Interview: A more collaborative approach to student support
Unite Students has a long history of championing student wellbeing and support services, and is committed to constantly reviewing, updating and improving the work we do in this area.
In January, Becca Hayhurst joined the organisation as our new Head of Student Support. We caught up with Becca to find out how she’s finding her role, what she’s been up to since joining, and details of our new student support strategy.
Q: Becca, you joined Unite Students six months ago as our Head of Student Support. Going back a bit further, what was it that brought you into student support in the first place, and could you tell us a bit more about your past experience?
A: My path into this sector was completely different from my degree. I studied English Literature and Drama at Lancaster, but during my degree I worked in a mother and baby unit at a local hospital and was working with women who were suffering from postnatal depression. It wasn’t a fit for my degree, but it was a fit for me: all my family work for the NHS, so I had a natural interest in mental health from the start.
After graduating, I got a job in Harper Adams University, Shropshire, in a role that was part pastoral and community building, and part student wellbeing and accommodation management. It was a varied role – I had to know about tenancy law, but also how to deal with mental health crises – but these areas are very linked. I worked there for over 15 years, and over time it evolved into a role focusing more on student support and the student journey. Some of what my department did was sector-leading, such as hiring an occupational therapist.
Someone told me about the job at Unite Students and said “This job was made for you” – I think they were right. What I was doing before was scalable, and at Unite Students, I can do that work at scale. In the business we’re in, we can make quite a big difference to student life and student success, and we can collaborate with our Higher Education partners and learn from them.
What are some of the key differences between working in student support at a university, and at a private accommodation provider?
It’s not so much about the jump from a university to a private accommodation provider as much as a transition from the public sector to the private sector. It’s partly to do with the way that things are done. Universities can be quite prescriptive, which can be limiting: you know what you have to do and what you have to achieve, but it can be quite hard to achieve everything that you want to.
Working at a private provider, you can be more creative and the scale allows you to do more. We need to use that foundation to work more closely with our university partners to improve things more widely across the sector. We can’t fill gaps in provision or resource, but we can make sure we’re joined up and have the full picture when a student is in crisis.
Within a university setting, there’s more comprehensive resource available to respond to crises: mental health advisors, wellbeing staff, occupational therapists. An accommodation provider doesn’t have that, but has the same challenges to respond to from students – the main place that mental health crises or incidents will take place is in student accommodation. We see less of the academic pressure, but we see the social pressure, such as making friends and feelings of loneliness.
It’s a bigger jump than I was expecting, but a lot of the challenges are very similar: making sure that the staff who support students are themselves supported, making sure that there are boundaries in the way you work, and not overstepping the mark when there are long waiting lists.
How are you finding life at Unite Students, and what have you been up to since joining us in January?
We’ve got something really positive here. Our updated student support structure will bolster regional teams and ensure they have streamlined support, complementing our new student support strategy. That’s in the final stages now, but it looks at what our role is, what our provision looks like for the future, how we’ll measure its success, and how we’ll make sure we support our employees.
That includes Support to Stay, a framework that we’ve developed – we’ll be launching it this summer and talking about it at the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education (AMOSSHE)’s national conference on Thursday 14th July. It’s a staircased approach to support students that aligns with what universities are doing: they use either ‘support to study’ or ‘fitness to study’, which is a framework to keep students on track and give them the best opportunity for success. Where that isn’t possible, it’s about managing their withdrawal in a sympathetic way.
We want to make sure we’re lined up with this, working in a student’s best interests and working holistically to manage a student’s departure or success, in partnership with universities to make sure we have a wider understanding of the student’s situation. It’s a big project; no other private provider has a framework like this. It’s completely new, and there’s a lot of interest from the sector. We’re consulting with students, making sure the student voice is reflected in our work, and making sure that there’s a real buy-in to student support across the organisation.
There’s other work we’re doing, too – mapping the student mood and how that varies throughout the year, working with other teams to ensure our employees are looked after when they deal with challenging situations in the buildings, and preparing staff training. It’s not about employees taking an hour to chat through a student’s problems with them; that’s not what they’re qualified to do. It’s about ensuring they’re clear about their role in student support, and that they’re confident when it comes to signposting students to the appropriate services.
Is there anything new you’ve learned about student support, mental health and wellbeing since joining Unite Students?
I always said nothing surprises me; after 15 years, I thought I’d seen and heard everything that students do and experience. Within the first six weeks here, there were at least two things that I’d never come across before, just because of the scale of supporting 74,000 students. They’re variations on a theme, and you know what you’re dealing with – but it’s just a bit of a new spin on it.
It’s also taken me by surprise that there’s so much opportunity to make a difference. The more I dig in, the more I see a role for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) within the sector’s wider objectives. Whether it’s from a diversity and inclusion perspective, such as Living Black at University, or doing work to prevent suicide and sexual violence – we have a crucial role to play in working with the sector, rather than working in a silo. We have information and insight that universities can benefit from, so we should share it.
You’re also involved in the Universities UK student suicide postvention group, which you talked about on our recent Accommodation Matters episode. What are some of your key learnings from that so far?
Everyone in the group has dealt with student fatalities at some point, and they’re so passionate about changing things because of that – we all know what it’s like to respond to grieving parents and grieving students.
I’ve been contributing a lot on partnership working between universities and PBSA providers – I’ve found it really positive to be able to take that experience and see how we can work together across the sector to change things, ultimately working to prevent more student suicides. I’d like to see more initiatives like it.
What are some of your priorities over the coming months?
My main priority is to focus on staff training: we want to make sure employees feel comfortable and confident after a period of change, so we’ll be running drop-in sessions for them just to sense check things. That includes new recruits to my team, so making sure that they understand our strategy, their role, and how we can nurture our Higher Education partnerships to make sure that we’ve got these really good working relationships with universities.
We’ve now introduced a reasonable adjustments committee, so if adjustments to accommodation are needed or a student wants to bring a support animal with them, there’s a process and a group of people that gives it some consistency on a national level. That consistency is something we want to achieve across a range of processes.
We’re working closely with other teams including the insight team, the city teams to make sure that there’s wellbeing content given to students on arrival, and the DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) and Wellbeing team to make sure we’re aligned on our staff wellbeing approach.
And then finally, I want to make sure we’ve launched Support to Stay in a way that works for everyone – making sure that our colleagues understand it, that it works for universities, that it works for students, and reviewing it wherever possible. It’s all well and good me saying, “Here’s a new framework, everyone has to do this,” but it’s bigger than that: people have to understand it and see the purpose of it. It’s a bit of a culture shift.
Is there anything within the remit of student support that you’re particularly passionate about?
In addition to the suicide prevention work, I’m passionate about preventing sexual violence – we want to look more at that and understand how it can be reduced. These things do happen, but we can do more through collaboration and best practice work to minimise the likelihood.
My biggest passion is for making sure that students have every opportunity for success. They spend a lot on their education and their experience, so if they have an experience or personal difficulty that puts that in jeopardy, it feels like such a waste – we need to give them a hand to succeed. There’s such an opportunity here to make a difference by creating communities that are respectful and happy places to live, and student support is a crucial ingredient for that.
Becca will be speaking at the AMOSSHE National Conference on Thursday 14th July about partnership working between accommodation providers and universities.
We’ll be sharing more information about our student support strategy and Support to Stay over the summer on our website – subscribe to our newsletter below and follow us on LinkedIn to get all the latest updates.