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How the transition to university looks for this year’s cohort

13 August 2020

With all of the challenges thrown at us this year, and the ongoing uncertainty Covid-19 is causing, there’s been a focus on how the transition to university will look for the first years joining us in 2020.

The impact of Covid-19 on universities is well documented and substantial. Understanding the ripple effect this has on student accommodation is something that is key for not only universities in the operation of their own halls, but for Unite Students and other accommodation providers nationally.Accommodation has the potential to be a challenging environment, and we understand the need to mitigating the spread of the virus. It is imperative that the right policies and procedures, managed by the right people, are in place. It is also vital we recognise our frontline teams for the amazing work they are doing to combat the spread of the virus. Whether this be through cleaning regime changes. Installing screens and ensuring a good stock of sanitiser, or the way they manage emergencies in the most severe of scenarios.

To understand the reality of what this year is going to mean for those students, Unite Students conducted a snapshot survey to understand the feelings and thoughts of the upcoming cohort and their parents. Some of the key stats uncovered were shared in this factsheet. These findings have helped drive the creation of our own service proposition, which we shared more about here.

Another very real consideration is that, not only is this cohort walking into a very different university world than those gone by; they are also the first to leave school in this new world. They didn’t have the chance to sign shirts, attend proms, get a summer job to earn a bit of extra spending money for Fresher’s Week. They didn’t go to festivals or travel over the summer. They didn’t have the opportunity to sit their exams.

With the lack of exams we are not only seeing the loss of an important life experience, but with what has happened recently regrading exam results in Scotland, and with Gavin Williamson’s announcements this week on the change of approach with A-levels, many may feel they have been dealt with unjustly.

So, with all of this to consider, what are the likely challenges students arriving at halls face this year? And, equally importantly, what do we need to consider to support them?

Our annual student surveys tell us students arrive on our doorstep with mixed emotions. Excitement and anxiety are nothing new; however, with a cohort who have not sat exams and have potentially received grades differing from what they expected, we believe this will be heightened. The need for support services may well therefore, be immediate and or extensive.

Fresher’s Week is viewed as a rite of passage, but this year will be very different. Digital engagement over traditional gatherings may become the norm. As accommodation providers we need to up our engagement with specific households, not just full properties. The student experience will feel different, and it will take coordination and planning to offer a Fresher’s experience that is satisfying and lives up to previous expectations. With nightclubs shut and bars limiting entry, we will need to be active in ensuring those traditional parties do not spill out into the community.

Supporting students can be a challenge, especially those who are most in need and may not be visible to staff. However, in the past, the lack of visibility of a student could be the first trigger that a friendly chat is needed. With social distancing and isolating students, spotting this nuanced behaviour will be increasingly challenging. We will therefore have to be extra vigilant, react appropriately, and have implemented right systems and processes in places to provide the support needed.

As providers of accommodation, we ultimately need to be very clear with our students around what to expect before they actually arrive. Communicating clearly, utilising social media effectively, as well as a need to create space for effective peer-to-peer interaction will be key to student success. Combining this with a need to ask students to be responsible citizens and uphold the personal responsibility we all carry, to keep ourselves and other safe during and after the pandemic.

Parental toolkits (such as our very own LeapSkills: Parent Edition) are available for free online and institutions and providers should encourage parents to prepare for university by having some key conversations while still in the family home.

In summary, it’s clear we are all in this together, from universities, accommodation providers, welfare and support teams to students. Only by communicating, working together and respecting each other’s efforts will we succeed. With this in mind, and through thorough planning and diligent delivery, it may not be like any other year, but it will still be a success and the start of an incredible journey for the cohort of students (and their parents!) who put their trust in all of us this September.

Our Area Managers and ARSA Regional Representatives Jo Blair and Sarah Reynolds recently spoke about this issue at the Westminster Higher and Further Education Forum.