Paying the widening participation penalty: Racial and ethnic minority students and mental health in British universities

Funmi‐Victoria Olaniyan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Racial and ethnic minority (REM) students are more likely to experience poor mental health than their White peers yet are less likely to seek help from university counseling services. In attempting to explain this puzzle, the role of environmental factors are rarely explored, despite evidence which suggests that the university environment is itself a major factor. Here, I take a qualitative paired comparison approach to examine the influence of the university environment on the mental health and help‐seeking attitudes of REM undergraduate students, evaluating their experiences at a Russell Group university (RGU) with low REM participation and a neighboring non‐Russell Group university with high REM participation. While both universities declared a commitment to widen participation and promote inclusion for REM individuals, semi‐structured interviews with 48 REM students reveal that feelings of isolation and the experience of discrimination were heightened at the RGU. However, students at both universities described having to navigate a “minefield” of racial microaggressions and “othering.” Further, these environmental pressures are compounded by personal factors (i.e., prior help‐seeking experiences, cultural norms, and family pressures). Together, these factors largely influence both their mental health and their help‐seeking attitudes. I argue that these factors create a widening participation penalty for REM students and suggest that support for these students must go beyond initial acts of increasing diversity on campus (for example, through Widening Participation schemes). Rather, efforts should focus on addressing and reforming the institutional environments and behaviors that hinder university campuses from becoming truly inclusive and mentally healthy environments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)761-783
Number of pages23
JournalAnalyses of Social Issues and Public Policy
Issue number1
Early online date7 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 26 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 The Authors. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Dive into the research topics of 'Paying the widening participation penalty: Racial and ethnic minority students and mental health in British universities'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this