CUBO Winter Conference 2020

CUBO Winter Conference 2020 Round-Up

Throughout the pandemic, commercial services were open for business: housing, feeding, entertaining, and supporting students; providing childcare, retail, cleaning, and security; organising arrival and departure; and putting on whatever sport we could, all COVID-safely.

With no existing best practice, we saw amazing resilience, imagination, collaboration and innovation across the sector. Internal projects like screening, test centres and welfare checks brought colleagues together to implement new activities at incredible pace to deliver a safe student experience. Multi-agency partnerships brought together police, local councils, the NHS, public health services, environmental health and private accommodation providers to ensure a consistent approach to communications, reporting COVID cases, student and community conduct, and local lockdowns. One of the national conversations we must have will be how we continue this to mutual benefit.

Speed of change has been critical to coping with government regulation, university policy, student reactions, welfare and media - what has been inspirational is the lightweight bureaucracy and willingness to cross departmental boundaries. Commercial services have demonstrated their ability to react, adapt and make things happen.

Key conference takeaways

The future includes more choice and flexibility, whether that’s app-supported use of machines, virtual classes, or classes in the fresh air. Sport has gone beyond digital to engage students in lockdown with exercise bundles, exercise challenges, equipment loans and more, and has also been involved in social responsibility initiatives with activities during Black History Month and Movember, for example. The pandemic has highlighted links with the student experience and academic success.

Universities offer meeting places that could replace traditional offices and hot-desking, while flexible working may provide opportunities for managed and shared office spaces. There is a strong sense of face-to-face customers wanting to return. Virtual and hybrid events offer many benefits: sustainability, no number limit, wider access, greater visibility for sponsors - and they are not limited by term time. There are many opportunities for diversification, including film location, community events, working with SU, using car parks for farmers or craft market – and more. Future conference delivery will impact on the estate.

Residence life
Virtual events are easily organised, with no minimum or cap on numbers, inexpensive and popular, when blended with face-to-face. Residence life has gained recognition for its importance to student wellbeing and campus experience. Pandemic-driven raised awareness and cross-collaboration provides an opportunity to develop a more holistic approach to student mental health.

Keeping students connected has been a huge challenge - only 58% of first years said they were making friends and meeting new people this year. Students talk of “safe” as being among friends, as well as the building.

The pandemic showed the value of professionally managed accommodation. University senior teams are now more focused on the importance of accommodation, and design will be key. Cluster flats are in vogue, but while larger cluster flats may be popular, they come with more conduct issues. The sector would benefit from more sharing between private and public PBSA ( Demand for PBSA will grow with increased student numbers.

The rise of the consumer student and the impact of COVID presents opportunities to re-imagine the accommodation offering. Universities may consider prioritising space over facilities, smaller buildings, putting outdoor space that is currently landscaped to practical use. New teaching models will affect students’ use of campus, and drive changes to teaching spaces. There may be more use of outside space for learning and eating.

Developers are changing city centres with blocks of student accommodation next to expensive warehouse conversions. We need to create spaces to build relationships, so that these already exist when incidents occur. Community engagement has to be part of the culture, not left to individuals, who will move on.

There is a need for proactive and fast communications, leaving no vacuums. Universities must engage students electronically earlier, and connect with student leaders. University websites are applicants’ most important source of information, with virtual experiences increasingly important, including the accommodation section. Applicants want virtual open days to be interactive.

Student views
UCAS found that only 48% of students were positive about accommodation providers’ response to the pandemic, but 75% would recommend their accommodation. HEPI reports that student perceptions of value for money are in decline. 58% of students say their mental health has declined under COVID and 61% spend most or almost all of their time in their accommodation. Satisfaction with online learning rose from March to November.

Campus catering
Key trends include: conscientious consuming - direct giving at point of purchase; healthy eating – with a focus on foods that boost immunity – but also treats; and a refocus on the familiar, with a shift to small, local and online. Universities need to capitalise on increased food delivery by entering into partnerships. One university turned a cost-effective table delivery service system into a delivery service during lockdown, creating a new service that will significantly improve long-term operations, efficiency and profitability.

Privacy, decency and respect form the cornerstones of any response to security incidents. Pandemic challenges have included large gatherings, more burglaries, inability to get repairs done and a freeze on budgets. Security teams need PPE and mental health protection. Communication is key: involve students in security decisions.

Community relations
Investing time to understand your community and build relationships will pay dividends. Partnerships with stakeholders, including the police, are key. Code of conduct pledges need to be relational, not situational, to cover behaviour off-campus. Most students behave, although there is a year-on-year increase in students complaining about their peers.

Reduced travel has had a significant impact on carbon footprint and has helped us move towards a world of “meaningful travel”.

We established regular contact with UUK, joined the UUK Quarantine Advisory Group, provided data to UUK and the DfE on student numbers in PBSA, and issued guidance collection of student belongings and on managing return to campus.

In Scotland we are in ScotGov working groups including Student Accommodation, Outbreak Mitigation, Testing and the PBSA Review Steering Group.

Sector recognition has grown, with CUBO seen as the experts in student accommodation, invited to give the UK perspective in three international panel debates on accommodation and quarantine plans. Ties have been strengthened with other sector bodies, and we will continue to build recognition and collaboration to support the improvement of standards, best practice in campus experiences and a return to profitability.

"Everyone in campus services has done incredible work this year. When we can meet in person, we will be able to see the further development of where we are taking services."

Jo Hardman, CUBO Chair and Head of Commercial Services at Lancaster University, December 2020.

“We need to ride the crest of the wave. The focus has been on us in commercial services, the challenge going forward is to maintain that level of profile and ensure we get the right level of funding.”

Phil Scott, CUBO Conference Chair.

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