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The Social Value in Student Accommodation - Unite Students report

26 June 2019   (0 Comments)
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UNITE Student Experience Director, Jenny Shaw, makes a convincing case for the social value in student accommodation, based on her presentation to the Global Student Living Conference on 25th June 2019.

Let’s take a walk through history to understand social value in student accommodation…

One thing is for sure, it is not a new concept.  Let’s start in the medieval era, with a student we will call Thomas.  He gets up at six every morning in his unheated accommodation, attending several hours of lectures before he even has his first meal of the day.  His simple lodging is bare, with no more than a simple bed and straw for carpet, it is even windowless.

Socially, there are some events for Thomas to partake in – gambling, chess and music are all allowed, but jousting, hunting and hawking are strictly off limits: as signs of wealth they could be seen as divisive.  Fighting was banned too, but that didn’t seem to stop many… oh, and if Thomas was thinking of breaking the rules?  He could expect jail time or even excommunication!

We now find ourselves in the 1890s…  Depending where you study, you’ll have a very different experience.  If you’re at Oxford, the Sorbonne or St. Andrews, you’ll live in a college with post-graduates and academics, attend formal dinners and have a social and cultural programme to broaden the mind.  Alongside this, the colleges provide moral guardianship, because students at this time were not considered to be adults.  Think of it like Hogwarts – with the added perk of beer!

Anywhere else and you were in lodgings.  There were some halls popping up, Leeds had the first private hall in the 1890s, and students in Manchester lived in halls provided by a religious society.

This persisted until 1962, when the Education Act established national system of maintenance grants allowing every student, regardless of means, to study away from home.

The following year saw the release of the Robbins Report.  With four objectives of higher education, one of which being “a common culture and standard of citizenship,” student accommodation had a key role to play.  The report talks about the “educational and social advantages of living away from home” to prepare students for adult life and especially for the professions.

This really was the pinnacle of student accommodation’s recognition in public policy...  It all went a bit downhill from here!

The 1997 Dearing Report mentions accommodation costs, but not what accommodation is meant to be for. The 2003 White Paper on the future of Higher Education goes one step further, with not a single mention of accommodation throughout!

The tone of voice at this period was somewhat personified by HEFCE referring to “bed spaces” rather than accommodation, a real demonstration of the view that accommodation was a commodity, not an important service in a student’s life at university.

Happily, this view of accommodation has finally started to change.  There has been plenty of scrutiny of student accommodation, some of which, at times, has felt uncomfortable.  The often-negative link between accommodation and student well-being being a notable example.

And now there is Augar... 

The Augar Review has put accommodation back on the agenda, but once more, as with Dearing, it is all about cost, something Johnny Rich notes in a recent article for WonkHE, critiquing the Augar review for its focus on value, rather than values.

But what about the future?  A future in which the student voice is far more prominent, and where they rightly ask, what is the deal here?  What do I get for my investment?  How does it benefit me?

This is our opportunity.  As we move forward, we can talk about what accommodation is for: the value it brings to students, and the values behind it.  Yes, cost matters, affordability is important, but student accommodation will remain a big investment so let’s talk about what it does for students, and continue to develop those benefits.  It’s about the ‘Return on Investment.’

This is where the forthcoming British Property Federation (BPF) publication “Student Wellbeing in Purpose Built Student Accommodation” comes in.  This guide is a perfect example of the value and importance of student accommodation, and a hugely positive step in the right direction.

Five years ago, if you’d said private student accommodation providers were going to play an important role in student well-being and mental health, you’d have got a few strange looks and the odd snigger – even from within these organisations themselves!  Yet, it has happened. 

The guide launches on 15 July and while it sets out good practice for private accommodation providers, it has had strong input from universities and student-representing organisations to ensure it meets their needs.

What’s happening here, is that accommodation – private student accommodation – is joining up with sector-wide efforts to improve student experience and, importantly, student outcomes.  The awareness of the importance of accommodation in the wider student experience is being grasped.  The link in the BPF guide to the UUK's Step Change framework is clear to see, promoting a university-wide approach to mental health, while also having links with UUK’s work on data sharing and disclosure. Three key principles within the guide are worth mentioning:

Professionalism around responsive work

This is about the role we play, and while small compared to universities themselves, it is still vital and to be done to the very best of our capability and within a safe, professional framework

Playing an active role in positive well-being

In 2017, Unite released a report on student resilience.  We shared data showing how strong peer networks had a hugely positive impact on student well-being and retention.  Accommodation providers have a huge role to play in giving students opportunities to socialise and make friends, with schemes such as our ambassador scheme bridging the traditional university run residence life scheme gap to support this and with many other providers doing fantastic work in this area as well.

Transition to university is also vital.  Sixty per cent of applicants are anxious about coming to university, with only nine per cent saying their HE experience closely matched their expectations.  By closing this expectation gap, we can manage the risks of this pivotal time in a student’s life far more effectively.  This knowledge led to the creation of our uChat service and our “LeapSkills” workshops among other initiatives.

We can also play a large role in supporting students in managing their own well-being, through campaigns and information.  These can be home-grown or in partnership with the university or Student's Union. There is a lot we can do.

Relationships with HE providers

This is the key.  Unite are a large operator, working with more than 70 institutions, some of which are also working with up to 10 private providers.  All of us have our own way of doing things when it comes to student well-being, so you can imagine how many permutations there are across partnerships. This complexity causes potential risk, with the potential for something to be missed and fall through the gaps that much higher.

The guide will help set out some norms for how a university and a private provider can work together on student well-being. Data sharing is a great example of this, and one that in many cases has already begun.  The legal section of the guide helps cut through the noise surrounding GDPR to ensure we are fully able to support our students.

While the guide is most relevant to private accommodation providers, universities have a very important part to play through the way accommodation is procured via NOMs agreements.

Universities have the power to set the standards here.  I very much hope that this guide will show what is possible, and how it could work, inspiring universities to be more demanding of their accommodation partners in this area and, whether or not they do, this guide has teeth.  The legal section is particularly strong, and shows that much of what is recommended is also a legal requirement, especially when it comes to responding to students in crisis.

The ANUK/Unipol Code of Standards is already beginning to adopt some of the recommendations and have said they will continue to do so. This really has the opportunity to be a game changer – and I for one am glad about that…

It has the potential to impact thousands of students over the coming years and gives those of us that work in accommodation the opportunity to demonstrate the social value of accommodation and how it is so much more than just a financial cost.  And to talk about the values that underpin it, not just the value.

We can tell stories of the cleaner who saved a life because they knew how to listen and escalate concerns; the security guard who made students feel safe; the ambassadors and ResLife teams who made them feel at home.  We can talk about how we combatted loneliness, and the impact we had on retention and success.  This is a movement to drive those benefits forward as a sector and to move the narrative on.  We can, with confidence, tell people what student accommodation is for, and why this is so valuable to students… maybe one day, we will even see its return to public policy!  Now wouldn’t that be marvellous?


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