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A safe place during the storm

1 December 2020

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety is one of our basic needs. A safe living environment allows students to thrive, as per our ‘Home for Success’ brand promise – so ensuring they feel safe in their student home is nothing new. But, with 2020 bringing the new danger of Covid-19 into our cities and properties, we’ve had to adapt and develop our offering when it comes to both keeping students safe and ensuring they feel safe. After 9 months of learning on our feet based on the latest data and feedback, we’ve come to the conclusion that the key to keeping students safe at this time is to keep them well, informed and connected.

We’ve written before about the findings from our pre-Covid preliminary research into student safety, and how providing a safe living environment for students goes beyond just ensuring their physical safety; personal and social factors need to be accounted for as well. There is a strong link between safety and community, as students seek to befriend those who are similar to themselves and share similar values – making them feel safe. This could be particularly important for Black students: we heard that some Black students only felt safe when there were other Black students around, a sentiment we may hear articulated more in the coming year.

So keeping students connected helps to keep them safe. But, at a time when students’ physical safety can be compromised by a few minutes of small talk, how do they build those connections in the first place? Part of our pre-Covid research explored how students make friends at university. Often, this came down to proximity in accommodation, or on their course – but, of course, these channels have been disrupted in 2020. Our recent student survey found that 58% of first-year students were making friends so far this academic year, suggesting that many students are missing out on a vital element of university life – one that many studies have linked to retention.

To facilitate connections in a Covid-safe way, we turned to our student app, MyUnite, whose popular uChat function introduces flatmates to each other prior to check-in so they can get to know each other before arriving. This year, we expanded its scope, enabling students in shared flats to connect with others on their floor, and those in studio flats to connect with others in their building. As a result, students who had to self-isolate early on in term were still able to interact with those in their vicinity, reducing their risk of loneliness and its associated negative outcomes – although, for those who did experience mental health challenges, we had welfare leads trained in Mental Health First Aid available to lend a listening ear and refer in to university services as needed.

MyUnite has also proven a useful way for students to inform us that they were self-isolating, and whether this is because they’ve tested positive or been in contact with someone who has. Once this information is logged, our teams contact them regularly to check on their wellbeing and ensure they have access to essentials. That’s in addition to the work our employees do to keep students occupied, engaged and connected in a socially distanced way, hosting online events including pumpkin carving competitions and mocktail workshops.

When it comes to the buildings themselves, we implemented visible protective measures, including Perspex screens at receptions and mandatory mask-wearing in common areas for both students and staff (unless exempt). Our recent survey, featuring 1,000 students from across a cross-section of living arrangements including HMOs, found that 77% of those surveyed felt safe on campus, and that their university had put in the necessary measures to keep them safe. 63% agreed this was true of accommodation providers or landlords – so it’s important that there are clear signifiers in place that let students know their safety is being taken seriously.

But it was also crucial that we clearly communicated what we were doing, and what we expected from our students; knowledge is power, after all. These messages needed to be clear and simple, starting with the welcome communications sent out before check-in, which explained what they could expect when they arrived on-site and what precautions were in place, as well as our flexible check-in policy up to 31st October for those with delayed start dates. We also laid out our Home Charter, which described how we and our students work together to create a culture of understanding and respect.

Abraham Maslow may have thought of safety as a ‘basic need’, but it’s clear that creating a safe environment is anything but basic. Our holistic, evidence-based approach of cleaning, communicating and connecting gives our residents one less thing to worry about – and a safe place to stay during this storm.

This blog is a summarised version of a presentation given by Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director, and David Marr, Head of Operations for North East and Scotland, at CUBO’s Winter Conference on 30th November.