30 years of Unite Students
9 December 2021
2021 marks Unite Students’ 30th anniversary. From humble beginnings in Bristol to the UK’s largest provider of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), based in 25 cities across England, Scotland and Wales, it’s been quite a journey.
We have put together a list of 30 milestones we’re most proud of over the last three decades and spoken to three former residents to find out what it was like to live with us, how their university experience has shaped them, and what they’ve gone on to do since graduating.
30 milestones in 30 years
- Being the first provider of purpose-built student accommodation in the UK 
- Providing a home to approximately 800,000+ students [1991-2021]
- Providing thousands of jobs across the UK [1991-2021]
- Being listed on the Main Market of the London Stock Exchange 
- Being the principal supporter and accommodation partner of the Unite Foundation, an independent charity who have provided 500+ care-experienced and estranged students with scholarships that cover their accommodation and bills during their time at university 
- Launching the sector-leading Positive Impact sustainability scheme, based on National Union of Students’ Green Impact scheme [since 2014]
- Being the first purpose-built student accommodation provider to offer a student wellbeing service 
- Being the first Real Living Wage employer in the purpose-built student accommodation sector 
- Winning back-to-back Student Accommodation Operator of the Year RESI awards [2015/16]
- Setting up an international office in Beijing, China 
- Launching a Resident Ambassador scheme, offering students leadership and development opportunities within their accommodation, paid at the national living wage [2016; revamped 2021]
- Sponsoring Bristol Pride since 2017 and Manchester Pride since 2019
- Using 100% certified renewable energy across the entire business 
- Being the first purpose-built student accommodation provider to have its own app, MyUnite 
- Launching The Common Room, a site sharing blogs written by and for students about relevant topics 
- Launching Leapskills: a toolkit for students and parents to smooth the transition to university, endorsed by the Department for Education 
- Sharing the New Realists insight report with the Higher Education sector, providing insight into applicants and first year students’ motivators and priorities 
- Acquiring Liberty Living, adding 51 new residences and 24,000+ new beds to our portfolio across 19 cities 
- Co-creating the Student Wellbeing in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation framework with the British Property Federation for student wellbeing in private student accommodation 
- Being the first private student accommodation provider to release students from their contracts during Covid-19 
- Providing £100+ million in financial support to students during the pandemic [2020/1]
- Launching Accommodation Matters, the first Higher Education podcast fully focused on the student accommodation sector 
- Signing the Business in the Community Race at Work Charter, pledging us to become a more diverse and inclusive workplace 
- Committing to greater gender and ethnic diversity in leadership 
- Being the first purpose-built student accommodation provider to commit to going net-zero 
- Giving jobs to more than 80 young people through the Kickstart scheme 
- Launching a support animal policy, the first in the private accommodation sector 
- Donating more than £1 million to the British Heart Foundation so far 
- Being the first PBSA provider to target building a fully net-zero carbon building 
- Having a property portfolio worth £7.8 billion in 2021 and growing, with three developments in the pipeline that we’ve secured planning permission for 
Home for Success: What our former residents are up to
1. From living with Unite Students in Bristol, to overseeing more than 7,000 students living with us in Birmingham…
Victoria Simmons (Favell House, Bristol, 2001-02)
I chose to live with Unite Students, like many first years, through my university at the University of the West of England where I studied Drama, Culture and English. Back then, the student accommodation sector was very much just university halls: you lived there as a first year only, then fended for yourself in a flat-share!
Favell House in 2001 was also very different to the property we have and operate today. We didn’t have WiFi – or indeed any internet – and TV wasn’t really a thing in halls, so it was very much about spending time together and going out (a lot!). Logging maintenance issues wasn’t really a thing, and we had resident wardens who lived in the building and delivered our parcels.
Living at Favell House gave me the confidence to live in a huge city independently. I felt safe, happy and excited while living there and, situated in the centre of an incredible city, I truly created lasting memories and have an enduring love for the city. That’s not to say there weren’t challenges: there were many false alarm activations, noisy neighbours and no reception team to call on at the time.
University was harder than I thought it would be. I was the first from my family to go to university and, being from a less fortunate background, I was funding myself through part-time work and student loans. Working part time while living in halls was a different situation to most of my flatmates and it did become exhausting when dealing with noise or people coming in late. This part of the transition was hard – but I wouldn’t have changed my experience for anything.
When I left university, I worked in a theatre training group in New York for six months; when I returned to the UK, I had plans to go into the world of theatre and work my way up – but while looking for theatrical opportunities I returned to my beloved Bristol and started to work for my old accommodation provider, Unite Students. I absolutely loved the culture and the people, but most importantly the purpose. Being able to be a part of such an important journey in a young person’s life was for me so captivating that I decided to see where I could grow at Unite, and I’ve never looked back since.
I’m now coming up to my 15th anniversary with the company, and in that time I’ve had the opportunity to work both at both Head Office and across our cities, including as Area Manager for Birmingham. Spending time with customers allows you to truly see the value you can bring to students, and I’ve been able to use that insight to help me in my current role in our strategy team as Innovation Manager.
My own university experience shaped me more than I sometimes realise. Being the first from my family to attend university gave me such a determination to succeed. Funding myself, although harder than I like to remember, again gave me the constant ambition to better myself. University wasn’t just about education; for me, it was about setting a path that was all my own. There were moments of frustration and sadness, but when I passed with a 2:1, there was a moment of utter belief in myself.
2. “My experiences in Durham, and in particular living with Unite Students, were an integral part of making me the person I am today”
Atreya Acharyya (Elvet Studios / Rushford Court / Houghall Court, Durham, 2016-21)
My time living with Unite Students was perfect from start to finish: I met some amazing people, both fellow tenants and every member of staff I came across, and their guidance and friendship were invaluable. In short, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer, cleaner, and safer place to be for the entire duration of my time at university.
I lived in three different Unite Students properties over five years in Durham; two years at Elvet Studios, two years at Rushford Court, and one year at Houghall Court. They provided the perfect combination of excellent location and modern amenities, and as soon as I moved in, I also realised that the staff were kind, patient and caring, and the buildings were also very well maintained and incredibly secure too. Without them, my time in Durham would not have been anywhere near as memorable.
I had the pleasure of being Student Ambassador for a couple of years during my stay, an experience that was both enriching and rewarding. I got to meet students from all over the world and organise lots of fun events together, and in doing so I formed many friendships that I will always cherish, including one of my best friends.
Perhaps the most moving moment for me was when I finally left Durham in July 2021 and every member of the sales, maintenance, safety, and housekeeping teams in the city signed a leaving card for me and gave me a little present too. This card is now on the top shelf of my living room cabinet, and I look at it quite often and remember what an amazing time I had there.
After I graduated, I moved to the United States, where I am currently a researcher at the University of Alabama. My work involves the analysis of gamma-ray astronomical data taken with the NASA Fermi satellite and ground-based observations at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona. I am still in touch with many students from all my buildings, as well as many members of staff, all of whom I now consider my friends.
My experiences in Durham, and in particular living with Unite Students, were an integral part of making me the person I am today and gave me moments I will cherish with me wherever I go.
3. I lived with my best friend in my Unite Students accommodation
Kim Thompson (New Medlock House, Manchester, 2003 – 2006)
I studied at the Northern Ballet School from 2003 to 2006; I was the first person in my family to go onto Higher Education which, thinking about it now, was quite a privilege. It was strange being so far away from my parents, but exciting at the same time, and I found it easy to adapt; I was following my dream and my college timetable was so full-on that time went really quickly.
The college recommended Unite Students as a place to live, so I lived at New Medlock House in Manchester for the entirety of my studies. It was a good property to live in; it’s in close proximity to the college as well as the city centre, transport links and nightlife, the security measures made me feel safe, and I also liked the social aspect of being with fellow students and meeting a variety people from all different cultures.
I’m still in touch with a couple of people from my building, including my best friend Nicola, who was Maid of Honour at my wedding (and vice versa!). We met through our course and bonded over our shared passion for dance as well as growing up just half an hour apart in the south-east, and we went on to live together in New Medlock House in our third year.
One of our flatmates was a male dancer who never did his washing up and would leave his bowls in the sink all the time, so the existence of ‘Wanda the washing up fairy’ became a running joke throughout the year. One night, we heard a loud banging on our door – which turned out to be a flatmate trying to knock the door down with a trolley as he had had a few too many drinks and couldn’t get in! We ended up with the trolley in our flat for the rest of the year.
Having worked in both the UK and abroad as a dancer after graduating, I had the opportunity to start performing on cruise ships. At Princess Cruises, I worked my way up to being Deputy Cruise Director and was lucky enough to complete five world cruises, through which I had the opportunity to climb the Great Wall of China, drive the Great Ocean Road in Australia, visit the Lost City of Petra and take a helicopter to a glacier in Alaska.
During this time, I met my husband, who also worked on the ships – he proposed on a beach in Hawaii during one of the cruises. We got married in 2015 and had a baby boy this summer.
Completing my degree while I lived with Unite Students gave me the skills and contacts to not only perform professionally, but get to travel the world while doing it. I’ve created so many memories and met so many people as a result.
What does the future bring for Higher Education and student accommodation? Read Alister Wilson’s piece from April about the university of the future, and Paul Sweeney’s summary of what this means for student accommodation.