Ten actions to improve the experiences of Black students within UK universities

Patrice Seuwou outlines 10 steps UK universities can take to achieve greater transparency and fairness for Black students

Patrice Seuwou's avatar
University of Northampton
24 Jan 2023
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Black male student smiling at the camera from his desk

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Do you ever wonder what the experience of the Black students at predominantly white institutions is really like – how they experience the campus, the support services, and the learning and teaching?

During the 19th century, we saw key reformers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Cardinal John Henry Newman contribute to the idea of higher education. At that time, academia was dominated by white men and was a place to be trained to become a gentleman, someone who could behave well in society. It was a place for elites who could afford it, for the few, not the many.

More recently, in the UK, following the 1963 Robbins report and the 1997 Dearing report, considerable progress was made in widening university access to and participation of disadvantaged and under-represented groups of students. Today, more Black students are going to university in good numbers. Still, they are not performing as well as white or Asian students, because substantial inequalities persist throughout the student life cycle. These inequalities mirror those in wider UK society as broader political and social realities are evident on campus, affecting the experiences of these students.

In the past few years there have been many conversations about the degree awarding gap and about employment issues experienced by Black graduates. However, creating a culture of openness and fairness can be challenging, especially when many institutions’ histories, policies, practices and ideologies are still centred around whiteness or the white majority. For instance, do your teaching staff make their curricula and teaching inclusive and diverse? International students coming from Africa and the West Indies are familiar with written exams. Do you have a system in place to help them transition to other forms of assessment such as presentation, group work and coursework, which are commonly used in the UK, or prepare them to avoid academic misconduct?

Achieving greater transparency and fairness for your Black students requires a long-term culture change in policies and practices. Here are 10 measures your university can implement to stimulate that process. 

1. Dealing with classroom and accommodation segregation

Accommodation policies perpetuate segregation and separate students by race or nationality within university halls, according to the Living Black at University report published last year. This separation continues in the classroom, where white students tend to sit among themselves, Asian students tend to sit with other Asians, and Black students are obliged to sit with other Black students. It is essential to deal with these issues by proactively mixing students with new seating arrangements and group work, using techniques such as the Belbin group formation to place people in groups and assign roles. Equity, diversity and inclusion drive engagement and growth and support innovation and creativity.

2. Increase the number of Black staff members and role models on campus

Less than 1 per cent of the UK’s 22,855 professors are Black, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency figures. There is evidence to show that we become more inspired when we see someone we can identify with; someone “like us”, at a more senior level, doing something we want to do. This can be an important motivator for those in the early stages of their career, and the same principles apply to students. Black students need to see more role models within their universities, such as Black academics, librarians and senior leaders, to inspire them.

3. Decolonise your curriculum

Many Black students attending UK universities do not feel represented within the curricula they study, in terms of content, case studies and examples and sources used in the classroom. Admirable efforts are being made by some academics to decolonise and diversify their curricula but more needs to be done if our higher education curricula are to be truly representative and inclusive.

4. Create a system for reporting discriminatory and racist behaviour

Not all universities have a simple, straightforward process for reporting racist incidents. Senior leaders must devise clear procedures and strategies to safely allow students and staff members to report any negative race-related experiences without fear of repercussions.

5. Work towards achieving a Race Equality Charter award

Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter provides a framework that allows institutions to self-reflect on the cultural barriers affecting students from ethnic and culturally diverse backgrounds. If an institution demonstrates that it is taking appropriate and effective steps to tackle such barriers, it can apply for a Race Equality Charter award.

6. Provide funding for race-related research 

For many researchers, race is not the central object of their analysis. Instead, race is used to organise, categorise and describe groups and populations. To promote conversations that centre race, institutions need to create internal funding opportunities for early career researchers to conduct studies on issues such as the awarding gap, experiences of ethnic minorities at university and other topics linked to the field.

7. Develop a support scheme for international students

Students from the West Indies or Africa come with various forms of capital, but many are not familiar with the UK’s systems of assessment and the culture. These students are used to written exams as the dominant mode of evaluation and can face massive culture shock in all aspects of their lives. Universities must offer support to international students to help them transition into university life and adapt to their new home. This will significantly enhance their experience and most likely, their academic performance.

8. Promote difficult conversations at all levels

While it is difficult and uncomfortable to talk about race-related issues, universities must promote and establish structures or training that allows these conversations. This will help participants check their biases and set guidelines, boundaries and goals. They can then start on common ground, discuss facts, agree to disagree when necessary and cultivate active listening.

9. Implement reciprocal mentoring schemes

A good mentor provides invaluable opportunities for personal growth. Reciprocal mentoring is a development intervention that differs from conventional mentoring yet is based on the same model. The relationships between the pairs are reciprocal, and they participate equally in the learning process. This scheme could be in the form of peer mentoring between senior staff and Black staff members, or between White staff and Black students. With this kind of mentorship programme, mentors and mentees share their experiences, enhancing mutual understanding. The strategy tries to concentrate on individual and systemic change, and the resulting lessons help both parties develop their potential and skills to solve complex issues.

10. Celebrate diversity

There are countless ways an institution could do this but one simple step simply involves marking the calendar with a wide range of historical and heritage celebrations relevant to different cultures and nations such as Black History Month, Kwanzaa, Independence Day celebrations for African and Caribbean countries and so on. Most universities have rich resources to draw on and multiple communication channels, so they could put on cultural exhibits, share news from different cultures and groups, host events such as diversity round tables for difficult conversations, or organise job fairs. And when hosting events, make sure the diversity of your student body is evident in elements such as the range of music, activities, food and décor – the list is endless.

No action will transform things overnight but can help make things better over time. Institutions that take consistent, intentional action can change the culture to improve the experiences of Black students and others from ethnic and culturally diverse backgrounds.

Patrice Seuwou is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Northampton.

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