Zachery Spire 09 September 2019

How accommodation can support student wellbeing

Recent studies have highlighted the problem of student stress in higher education. A study conducted by UniHealth found 80% of students reported symptoms of stress or anxiety, while the National Union of Students (NUS) found nine in 10 students said they were feeling stressed.

Some might approach such a situation and wonder, how obvious? How could it be unclear to today’s savvy, connected millennial and Gen Z that these students must be aware of the costs and less than clear outcomes of a higher education?

Students today must be aware of the costs, risks, perils, promises and challenges of entering a higher education institution. With mass media, social networking and the now almost ubiquitous rankings adding layer upon layer of insights and ‘measurements’ for current and prospective higher education students, it would seem almost unnecessary to speak to the forms, functions and stated purpose of a higher education in a young persons’ life course.

But is it actually so clear? And in environments where costs of attendance, including tuition, fees and accommodation are seemingly rising (often beyond inflation) year-on-year, how can students be unprepared with so much information available from a simple Google search?

Likewise, with tuition and fees have come costs to students’ housing and maintenance. The Accommodation Costs Survey report by Unipol and NUS, surveyed accommodation costs across the UK for 2018-2019. The report notes in 2018/19 the overall average weekly rent stands at £147, an increase of 5% since last year, of 8.9% on 2015/16 and 31.3% since 2011/12. The average for the private sector is £153, 9.3% higher than the university mean of £140. Costs of accommodation, public and private provided, as becoming ever more aligned, leaving less (not more) segmentation and options from which students may choose.

Instead, large tower blocks are being built for students, and when these become less affordable in relation to student’s maintenance loan, they may seek alternative housing in the wider housing sector (i.e. co-operative, in-law, co-living, shared room accommodation).

Rather than assuming students’ housing decision making is based on price, students’ selection of housing is more nuanced. Research has pointed out location, proximity to campus, amenities, quality of built environment, low noise pollution in a building and strong links to staffing all play a vital role in students’ satisfaction with their residential accommodation. Students enter student accommodation, largely aware that this is a type of temporary housing without a sense of being more or less supported given the ‘fixed’ limit of time a student will reside in their student accommodation. Even so, staffing and having a positive relationship with fellow students seems to be a key concern for students, institutions and the wider community.

So what, you might ask? What does student accommodation have to do with student wellbeing? And how do the numbers stack up for students, institutions, providers and operators of student accommodation? Must institutions and student accommodation operators/providers concern themselves with the quality of students’ wellbeing? Well, actually, yes. According to the Office for Students, student experience is a key metric upon which the government is evaluating and assessing quality of students’ outcomes from participating in higher education. However, perhaps it is even more simple.

Students who view their student accommodation as a temporary and costly housing option are challenged to treat these spaces as places to create and cultivate a sense of ‘home’. Moreover, treating a higher education as a temporary bus stop between adolescence and young adulthood undermines the influence of participating in higher education for students short, medium and long term life course, personal and social development.

Thus, to support students’ wellbeing, students’ housing needs reflection on whether and how students, operators/providers, institutions and the wider community are able to see themselves as working together to generate a safe, supportive living-learning environment.

If student accommodation and student wellbeing are not treated as a ‘temporary’ concern for students, we might generate useful questions linking students’ housing experiences with short, medium and long term life course outcomes. Such outcomes might relate to study of students’ debt, students’ application of their degree and qualifications in employment and reflections back from the future on the strengths and limitations of students’ participation in higher education, including student accommodation.

Would students follow the same path if they had it to do over again? If they had an opportunity to change anything, what would they have done differently and why? Was the ‘costs’ associated with participating in higher education ‘worth it’ in hindsight? And did participating in student accommodation influence the value they give to their participation in their institution of higher education?

While these answers are risky, they might give insight into the value and meaning students ascribe to where they studied, where they lived while on a course in higher education and what they perceive as the influence of their choices on their outcomes.

Setting expectations and delivering on a promise are keys to setting the tone and work of student accommodation for students’ wellbeing. Community standards allow students, institutions and provider/operators to have clear guidelines on the form, functions and stated provision of student accommodation. This allows students to feedback on issues they encounter during their time in a residence.

Such a framework makes it critical that students feel a right and responsibility to give feedback on whether and how their accommodation is meeting their expectations while in residence.

Rather than a ‘calm duck’, cool and mellow above the water but thrashing and paddling under the water to stay afloat, communication is key. Telling students it is vital they express what is working and not working, responding in a practicable way to issues of maintenance and quality of room/flat/house/building residents is a vital way of creating a selective process for students, institutions and providers/operators alike. This relational approach aims to situate and contextualise the living-learning nature of student accommodation, and address the underlying issues that might be triggering and amplifying students’ exigent and arising stress, anxiety and wellbeing issues.

As student wellbeing and student accommodation remain at the forefront of policy and practice agendas, it is key they are revisited in a consistent and thoughtful way. It is also key to allow students and staff to operate in ‘humane’ environments that make it clear caring about students and their outcomes rests with a care for the building and staff who underpin what student accommodation is and means for all concerned.

When we imagine student accommodation, we envision these living-learning environments. These living-learning environments hold the potential to contribute and to contract human potential by creating safe, supportive conditions within which students may foster a greater sense of themselves, their being and becoming in the world. They might also become stale, harsh, unwelcoming, and worse, alienating spaces where students are challenged to overcome their conditions to eat and sleep. Some students may wish for that, a place to sleep, eat and study as they see fit.

In a world aiming to accommodate all points along a spectrum of experience and desire, it’s up to providers, institutions and students to work together to give these spaces a place in student life.

Student accommodation has the potential to that creates possibilities for near, medium and long term safe, secure and welcoming spaces that offer students and staff a means to generate a ‘place’ for individual and shared wellbeing.

Zachery Spire is head of research and training at The Class of 2020

This article first appeared in Public Property magazine - register here for your own free digital copy.

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