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Interview: How do you create a great student experience?

23 May 2024

According to our 2023 Applicant Index data, 66% of university applicants want to be an active part of the student community while they’re at university. 

We spoke to Serena Ferris, Resident Experience Programmes Manager, about what it takes to make a great student experience, using student feedback to shape our programmes, and what she’s looking to achieve in 2024. 


What brought you to work at Unite Students, and what did you do in your previous role? 

Previously I worked in hospitality and the arts, and always had a passion for being amongst people and delivering great experiences. My previous role was Head of Customer Experience at Wales Millennium Centre, an arts charity working with young people in Wales. I ran a volunteer programme which offered people an opportunity to develop life skills through the arts, as well as the day-to-day front of house operation of the Centre. The outreach work with young people was wonderful. 

I joined Unite Students because it was something completely different. I hadn’t worked in the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector before, but I just loved the idea of being able to work on a living experience for young people that would make a difference. 

My first role here was in the Quality and Standards team, where I worked on the CARE customer service programme. There was a wealth of experience within that team, so I was able to learn from that and understand how the PBSA sector works. I was able to ask lots of questions to put that experiential lens on everything, which is what I specialise in. 

I try and think of everything as someone’s story and a big part of my role is asking: what is the student voice in this? What could be the student’s story along the way? 


Tell us what your new role as Resident Experience Programmes Manager involves, and how it delivers a great student experience. 

The role is responsible for all our service programmes. That includes CARE, our customer service principles, to other experiential schemes like the Resident Ambassador programme and our programme of welcome events. With all those initiatives, we want to improve opportunities to interact with our residents, meet their expectations and deliver a really great service to them. 

I work with a huge number of different people to make that happen. I’ll always try to align our programmes with the student journey – so I might join workshops to bring a student voice perspective, or work with our Learning and Development team to develop a new training module. That student voice comes through the data we have, particularly third-party reviews like Student Crowd and Trustpilot where we can use students’ own words to tell their stories, and also from our paid Resident Ambassadors who can tell us what it’s really like to live in our buildings. 


How do you work with our frontline teams to deliver our resident experience programmes? 

I’m very much a people person and I love to make connections. You can’t create a culture of great service without understanding the people on the front line who will be delivering it. It needs to include their voice and be relatable to them. So since joining I’ve really wanted to take the time to understand how those teams operate and what they face day in, day out.  

Their understanding of our residents is invaluable too. So when we see our resident survey data and we want to understand the results, I can talk to that team about what they think has contributed to that score. It means we can turn that score into more of a journey. You can get some great stories from that, which then feed back into how we adapt our service programme. I don’t ever want to roll out an initiative that isn’t reflective of what’s going on for residents or our teams. 


You were heavily involved with the relaunch of our customer service principles and training, CARE. What does CARE mean, and how do those principles work in practice? 

CARE is our service programme. Our residents have told us we’re doing a good job – but we want to be great. So to do that, we want to move from transactional service to more emotive experiences, and CARE is at the heart of that. 

It covers four key principles – Connect, Act, Respect and Encourage – which all come with a bespoke learning module and an action that the field teams can use to bring it to life, improving residents’ experience. For example, with ‘Connect’ we encourage our frontline teams to use residents’ names in interactions, right from the day they arrive. 76% of our residents who completed our check-in survey this year said that our teams did that, and we saw from our check-in survey that student satisfaction was higher in buildings where teams had completed their training. 

‘Act’ is all about the little things and finding moments of surprise and delight; remembering someone’s birthday, or when someone’s mentioned they have an exam that day and asking them how it went.  

The other two modules have been introduced more recently. ‘Respect’ is about being proactive, having great conversations and really being visible around the building, and ‘Encourage’ is about the relationship between resident experience and student support. It’s about how, if needed, we can move from that day-to-day level of care and elevate it into our student support framework, Support to Stay. But it’s also about how we can be there for a resident in the moment. 

So, breaks in term time can be a different experience for each resident. They may go home, they may be excited to go home, to be with family. Others may live really far away from home, or their student accommodation is their home. We can be there for those who feel alone over the holidays, and bring people back together as a community when term begins again. The initiative associated with that is to run what we call a refresh and recharge event, which we run with our Resident Ambassadors. It helps everyone to reconnect. 


In your opinion, what makes a great resident experience? 

Unite Students aspires to provide a Home for Success to students, and as someone new to the organisation, that’s a really great foundation – but if you dig into what ‘Home for Success’ means, it’s different for everybody. Just like a great student experience, where everyone’s journey is different. 

If I break down that experience, it’s one where residents don’t need to worry about the basics. They don’t need to have to think about: is the building clean, safe and warm? We’ve got that. That’s done. It’s a supportive experience because we’re there if they need us. We’re not going to be their parents, but we’ll support them when they need it. 

Then, it’s about being part of a community, where that community is fun, inclusive, and allows them to thrive. So it’s three things for me, really – it’s the basics, being supported and feeling like part of a community. 


What are some of the main challenges to a great experience? 

I think the cost of living is a huge challenge. International students aren’t always aware of what it’s like to live in the UK, so it can be quite a shock, and it’s the same for UK residents moving away from home for the first time and having to function on their own. So, we’re looking at what life skills we can help them with in that area. 

The other thing is student wellbeing, that can be a challenge. We know that loneliness and anxiety are issues within the student population. Keeping up with changing needs, too – today’s students prioritise different things to previous generations. Sleep and healthy eating are currently high on student agendas. 


What are you most excited about achieving in your role in 2024? 

I’m excited to see how the CARE programme develops. It’s a huge privilege to play a role in this part of a student’s life, and a great experience can really make a difference to them. I fully believe we have more opportunities to grow our experience, and I’m excited to see what we can do with that. The current version of CARE will have been around for a year in July. 

I want to build on the Resident Ambassador scheme, which is a really valuable programme. We’ve got a network of more than 100 Ambassadors across the UK currently who give us that student voice and insight, and we’ve just begun recruiting for next year. 

Then we’re delivering an enhanced welcome programme alongside check-in this year, which will focus on the elements of CARE. What more can we do, particularly in those first six weeks, to support residents and introduce them to new people? That’s what our welcome programme will focus on. 

Finally, I want to see how we can put a spotlight on the people who are delivering great experiences day in, day out and the positive impact of that on our residents. Because at the heart of all these programmes is people, and they really make the difference.  


Read more about the CARE programme here, and catch up on our latest Resident Ambassador programme updates here. 

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