Supporting us must start with understanding who we are and what we need

Poor communication and lack of understanding are hampering colleges’ support of students from minoritised ethnic groups, writes Areeba Iftakhar

Poor communication and lack of understanding are hampering colleges’ support of students from minoritised ethnic groups, writes Areeba Iftakhar

4 Jul 2023, 5:00

The Student Commission on Racial Justice will soon publish its 2023 Manifesto for Action. Over five weeks, its commissioners will set out its five key priorities and recommendations exclusively for FE Week.

I am 21 years old and I study health and social care. Safety and wellbeing are at the heart of what I am learning, and I’m pleased that they are also at the heart of the work the student commission on racial justice has been doing.

Among the commission’s five priorities, we focused part of our peer research on exploring racial justice in relations to support, safety and wellbeing. Colleges have a reputation for doing a great job when it comes to student services, including mental health provision and learning support. However, our findings suggest that said support may not be as accessible to all students as once thought.

Many students in our research said they feel well supported, but students from minoritised ethnic groups felt less confident that they would receive adequate mental health support if they sought it. Equally, while most students feel safe in their colleges, students from minoritised ethnic groups report being targeted by security staff because of their ethnicity.

Some students spoke positively about the fact that their college has a multi-faith facility, yet many stated that theirs is not well advertised and doesn’t offer adequate space. Moreover, many say that staff aren’t supportive of their students’ use of the facility, and a significant number did not even know it existed.

This is clearly not acceptable. Students and teachers are learning and working in a public setting. Everyone must understand that each of us is unique, and that with different people come different needs. Not having enough knowledge is not necessarily a problem, but it is certainly not an excuse. No one should be judging anyone else based on their appearance or behaviour, and this applies as much to racist stereotyping from security staff as it does to support staff who may not provide the same support to minority students, assuming they don’t need it.

Students we spoke to told us a lot about being questioned by teachers during Ramadan when they needed to pray, being asked to “just do it later” or told to “do that on your own time”. This is when lack of knowledge does become a problem. If members of staff don’t understand the needs of their students, how can they possibly offer the best support?

Lack of knowledge is not necessarily a problem, but it is certainly not an excuse

We are encouraged to ask questions when we don’t understand. The same applies to adults. Most people love to be asked questions about their cultures and religions, particularly if it is friendly, respectful and genuine.

Students appreciate the support they receive from their education institutions, particularly when these take steps to accommodate their religious and cultural practices. A well-advertised, suitable and accessible multi-faith space, reasonable adjustments for Ramadan, and seizing opportunities to grow community understanding go a long way towards that.  

As a commission, we think that colleges need to work more closely with their student body to understand their individual needs when it comes to support. We also think colleges need to ensure that their staff get to know and understand their students – who they are as individuals, and why they need what they need, whether that is Halal food or time and space for prayer. Christmas is a given. In fact, most students have no choice but to partake in the festivities, including a mandatory two weeks off college. Ramadan, Eid, Diwali, Lunar New Year matter equally to many students.

To build on the quality of support colleges offer, we recommend creating and training a cohort of student ambassadors who can represent the student body in an authentic way. They can advise you of the needs of their peers. They can help to design and deliver unconscious bias training to ensure that no student is treated unfairly, targeted, or dismissed.

We also recommend that colleges improve their communication so that students clearly understand what support is available and know how to raise concerns or suggestions if they do not feel their needs are being met or are experiencing unfair treatment.

After all, supporting us to succeed starts with understanding who we are, what we need, and celebrating what makes us unique.

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