Exploring the Experiences of Black Students at Elite UK Universities

RTB DISSERTATION SUMMARY By Rhia Gibbs

Introduction

Most recently, the impact of Covid-19 has meant that A Level students did not get to sit their final exams. Many students who had wanted to take up places at Russell Group universities may have missed out on the opportunity due to receiving predicted grades that did not meet the entry requirements. But for those Black African and Black Caribbean students that did manage to get into a Russell Group university, their experiences may not be the same to their white counterparts. I explored this in my dissertation at university.

To give this some context, it is important to understand that ethnic minority students are more likely to participate in higher education in comparison to their white peers (Modood et al., 2014). Yet, Black African and Caribbean students are very much underrepresented at some of the UK’s most elite universities (Boliver, 2013; Warikoo, 2016). This makes it important to understand what is happening to the few Black students who make it into Russell Group universities. I chose to research this as this is a critical area of, HE to understand, as much of the existing literature focuses heavily upon admissions into elite universities.

Throughout this research, the term ‘Black’ referred to students of either African or Caribbean descent. This decision was made so that the experiences of students from African, Caribbean, Asian or Arab groups did not become homogenised, as experiences differ across ethnic groups. Modood (1994) reinforces this idea, as he believes referring to Asian students as Black somewhat undermines the cultural hostility that both groups have faced. Much of the existing literature focused on the experiences of African American students at university with very little focused on here in the UK from a Black British perspective or when it does it will focus on the experience of ‘BME’ students. This is limited.

Methodology

Building the foundations of research often begin with the formulation of research questions.
Research was guided by the following research questions:

  • How does the experience of elite universities impact upon the identity of black students?
  • Can stereotypes affect the experience of university for black students?
  • How do black students feel their experiences can be improved?

I focused on using qualitative methods to gather information and data. I spoke to over 20 participants (some of which had already graduated or some who were currently studying) through video interview (using FaceTime and Skype) and conducted one focus group at my university which was then transcribed.

Findings

  • Participants expressed that going to a Russell Group university was symbolic of their achievements in further education and gave a sense of personal achievement. As mentioned previously, Black students are underrepresented at these universities, possibly making it more meaningful when they attend.
  • Although students believed attending a Russell Group was huge academic achievement, most students believed that Oxford and Cambridge were “too elite” to apply for. Students were reluctant to apply for Oxford and Cambridge as they felt they would not be able to thrive in these environments, specifically in the social aspect.
  • Black students’ experiences were often fuelled with feelings of not fitting in. In fact, rather than university becoming a second home, students faced feeling like an intruder. Participants expressed that often these elite institutions felt like “alien territories” or that they were intruding the “white space”.
  • For most participants, stereotypes were used to frame interactions with other students. Black students assumed that white students held stereotypes of them. There was a running theme amongst Black female participants as they repeatedly described that they were afraid of being perceived as angry or hostile.
  • A common theme developed in the data around the need to change yourself to be fully accepted by other students. Students described occasions where they felt they had to change their body language, speech or dress to be understood and accepted. However, this continuous assimilation led to identity issues for some participants.
  • There was a disintegration of the self in HE as students tried to confer with their identities. Students could not find their sense of self and that led to them becoming withdrawn from university. Participants expressed that they would feel more comfortable if there were more black students around them.

Conclusion

Although this study was based on a small sample, the results of this study indicate that there are issues of student integration and inclusion at Russell Group universities. This lack of communication amongst students often led to experiences of alienation and isolation. The findings of this research can provide insights into the experiences of Black students and shed light on problems that they are facing. These findings can be of assistance to institutions who are trying to tackle these issues on campus.

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