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5 ways to help students feel they belong in their accommodation

3 May 2022

In the second of a two-part series, Jenny Shaw – Higher Education External Engagement Director at Unite Students – offers her insights into helping students to feel a sense of belonging in their accommodation.

In my previous article, I looked at how perception of risk and belonging can affect young people’s decisions about going to university. This time, I’m expanding on this theme with a student accommodation lens on, drawing on experiences, research and examples that have shaped my own thinking over the last 25 years.

The desire to belong is almost universal, and the fear of not fitting in among university applicants is more widespread than you might think. In our applicant survey in July last year, 92% of applicants said that they want to feel as though they belong at university, but 59% said they were anxious that they wouldn’t fit in. It’s so important that we’re in the process of adopting ‘belonging’ as an explicit strand of our equality, diversity & inclusion (EDI) and wellbeing strategy at Unite Students.

When I first started working in widening participation in higher education, the emphasis was very much on supporting young people from groups under-represented in higher education to apply and achieve entry grades. It was rarely about how universities themselves could challenge their own admissions, teaching, learning and assessment processes to be more inclusive.

In 2009 I was part of a team delivering a Higher Education Academy (as it was then – now Advance HE) piece of research on widening participation through the lens of diversity. At the time this seemed very cutting edge for the UK HE sector, and I wrote about the apparent tensions between diversity and excellence here.

Since then, there has been a very welcome change in this area across society as a whole, from a focus on diversity to a broader understanding of the importance of inclusion and belonging. In higher education this is apparent in the progress that’s been made in understanding and responding to student mental health issues, and work to decolonise the curriculum, to give just two examples. Nowhere is inclusion and belonging more important than in the place students should be able to call home while they study.

Ever since the Robbins Review in the early 1960s, there has been a desire to create inclusive residential communities of students from all walks of life, and in many ways that vision has been achieved. However, the principles on which such communities are designed are never truly neutral. They will always embed a number of culturally based assumptions such as what students need, what ‘good’ looks like, and what is ‘normal’. For students who share these assumptions, the living communities will feel familiar and comfortable. For those who don’t, it can increase the sense of risk and alienation.

This emerged strongly in our recent Living Black at University research. Among other findings, the research uncovered Black students feeling alienated in surroundings where cultural needs can’t be met – for appropriate food and hair care, for example – and where their usual cooking and socialising practices are sometimes regarded with hostility.

The work of inclusion and belonging will never be complete, but with this in mind here are my top five recommendations for student accommodation.


1. Build familiarity and trust

It’s never too early to reach out to potential students and introduce them to the accommodation environment – including the social aspects of student living. We’ve been successfully using our Leapskills workshops with 16-18 year olds over the last few years, and the resources are free for anyone to use. Many university open days now feature accommodation more prominently, and there are some great examples of video tours and online games to develop familiarity and comfort with the environment.


2. Set expectations before arrival

We can’t assume that students will arriving knowing how to interact with people different from themselves – especially as, if we’re honest, many of us have been on our own inclusion learning journeys over recent years. Although they sometimes attract the wrong kind of media attention, workshops on race, consent and allyship will continue to be an important part of creating an inclusive community, and especially so in a residential community. They are also vital workplace skills for the future.


3. Consider the needs of all potential residents in feeling they belong

The principles of Universal Design dictate that an environment should be designed for all possible users. I’ve always found this a very useful concept for work in higher education, because it challenges any assumptions about who can or should be there. It also prompts reflection and learning. Who doesn’t come here, and why? What don’t we know about the needs of our current students?


4. Be creative in meeting cultural needs

I’ve found, in a wide variety of settings, that one of the barriers to taking a Universal Design approach is the fear that it will highlight needs that can’t be met. However I’ve also found that there’s very little that can’t be addressed with a little creativity. You’d be surprised how many things we “could never do” in higher education or student accommodation that are now commonplace! Through partnerships, outsourcing, student initiatives or just rethinking our assumptions, most things are possible. It goes without saying that involving students is essential too.


5. Provide structured opportunities for students to meet diverse peers

There’s been some great research in the US about the educational value of interaction with diverse peers among college students, which one day I’d love to replicate in the UK (references are available for anyone with an interest in this topic – please get in touch here).

The research also highlights the fact that this mainly comes from structured, meaningful opportunities to interact. Without these, students tend to mix with people who are more like themselves, and interactions with those who are different are more likely to be neutral or even negative. In an academic setting, meaningful interaction can be facilitated through group work and assignments. How can we create more of these opportunities in accommodation?


I’m certain that most universities and accommodation providers are doing most if not all of these to some extent. My point here is to elevate the value this work, and show how important it can be in accommodation as part of the overall student experience. Executed well, these recommendations can make higher education feel less risky and more comfortable both at the point of decision to go to university, and throughout the student journey. As the stats at the beginning of the article suggest, this will benefit a majority of students. For those who find higher education an alien or even a hostile environment, it could be life-changing.

I’d like to acknowledge colleagues past and present who have shared their knowledge and insights: Colette Taylor, Kath Bridger, Judith Foreman, Ivan Reid, Kevin Brain, Stuart Billingham, Osaro Otobo, ‘Teleola Cartwright, and Sam Kingsley.

You can learn more about the Social Market Foundation’s  ‘Fulfilling its potential?’ report, and download the report, here.

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