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5 themes for PBSA from the Festival of Higher Education

13 November 2023

Last week, Unite Students went to the Festival of Higher Education (7-8 November) to hear what’s on the HE sector’s mind right now. We picked up on five key themes from the conference – here’s what was shared, and what those themes might mean for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA). 

Last week, Senate House – a striking Art Deco building in central London that’s hosted Batman, Wonder Woman and James Bond (in the movies, at least) – welcomed professionals from across the HE sector for a new-look Festival of Higher Education. Now a two-day bonanza of all things HE, the event was put on by the University of London and Higher Education analysis, insight and debate hub, Wonkhe.

As one of Wonkhe’s partner organisations, we had the opportunity to attend the event. Accommodation was only sparingly referenced, but we learned about the challenges and priorities in other areas of universities, such as teaching and university services – and we’ve boiled down some of the overarching themes from the event, with our take on what it means for PBSA. 


1. The forthcoming UK general election

Given the significant changes made to university funding since the Conservatives first came to power in 2010, it’s no surprise that the next general election (likely to take place in 2024) loomed large over the conference. One session even offered the opportunity to build an election manifesto for Higher Education. 

This meant plenty of discussion about the Conservative government’s Higher Education legacy. While tackling “poor quality degrees”, as described in the King’s Speech on Tuesday, is a government priority, the effectiveness of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) came under scrutiny. TEF, which rates the quality of student experience and outcomes at universities, allows applicants to determine whether an institution offers value for money – but it was suggested by university delegates that it wasn’t currently being used by applicants to make their decisions. 

Freedom of speech on campus also came up in several sessions, including Jim Dickinson’s session on Belong, a student insight panel run by Wonkhe and student market research agency Cibyl; surprisingly, the most commonly cited reason for students feeling that they were not free to express themselves was a lack of personal confidence, rather than their political beliefs. 

And, most relevant to PBSA, there were reflections in a number of sessions about the significant changes to student finance since 2010 – increases to tuition fees in 2012, the removal of the maintenance grant in 2016, and changes to loan repayments this year – and the consequences of those changes, such as an increase in the number of students experiencing a food emergency. However, it was widely acknowledged that student finance was unlikely to see an uplift regardless of which party won the next election, due to financial pressures on many other parts of the public sector. 


2. The need for greater involvement in, and engagement with, local communities

‘Town and gown’ divisions have existed since medieval times, and several sessions touched on what these tensions look like right now.  

Panellists in opening session ‘What do the UK’s places want from their universities?’ reflected on the differences in voting patterns between students and local populations in some university cities. A session on universities’ civic role had plenty of stark data points showing that local populations, particularly those in lower socioeconomic brackets, had very limited interaction with or exposure to students or university staff. 

But there’s a really clear desire for universities to play a greater part in local communities – notably, the civic session was so oversubscribed that about two dozen delegates were turned away from the session. The possibility of greater devolution at regional or city level in the UK came up as a possibility in the places panel, and this was seen as a real opportunity for universities to embed themselves and their services within local communities. 

In London, student accommodation blocks are required to include a facility for the benefit of the local community to integrate student accommodation buildings into local communities, as we’ve done at our Stapleton House and Hayloft Point buildings. If greater devolution does come to pass, perhaps we could see more requirements of this nature in other cities. 


3. The importance of belonging and community to student success

This perhaps just reinforces what we already knew – but it always bears repeating. 

In Jim Dickinson’s data deep-dive session ‘5 unexpected things we learned from Belong’, there were countless positive correlations that were associated with a student’s positive response to the question “I feel part of a community of students and staff” – including feeling like they were marked more fairly by tutors. Unsurprisingly, students who faced a long journey to campus were less likely to feel like a part of the university community.  

According to students on the Belong insight panel, the most helpful ways that universities could help more students to feel part of a university community included ‘Peer support’ – such as our Resident Ambassadors – and ‘More understanding of personal circumstances and characteristics from other students’. 

We also attended a session about anti-racism progress at universities, just one day after the University of Manchester became only the second institution to achieve a Silver Award in the Race Equality Charter, demonstrating progress on advancing race equality within a university. There was plenty of passion in the room, but also frustration. Two key challenges were a lack of accountability for not taking action within institutions, and a lack of authenticity – wanting to be seen to do the right thing, rather than actually doing it. 

Those wanting to take action to improve race equity within PBSA will be delighted to know that our Living Black at University Commission report – co-created with universities and sector bodies to demonstrate best practice and case studies in this space – will be launched tomorrow. 


4. The opportunities and challenges of AI

Artificial intelligence was also high on the agenda, with several speakers referencing Elon Musk’s recent comments about AI removing the need for jobs. 

AI has often been seen as something of a scourge in the Higher Education sector, with concerns around its use in student coursework. However, it was clear at the event that AI isn’t going anywhere – and institutions need to get on board. 

In the ‘Preparing for Generation AI’ session on Tuesday afternoon, delegates heard how AI could boost productivity in the workplace with tech such as chatbots, or enhance learning and development opportunities. Panellist Dr Melanie Garson, Associate Professor at University College London and Cyber & Tech Geopolitics Lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, shared that her daughter had used ChatGPT to suggest exam questions on relevant topics and used these to practice essay-writing skills. 

Of course, some of the risks of AI also came up, such as cybersecurity and misinformation. We’re still understanding the ways in which AI can be integrated into student accommodation, but one raised in our recent sustainability-themed podcast was about the use of AI to moderate energy use within buildings.   


5. International students

The number of students from outside the EU has rocketed up over the past decade. And Ben Jordan, UCAS’ Head of Policy, shared that UCAS’ projection of one million university applicants by 2030 includes a projection of more than 91,000 more international students in UK universities. 

However, with current cost of living challenges and this continuing growth for international numbers, he raised the risk that PBSA would increasingly become the preserve of international students – which would have broad implications for student mobility within the UK and the experience of domestic students. 

In the ‘Belong’ session, we learned that food insecurity among non-EU international students was higher than among domestic or EU students, and were the most common users of university food banks – so accommodation teams might want to look out for warning signs that international students are struggling financially, so they can signpost to the appropriate support services.  

But, amid these challenges, a heartening finding was that non-EU students were more likely than domestic or EU students to ‘strongly agree’ that they felt part of the university community. 

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