The Struggle is Real: Missing Opportunities in Higher Education

“We are told we lack aspirations. No, we don’t. We lack opportunities.”

                                                                                   –Sumeya Loonat, 2021

The Open & Inclusive Special Interest Group from OpenTEL featured presentations from two external speakers in an online seminar on Wednesday, March 24th, 2021. The speakers covered interrelated topics about language, race, mental health, and financial hardship in higher education. Sumeya Loonat, a senior international student lecturer in the Business and Law faculty at De Montfort University, was the first to deliver her presentation on Language and Learning: Breaking Barriers to Success’. Sumeya’s experience as an English teacher for Academic Purposes who provides academic support for international students has contributed to her research on the intersectionality between language and race. Under the Equality Act 2010, race can mean colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins. Sumeya’s PhD focuses explicitly on students of colour who use English as an additional language within a teaching and learning context.

She has identified key barriers bilingual students of colour face in higher education, including:

  • lack of support and opportunities to integrate with other students,
  • hesitance to ask questions in class,
  • low teacher expectations,
  • discriminatory attitudes towards linguistic capability.

These findings are even more significant, especially when students of colour make up approximately 54% of De Montfort University’s student body. Although they have been framed as a single community under the trending term ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), Sumeya argues that “the mainstream framing of these students is usually viewed through a deficit model which is harmful as it perpetuates negative stereotypes”. The value of these findings runs the risk of not being taken seriously through the lenses of a frame that creates differences among students instead of an inclusive learning environment.

Consequently, Sumeya studies how language is used in regular learning and teaching practices to explore alternative approaches that might enhance the student sense of belonging. She points out that academic language has become the language of power; it has marginalised and excluded speakers who do not use standard English. So, she encourages teachers to revisit and adopt, for example, the careful use of specialised vocabulary and the integration of contextualised academic support into their teaching practices. She also suggests:

  • learning students’ names and correctly pronouncing them; don’t anglicise them because it may have an adverse bearing on students’ identity,
  • using discussion boards and breakout rooms to tackle language anxiety,
  • allowing plenty of time for students to reply; don’t pressure them into giving quick responses,
  • supporting students to tell their stories about their struggles and success; use diverse voices to stimulate personal reflection.

During the presentation, she mentioned the opportunities she has had to hold workshops and liaise with module tutors on academic issues related to the teaching and learning of international students. She aims to embark teachers into these ‘linguistic’ approaches to facilitate inclusive learning environments for students. Her outstanding work is now part of the ‘Decolonising DMU project’, seeking to build a more welcoming university for international students. To find out more about Sumeya’s work, visit the Decolonising DMU website.


The second speaker of the seminar was Dan Holloway. He is head of Administration and Finance in the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at Oxford University, presenting ‘Closing the Gap: Financial Hardship and Poor Mental Health in Higher Education’. In the session, Dan emphasised the intersection between poor mental health and problem debt, with particular reference to university students. Research shows that people experiencing mental health difficulties are three and a half more times likely to be in problem debt than those who are not. Financial hardship can also affect students’ intellectual performance, a negative consequence discussed in Scarcity, the book by behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir.

Dan also outlined the recent report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, Mind the Income Gap, which highlighted that those with a mental health problem face an income gap of 25 to 30%. He then added:

The message is clear and stark. If you are in financial difficulty as a student, you are more likely to experience poor mental health – which may lead to an income gap throughout your life that has a further detrimental effect on your mental health –  and if you have poor mental health as a student, it could affect your finances not just during student life but for the rest of your life.

Sometimes being told: “You’ll be fine. Just work hard” is not enough. Dan himself heard those words once as a student, but he was never told how to start working hard for his future. He said he dealt with financial difficulties during his studies and “the result is that I continue to break, at fairly regular intervals, and each time I break it is slightly harder to build back to a slightly lower level than before”. Many people can identify with Dan’s story, which exemplifies the relationship between poor mental health and financial difficulty.

Accordingly, these two complex aspects should not be treated as two separate issues. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge, understand, and address this interrelation. Dan suggested bringing other perspectives from different people to explore other ways of support far from the same forms of thinking and “the same ways of experimenting that led to the problems in the first place”. When it comes to mental health and financial issues in higher education, we need:

  • better protection of mental health,
  • better accessibility for disabled students,
  • better financial support – and providing that even on a low level will have massive long-term benefits for those involved and for society.

By the end of his talk, Dan shared the following resources that offer debt advice and specialise in debt advice for people who have mental health problems:

If you want to learn more about the relationship between language and race presented by Sumeya Loonat or the link between mental health and financial hardship covered by Dan Holloway, you can watch the seminar recordings here.