How Can Universities Support Underrepresented Students?

- Kirsty Chan

Listening is an activity that never gets old. University can better support me by acknowledging systemic and institutional barriers such as long waiting times for support services like counselling, the bureaucratic and fragmented system of the Disabled Student Allowance, unconscious bias which university staff act on which impacts students in ways that are irreversible and detrimental both materially and mentally. 

I faced a fair share of barriers in terms of accessing support for my neurodiversity due to my race and my social class.  I recently gave a speech at the UUK conference on student experience and I highlighted the significance of structural barriers when accessing support and I would like to reiterate that here. We ought to think about who gets to know that these support services exist and who gets to access these resources? Is the support services at university in line with the student life-cycle? For example, the disabled student allowance can take 6 to 14 weeks to process whilst at my university one academic year is 24 weeks of teaching.The waiting time for a diagnosis for neurodiverse conditions can take anywhere between three months to 2 years and at a cost of 0 to the user when subsidised or 500- 600 pounds for an assessment with an education psychologist. One way to mitigate this is for universities or better, for the whole education sector to have a unified approach in supporting students with disabilities and differences. Another way that universities can support students is making sure welfare information is accurate and up to date and have it communicated before students start their course of study. 

Another way that universities can support students is to hold spaces where people can exchange their thoughts and feel safe to participate. In meetings , that responsibility belongs to the chair. I believe that educational institutions must take on the responsibility to hold a space for debate and exploration, to allow participants to share experiences and learn from other people’s experiences so safely as this space is also a right of passage for many that hold influential positions in society.

There’s a lot of talk around mental health these days. If we are to take the mental health of our most vulnerable students into careful consideration, widening participation programmes must be questioned on its aims and contents to see whether they paint a picture of what’s accurate in reality. We must also put the needs of the most vulnerable first to design a system that works for everyone.