern began to emerge from the interviews and focus groups: some Black students didn’t seem to feel safe until they were around other Black students.

This planted the seed for Living Black at University – a research report that explored Black students’ accommodation experience in more depth. And the need for this research only became more urgent with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

The ‘why’ was obvious. Black students are the UK’s fastest-growing student demographic, and a significant awarding gap exists between Black students and their White peers. Research has often linked student success with students’ satisfaction in accommodation; this was a clear gap in our knowledge.

From a lack of culturally relevant services to segregation through allocations processes, the research found that many Black students felt isolated or unsupported from the time they arrived at university. Compounded by microaggressions from staff and students, this took a toll on mental health – but support services weren’t always equipped to understand the nuances of racism and lived experience. Nor were policies and processes designed to protect students.

Led by a Black research team from Halpin Partnership, Living Black at University was almost a year in the making. And when it launched, the Higher Education (HE) sector’s response was startling. Its launch webinar became the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)’s most popular virtual event ever. The report remains one of the most-visited pages on our website, and the Living Black at University Conference – held in Newcastle this March – was a sell-out.

Black students had spoken, and the sector was listening.


The Living Black at University Commission

The report included 10 recommendations to make purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) a more welcoming place for Black students. But change takes time. So how could we keep up the momentum and create change?

In April 2022, we launched the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University – or the Living Black at University Commission for short. Spanning HE membership organisations, regulators, relevant charities and universities working on relevant projects, our Commissioners are experts who can both create and advocate for change across the sector.

The Commission has met every two months to discuss the recommendations and commit to actions. Those actions have included running this year’s Living Black at University Conference, launching our Black services directory and publishing three new resources.

But over the last 18 months, there’s so much more that has been, or is being, done – and not only by those on the Commission. That’s why we’re publishing a new report.


Creating change: The 2022/23 Commission report

The original report shared research findings and recommendations – but this new report is all about how to put those recommendations into practice, with help from the Commission.

We’ve grouped the recommendations into four themed chapters: arrival and integration; mental health; staffing; and complaints and data. By linking recommendations together, we’ve made it easier to effectively target areas for change. Each chapter includes an introduction from one or more expert Commissioners who specialise in that area.

To help teams tackle individual recommendations, we’ve included eight ‘sector notes’. In each sector note, you can find key issues for each recommendation, actions taken so far (or planned for the Commission’s next phase), Commissioners’ best practice tips, and self-assessment questions that you can apply to your organisation.

There are also six case studies from universities and HE organisations – providing a blueprint for creating change at your organisation.

The report’s final chapter looks to the future and tackles some common issues we’ve encountered during the 18 months of the Commission. We’ve heard from White colleagues who were afraid to get involved or call for change because of a lack of lived experience – but the HE sector is overwhelmingly white. Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students, shares her own experience of overcoming these anxieties to play a part in much-needed sector change.

Another common discussion point was how challenged university budgets are, making it difficult to fund change. So Sam Kingsley, Unite Students’ Head of Belonging and Engagement, has pulled together a piece on how to make the business case for change at your organisation.


What’s next?

The Commission was initially set up as a 12-month project but, as mentioned above, change takes time. A number of Commission actions are still in progress. And there’s more to be done.

So, the Commission will continue into 2024 with a new chair, as Professor Iyiola Solanke steps down from her role. The new-look Commission leadership should be announced very soon – we’re just finalising the details.

While Unite Students convened the Commission and has led on the report, we too remain on a journey to make our buildings more inclusive. We’ve made some great progress so far – but there’s more that can be done to turn our passion into action, and just like you, we’ll be inspired to take our efforts further by the advice and case studies shared in the report.

Finally, what’s next for the future of race and inclusion in the wider sector? We’ll soon be launching  a new episode of our Accommodation Matters podcast on this very topic – the latest episode in our ‘Future of sustainability’ series.

But it’s also something we’ve considered in the report. ‘Teleola Cartwright and Osaro Otobo, who led the original research at Halpin Partnership, have both contributed short essays about what the future holds. And by focusing on Recommendation 10 – the need to build trust with Black students – they capture what it is that makes it so critical to take action now.

“Building trust will take time and effort – so the challenge now is to ensure that the momentum is not lost before progress is made,” writes ‘Teleola. “Even if solutions to the problems cannot be found quickly, the sector needs to be acting, and needs to be seen to be acting.”

We hope that this report inspires you to act, and that it helps to make your student accommodation a space where Black students can really thrive.

Download the Living Black at University Commission report here.

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