By Sultana Azmi, Ishani Chandrasekara, Patrick McGurk, Lisa Morrison and Adarsh Ramchurn
This month, thousands of school leavers will learn if they have secured a university place and must decide whether to take up their offer. In addition, second and third-year students must navigate the return to campus, either virtually or physically over the next few weeks. Traditionally, this has meant moving to a new location, often far from home and often for the first time. However, an increasingly large number of undergraduate students, some 25%, commute from their family home to a local university, with much higher proportions in Greater London, Merseyside and the North East (Maguire and Morris, 2018). Set in the heart of the east End of London, nearly three-quarters (74%) of students at Queen Mary’s School of Business and Management are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and are also among those most likely to be ‘commuter’ students, living at home. This blog is a collaboration between academics in the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity (CRED) and some of these students, highlighting the specific lockdown challenges for BAME commuter students.
Home commuter students are more likely to:
In addition, as this blog vividly illustrates, for students living at home with their families during the pandemic, the extra pressures of caring for family members, dealing with bereavement, living with frontline workers exposed to coronavirus daily, and separation from fellow students, all while trying to complete their studies, are vivid examples of the ways that the Covid crisis has had disproportionately harsh consequences for people BAME backgrounds and those on lower incomes (Public Health England 2020).
Coinciding with lockdown, students played a central role in the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd in the US. This brought a renewed and sharpened focus on everyday and systemic racism and additional trauma. In this context, emotions were heightened when interviewing women of colour for her dissertation, as Sultana explains below.
The sudden shift in late-March 2020 to online classes, assessments and exams, and the closure of campus facilities, made studying far more difficult for students, as Adarsh highlights below. Students’ physical and mental health has been seriously impacted, with financial problems exacerbating this for the significant numbers relying on part-time work to support their studies. For the large and often overlooked group of BAME home commuter students, these effects will have been sharpened. Inner city BAME households have been hit hardest, experiencing higher death and sickness rates, as well as harsher impacts in terms of unemployment, loss of income and stress on key workers (Public Health England, 2020). The inner cities have also been at the epicentre of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Here we present some first-hand insights from our vantage point in the heart of East London. As we emerge from lockdown, two of our home commuter students describe their experiences and expectations for the future.
Coronavirus entered our lives in an unprecedented way and truly affected us all. For my cohort, the class of 2020, the lockdown not only meant adaptation to online classes, assessments and exams but also the uncertainty of graduation and job prospects. Most of us felt disappointed that we were not able to say proper goodbyes to our friends, academic and non-academic staff who supported us throughout the journey at the university. For many, studying at home was not an easy transition. I know students who did not have proper equipment, whose families were struggling financially and emotionally. Students from ethnic minorities, including myself, had to take on various roles in their household such as taking care of the family members while focusing on completing the degree. Despite help from online services provided by the university, home situations were difficult beyond words.
I personally lost my grandfather to coronavirus and completing my dissertation and degree felt a mountainous task. However, my supervisor ensured I received support to complete my dissertation and achieve a first class. My dissertation was based on the pay disparity between women of colour and their white counterparts in the finance sector and it became relevant to the BLM movement. While interviewing women of colour I could feel the emotions, even if it was through the screen of a computer. In addition, coronavirus had a negative impact on the job market and many students lost their secured graduate schemes, which is truly heart breaking. However, before the lockdown began I was fortunate enough to secure a graduate scheme with the National Audit Office and I am looking forward to start in September albeit from home and not in the office. Nonetheless, the working scenario in the world is changing and adapting to it will be a new journey.
The experience of university during lockdown has been strange and difficult because studying at home has been a challenge. Having lectures online at home and the removal of most seminars after lectures has made learning the content arduous; discussions and conversations with our peers enables a deeper engagement and better understanding of the subject. I definitely benefit from studying at university as opposed to home; the environment improves my productivity.
Studying at home has also been tough because I am working from home too, completing a degree apprenticeship. The shift to working from home has been an unusual thing to adjust to, and has impacted my studies. It means I am usually sat down for large portions of the day and had to complete studies or revision in the evening. Compounded by the uncertainty of lockdown, this made for worrying days. However, I am grateful to have worked during the lockdown period and still to have gained valuable experience.
The lockdown brought changes to my family life, as both my parents are key workers, as front line NHS workers in intensive care. This was worrying for my younger sibling and me. In particular, my dad described his dual responsibilities as quite daunting. On one hand, he had to be professional in his job to care for patients, but on the other he was also concerned about passing the virus onto me and the family. But despite the worry, by still working and doing well in my university first year exams, I am confident of my future and prospects beyond this crisis, and I am optimistic about excelling in my studies in the remainder of my course.
As campuses reopen and preparations are made for the new term in September, there are understandable fears about the Covid-security of classrooms, lecture theatres, social spaces and student accommodation. Additionally, new and returning generations of students are likely to have heightened expectations that racism in universities will be properly tackled and student mental health prioritised. Preventing drop-out will be more important than ever, a problem that is already more pronounced among BAME students than for their white peers (OfS, 2018), who on average also go on to gain more First and Upper Second Class degrees (HEFCE, 2018) and higher earnings after graduation (IFS, 2018).
Student retention relates to social and academic integration, and there is much to learn from the US experience. In a study of racially diverse campuses in the US, Xu and Weber (2018) found that, while the absence of an enjoyable learning environment was an important factor in white students’ withdrawal from university, decisions by black and other underrepresented minorities tended to be influenced by the institutional commitment to academic quality, including quality teaching, reasonably-sized classes, and easy access to faculty for advice (Xu & Weber, 2018). Moreover, prioritizing such institutional commitments was shown to significantly reduce students’ overall intentions to withdraw from University. Attention to factors such as teaching quality and access to academic staff may be more challenging for universities to provide when complying with health and safety procedures for Covid prevention.
While the Covid crisis and Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in a growing awareness of racial and ethnic disparities in society, our hope is that these are not exacerbated as universities adjust to cope with Covid and its aftermath. We believe that this is a key moment to implement sustainable solutions aimed at reducing racial disparities for students. While institutional initiatives such as the Race Equality Charter set an important baseline for universities, it has now become ever more important to provide a solid and supportive classroom experience to enable particularly BAME and other commuter students to stay and thrive within the higher education system.
HEFCE (2018), Differences in student outcomes: The effect of student characteristics, Data analysis March 2018/05. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/31412/1/HEFCE2017_05%20.pdf
IFS (2018), The relative labour market returns to different degrees, Research Report June 2018, Institute for Fiscal Studies/Department of Education, DFE-RR787. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/undergraduate-degrees-relative-labour-market-returns
Maguire D.J. and D. Morris (2018) Homeward Bound: Defining, understanding and aiding 'commuter students, Higher Education Policy Institute, HEPI Report 114, December 2018. Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/HEPI-Homeward-Bound-Defining-understanding-and-aiding-%E2%80%98commuter-students%E2%80%99-Report-11429_11_18Web-1.pdf
OfS (2018), Topic briefing: Black and minority ethnic (BME) students. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/145556db-8183-40b8-b7af-741bf2b55d79/topic-briefing_bme-students.pdf
Public Health England (2020), COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes, Research and Analysis Report 2 June 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-review-of-disparities-in-risks-and-outcomes
Xu, Y. J., & Webber, K. L. (2018). College student retention on a racially diverse campus: A theoretically guided reality check. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20(1), 2-28. Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/College-Student-Retention-on-a-Racially-Diverse-A-Xu-Webber/37319d928fe29cea8769f553d70c56c24a1309bf?p2df