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This guest blog is written by Maisha Riyah, who recently graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with a BA (Hons) in Politics and International Relations.
Maisha shares her personal experiences and the advice she has gained from her time in higher education, in the hope of helping other students within BAME communities navigate university life.
If you'd like to write for our student and graduate blog competition and gain valuable copywriting experience, get in touch below.
University can be a very foreign and alienating environment for many young people, particularly people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Whether it be moving away from home or commuting as a student, university life (both academic and social aspects) can be very daunting for many students.
This blog aims to provide a guide for minority ethnic students on what to expect on various aspects of university life, including the struggles that a person of colour experiences, and how student diversity can work to resolve these issues.
The term 'BAME' is an acronym that stands for ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’.
The term is widely used by government departments, media, and public organisations when referring to minority ethnic groups.
Other than BAME, BME is also another acronym that is used, which stands for ‘Black and Minority ethnic’.
Though this term has been widely questioned by the BBC, The Times, and the Guardian, for the purpose of this blog, the term ‘BAME’ and ‘minority ethnic’ will be used interchangeably, in a broad and inclusive manner.
When looking into minority ethnic students' representation at university and understanding how we can collectively seek to improve the experiences of university life for all individuals and communities, it is important to understand a few things first.
Studies have shown that there is a large difference between BAME students and white students when concerning the attainment gap.
In 2017 a study found that nationally, in the UK, 73% of white students get Firsts and 2:1s, whilst, just 58.5% of BME students achieve Firsts and 2:1s.
And whilst we try to understand this, it seems clear that there is no single sole factor why there is such a wide disparity.
The main causes, however, seem to be multifactorial: structural, cultural, attitudinal, and financial.
BAME students have a long history of being disadvantaged, unfortunately stemming from decades of lack of opportunity and inequality.
We must first understand this to ensure that we can manage and avoid discrimination in education in the future.
These students might then feel subtle elements of discrimination where there is a lack of resources to help in preparing them for higher education, putting them at a disadvantage.
Although some minority students might feel they do not get as much support in these areas, there are some online resources out there that can help.
Here’s a list of some useful materials below to help combat this:
Another issue to consider is the aspect of the cultural learning methods that might hinder BAME students from performing to their best potential.
Universities are known to have a conventional form of practicing, primarily assessments via exams and coursework.
A solution that might help institutions to become more inclusive for a wider range of skills backgrounds is to introduce more assessments that allow students to reflect on their lived experiences. Such as:
Reflective journals or reports and blog writing.
Perusall (online interactive platform in enabling students to engage in more critical thinking and create a more collaborative learning experience).
Practical assignments (in the form of presentations), portfolio works, and policy briefs.
Institutional discrimination in higher education can be seen to be rooted in some of the practices, policies, and perceptions of those involved in institutions.
In terms of perceptions, studies have highlighted the ignorance of many students at elite universities, where students have shown a lack of awareness about race and racism pervading higher education.
These cases also brought attention to the lack of academic staff from minority ethnic groups in HEIs.
Hence, it is no surprise that many BAME students either feel underrepresented or lack an awareness of the structural issues around them.
To improve this, it is important for universities to raise awareness about the importance of diversity and inclusion throughout the university community, acting mindfully towards the barriers that are faced by BAME students by working towards institutional change:
Providing students with educational classes that cover topics such as institutional racism are a must, as well as providing specialised support services for students that are affronted by the reality of institutional racism.
Maintenance of providing more mandatory training for all staff members at university on how to manage discussions around race in an inclusive and safe environment. This will help staff members in challenging racism within the training sessions and trying to normalise discussions on racism/race in general.
In doing so, higher education institutions can work towards building a greater awareness of racism within higher education, whilst working to eradicate/reduce it.
Many BAME students will have very positive experiences when joining university for the first time.
But, it is good to be aware that you’ll be meeting various kinds of people, from different backgrounds, who perhaps have never encountered someone like yourself.
So just be mentally prepared to come across people who question your background and beliefs and generally have a lot of curiosity about you.
Often BAME students have felt that the notion of racism was entirely a taboo topic itself, one not being appropriate to be discussed within higher education institution, which makes it harder to address the issue.
Don’t be afraid to bring up conversations around racism, or even your personal experiences of racism.
Your peers can learn from these topics if they are more openly discussed within universities.
Many individuals can feel nervous and slightly isolated when starting out at university.
This feeling may occur very early on during first year, even during your first week of starting university.
Some examples of this and how it can be overcome include:
Feelings of not really ‘fitting’ into the space of higher education: One way to overcome this is by researching and reading beyond your subject area. Reading and attending optional seminar events will help you gain a better grasp and understanding on how higher education works and help you connect with other like-minded people.
Struggling to integrate and engage within lectures or seminars: Do not be afraid to seek or consult help and advice from your lecturers and seminar tutors. There is a reason why they have assigned office hours, so it is good to go and interact with the academic staff who are not your teachers and are happy to ease any academic concerns/worries.
The fear of being seen as ‘less academic or intellectual’: At least once in life, everyone stumbles upon ‘imposter syndrome’, it is completely normal to feel less academic. Remember, the whole of purpose of university, is to learn, grow and develop yourself, so remind yourself this whenever you doubt your ability!
Isolation from the social side of university: It is a good idea to join some university societies early on so that you can try and find others with common interests to you, whether that be through a musical society or netball; university is a great place to learn and find new hobbies.
If you find there is a lack of BAME representation around campus: If this is the case, it’s a good idea to raise this in a constructive way to your course leader or someone with the authority to make some positive change here.
Lack of diversity in positions such as, student union, course reps and ambassadors: Why not put yourself forward for these positions, which will enable you to have the opportunity to speak up and improve systems and processes.
University social life focusing on a drinking culture that may not resonate with you: if that is the case, it’s best for universities to promote consistently social events such as, mini golf, picnics, and day trips etc. As an alternative, this will allow people who do not feel comfortable with clubbing, to have the chance to meet and bond with other students in a relaxed social setting.
Party and clubbing aspect as a cultural barrier: If you are not comfortable in such a setting, you won’t be alone. Whilst for many people this is a large part of the university experience, there are also many people who will feel the same, and having the confidence to speak to people about their interests early on will help you to sought out these individuals with common ground.
Subtle forms of racism can be prevalent in HEIs.
Even in HEIs, BAME students can often experience hostile or derogatory remarks made by their peers or academic lecturers.
It should be no surprise that such form of subtle racism takes place. Often, BAME students do not report such incidents.
There have been numerous incidents recalled by students whereby white students and staff have dismissed the feelings and personal boundaries of BAME students.
There could be more measures implemented by universities to prevent or reduce such experiences from happening. Some examples of this and how they can be applied include:
Create and introduce a reporting system for incidents of racial harassment and microaggressions that remains consistent with addressing such issues.
Improve wider awareness and understanding of racism, racial harassment, and white privilege amongst all students and staff.
Implement anti-racist training, so staff members can accurately identify incidents and intervene immediately.
Ensure expected behaviours for in-person and online behaviour are clearly communicated to both students and staff, as well as disciplinary sanctions for breach of conduct.
Record and collect data on incidents and share results regularly with governing bodies, staff, alumni, students and local partners. This ensures that everyone is well-informed and is encouraged to take shared responsibility for positive change.
Don’t be afraid, or nervous, or hesitant to educate others about your lived experiences.
Sometimes at university there are some people who are ignorant about the different cultures and religions/ethnicities around the world.
So, it is important for you to speak up and voice your concerns. Join initiatives and advocate for diversity/race in general.
Importantly, if ignorance, isolation, and microaggressions are met with education and advocation for change, your university experience can be a positive one.
Diversity does make a difference, particularly when there is more representation from different ethnic minorities in higher education and in universities.
It is important to note that BAME students (after finishing sixth form/college) are more likely to feel more motivated/encouraged to apply for university if they can see more reflection of BME representing and breaking barriers in various fields.
As a result, it provides them with a greater a sense of reassurance that they too could be taking the higher education route.
BME students may feel more reassured and represented if they can see demonstrable inclusivity.
This is down to the university to help find BME students positions within the student union, as course reps, and as student ambassadors.
BAME students should not be put off going to university because of the underlying issues that institutions need to resolve.
Rather, it is the responsibility of universities to create a safe space for BAME students, by supporting BAME societies and working to improve student diversity.
If you are worried, as a prospective BAME student about attending university, it is a good idea to get in contact with the university's student union to understand what kind of extra-curricular support there is in place.
University is an amazing experience that everyone, no matter their background, should feel welcome to experience.