This blog was kindly contributed by Darren Ellis, Higher Education Engagement Director at Unite Students.
Student accommodation has been on a real journey. When I first started with Unite Students in 2003, accommodation was valued in universities but not especially visible in national policy. Indeed, this was reflected in the Higher Education White Paper, published that same year, which did not mention accommodation at all.
At some point student accommodation had fallen off the agenda, but let’s not forget that it fell from a lofty height; in the 1963 Robbins Report it was core to one of the four objectives of higher education. The report talks about the benefits of living away from home, and was explicit about the important role that student accommodation should play. What we are seeing now is not something new but an old idea reborn for a new context. Student accommodation is being addressed in a strategic context both in terms of what it provides and how it is structured, as it was in the 1960s.
Moreover, back in 2003 when I first started in the sector, student accommodation was not a coherent entity. Universities and private accommodation providers both offered somewhere for students to live, but culturally they were worlds apart. There was limited mutual understanding and relationships between the two were often formal and could sometimes be strained. Much of the private sector has undergone a significant transformation as it has come of age. In addition, within universities the value of accommodation is now more keenly recognised at the most senior levels.
Over the last decade and a half, so much has changed. There is now a broader knowledge of the role that accommodation plays in the overall student experience. At its best, it provides a sense of safety and belonging, supports and promotes wellbeing and mental health, and enables students to achieve their best. Crucially, these benefits are no longer just available students at a limited number of universities, but more widely thanks to the driving up of standards and expectations, and the collaborative relationship between universities and the private sector.
It is against this backdrop that Unite Students is today launching Accommodation Matters, a new podcast focused entirely on student accommodation. It aims to bring leading professionals in the sector together with national, international and subject-specialist experts to discuss matters of relevance to student accommodation, and to share insight and good practice.
Over the last few years, I have come to realise that our size and scale gives us this ability to bring people together. Indeed, with some 76,000 students now living with us across the UK, I think we have a responsibility to do this in order to help cross-fertilise ideas, elevate good practice, drive up standards and seed innovation. One of our own company values is to ‘be better’ and we hope to learn from others to continue to improve the student experience we offer. I hope this new podcast, which I have the great privilege to host, will do all of these things in an entertaining way. Our aim is for it to sound like a lively chat between colleagues, of the sort you might hear at a conference over a drink or two.
Student accommodation has come a long way and I believe it has yet more to offer. It must keep pace with the greater diversity of the student body, offer the right support to young people who are more aware of their mental health, and help a sociable but highly digital generation to make friends and feel at home. It needs to meet expectations for amenity and service while remaining affordable.
More than ever, this year’s resident students need safe and supportive accommodation. One thing I’m sure of is that by working together we are more than equal to the challenge of giving this cohort the most rewarding student experience possible.
The first episode of the podcast features HEPI’s own Nick Hillman, Robert Garnish (University of Glasgow), Ian Jones (University of Sheffield) and Steph Camm (Unite Students). It can be found here or wherever you download your podcasts.
The separation, in many universities, between where they are taught and where they live is potentially problematic. In Bristol, for example, city centre living for students leaves then distanced from many of the support services that are located in the university campus. Isolation and associated problems are potentially exacerbated.