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HEPI Annual Conference: 6 takeaways for student accommodation

10 June 2022

Jenny Shaw, Higher Education External Engagement Director, attended the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)’s annual conference on 9th June – here are her key takeaways for the student accommodation sector.

The HEPI Annual Conference is always a red letter day in the higher education calendar, not least because it doubles up as the launch of the annual HEPI/HEA Student Experience Survey. This year was especially interesting, as we were all eagerly waiting to find out whether student satisfaction and wellbeing had bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.

The answer was mixed, and well debated at the conference – as you might imagine. There were a few surprises in the data, and new announcements from the Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan.

There was plenty in the conference that was relevant to student accommodation, and I came away realising that accommodation can address many of the issues raised; in fact, in many cases, we are already doing so. Perhaps now is the time for student accommodation to have an even stronger voice in higher education policy.


There is a new Student Support Champion

Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, has been appointed as the government’s national champion for student support. Among other things he will be supporting universities to use technology and other tools to spot early warning signs that students need support, and there is a focus on the role that academic staff can play.

However, accommodation staff are often the first to know when students are struggling with their mental health, so it’s essential that we get this on his agenda too.


Students are much lonelier than the general population

Almost a quarter – 23% – of students felt lonely most or all of the time, compared to 5% of the general population. Alison Johns of Advance HE pulled out a student quote as an illustration: “It’s new, and I’m lost.”

The popularity of the recent CUBO ResLife conference illustrates how much of a focus this is for our sector. These survey results show just how much of a difference a comprehensive and inclusive welcome and social programme is for today’s students.


The government appears to have ruled out setting student number caps

Michelle Donelan said “No-one is talking about limiting numbers going to university”. Whether this is a firm promise or not we will have to wait and see, but if so we can expect the demographic uplift to bring us bumper intakes of domestic students over the coming years.


Belonging is a ‘secret sauce’ and universities need to think about who will feel comfortable and happy in their institution

In a thoughtful and data-informed presentation, Josephine Hansom from YouthSight challenged universities to think very carefully about the type of students that will feel comfortable at their university, and whether this is reflected accurately in their marketing. Students can’t do well academically if they don’t have that feeling of comfort and belonging, so universities must ensure that the reality reflects the promise.

‘Living with or close to other students’ was the third biggest contributor to a sense of belonging, and it was even more significant to LGBT+ students. Josephine shared other data that showed LGBT+ young people were less optimistic, less likely to say they wanted to get to the top of their career and less likely to be entrepreneurs. As a result, we are missing out on great leadership talent as a country. Universities – and student accommodation – are “places where this can change” for LGBT+ students and other minority groups.


Black students and students from other ethnic minority groups feel a lower sense of belonging

The survey replicated the findings of our Living Black at University research about the lower sense of belonging among Black students. We know already that what happens in accommodation can have a significant impact on Black students’ sense of belonging, and as a sector we are already working on addressing these findings. This is a real opportunity for student accommodation to lead the wider sector on this important issue.


If the survey data is the colouring book, lived experience provides the colours

In a powerful and moving presentation Melody Stephen, General Secretary of the University of Manchester Students’ Union talked about the importance of understanding the lived experience of students. She shared an example of a Black student who walked into accommodation and was assumed to be a housekeeper, and another of a care experienced student who arrived at university only to find that the promised support did not live up to what they had been told.

It’s clear that understanding the lived experience is important to making change.


While the data presents a mixed bag for students, there’s a clear will across the sector to effect positive change – and student accommodation can play an important part in that.

Read Jenny’s recent blog on helping students to feel a sense of belonging in their accommodation here.

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