Interview: Exploring the student experience through research
6 June 2023
Since she joined Unite Students in 2012, Jenny Shaw (HE External Engagement Director) has been a driving force behind our research programme, the introduction of our student support provision, and initial launch of the Unite Foundation, among other things.
We caught up with Jenny about her passion for inclusion, her role in making student support a focus within purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), and the next big research topic for Higher Education.
Before you worked for Unite Students, you worked on widening participation in universities and the charity sector – what drew you to that area?
Widening participation appealed to me because of the two different worlds I grew up in. My parents were both graduates who had gone to university on grants in the 1960s, and my dad worked for the University of Hull – so university was always a part of my life growing up. On the other hand, I grew up on an estate where hardly anyone went to university, so it wasn’t the norm for people I knew or part of the wider culture and context I grew up in. At one point, just 1 in 2,000 people went to university from that estate.
Another factor is that my first job after university was working in a big comprehensive school in London, which was a formative experience. Although I moved into the HE sector after that, it was really useful to have seen students in both contexts and understand the wide diversity of young people, especially when they’re thinking about the next step in their lives.
Both of these experiences were on my mind when I applied to work in widening participation: the people I grew up with and the limitations they felt applied to them, and the students I’d worked with at the secondary school, who had the capacity to do really well at university but had other reasons why they might not go to university.
How did you end up in the world of student accommodation, and did your past experience inform your approach to accommodation?
My first university role, before I worked on widening participation, was working in business and community engagement. It was all about creating and managing partnerships between universities and local organisations like local authorities, businesses and charities, and that experience of project and relationship management was great preparation for both widening participation – especially with that work being carried out at regional level at the time, rather than institutional level – and working in HE engagement at Unite Students.
After a number of years in widening access, and a few as a consultant, there was a thread running through my career of crossing boundaries between different sectors – so it was a great challenge to work at Unite Students and come into the private sector, which was a new thing for me and a huge challenge. My own experience of living in university accommodation for three years when I studied at Durham University was such a huge, positive part of my experience, so I felt passionate about what accommodation could provide for students and the impact it could have on them.
My time in widening access, including delivering a research project for the Higher Education Academy – now Advance HE – looking at participation through a diversity and inclusion lens, gave me a grounding in diversity and inclusion. Together with a sense of social justice, which arose from my early experiences, this has very much informed the research I’ve done over the years within the business.
Under your watch, Unite Students became the first PBSA provider to set up a student support team. The role of accommodation in student wellbeing is now well-established, but that wasn’t always the case. How did that come about, and what was the key to getting universities on board?
My view was that to improve university relationships, we had to deliver the kind of accommodation that universities wanted for their students, and at that time they had given feedback that we needed some kind of welfare support for students. So together with likeminded people in the business I delved into that over 18 months through bespoke research, and colleagues in operations piloted some approaches. Together we were able to build a business case for change which was supported by Richard Smith, who is now our CEO.
It’s been a long process. We were the first private provider to have a student support team and, because no one had done it before, we had to work out how to work with university support teams and build our capacity on the ground, originally with a team of two. It’s grown a lot since then.
Getting universities on board was really interesting, even though the idea came from them – we spent a good few years reassuring people that we weren’t trying to do their job. They were clearly better resourced, with specialist resource to support students through a whole range of challenges, which wasn’t what we were trying to do – we were there to signpost, case-manage, capture information and collaborate with universities.
Sometimes colleagues in universities would say, “You don’t need to deal with that – just pass it on to us.” But, practically, we did need to record it; our teams needed context if, for example, multiple incidents took place with the same student. And it helped for them to be trained to deal with mental health incidents through mental health first aid training and more specialist advice for difficult situations, especially if a student didn’t want their mental health issues to be disclosed to the university.
We were just finding our way and trying to create partnerships that weren’t there before, which is always a challenge.
You were heavily involved in the setting up of the Unite Foundation, supporting estranged and care-experienced students – what inspired that, and what was it like overseeing the Foundation in the early days?
When I first came to work for Unite Students the private sector was a bit of a culture shock, so finding that they were in the process of setting up a widening access charity was nice – it felt a lot more familiar, and was something I felt confident leading on, as it was still in the ‘ideas’ phase. I remembered a project about care leavers that Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, now at the University of Leeds, had brought to me for funding when I was working in the Yorkshire and Humber region: a very small number of care leavers went to university, which was an emerging issue in widening access at the time.
I put that together with the idea of a secure home, which is something that a lot of care leavers really need, and making the case internally was easy. We were offering a generous package of support, but with lots of other bursary schemes available in the sector we didn’t want the scope to be too generalised – but this was a group that were very under-represented within Higher Education and would really benefit.
The early days of the Unite Foundation were like running a start-up: it was just part of my time and a part-time administrator, putting processes in place and forging new relationships. It was fun, but quite hard! In time, we expanded it out to include estranged students too, and after a couple of years I stepped away from the operations and joined the Board instead.
Last year the Foundation held a 10th anniversary celebration, and it was magical. It was like a mini conference with the students running the agenda, and they talked about what they’d experienced, what it meant to be care-experienced or estranged, and the impact of the Foundation on them. It’s grown so much over the years, and the team there have done amazing work – so to hear the students talking about the security of the home, their community, and what it’s like to be seen and valued was amazing. Everyone in the room was in tears at the end, panellists and audience alike. It really reinforced that this is life-changing work.
That said, I just see it as righting some wrongs. These students have had to deal with some difficult things at an incredibly early age, and we are just very slightly compensating for that unfairness. I stepped down from the Board this year, which was a poignant moment but I’m leaving it in very safe hands.
Your commitment to research and insight is something you’re known for, so what led to the creation of Unite Students’ research programme – and do you have a favourite research report?
Before the financial crash in 2008, Unite used to do huge student research reports – they were like a phone book! When I joined in 2012, there was a much smaller survey going on, which I took a lot of interest in. The following year, I ran a survey, and eventually student or applicant surveys became a regular activity. It all evolved from there.
The key considerations are: what’s the new thing? What hasn’t been researched yet? What are the frontiers of knowledge about students, especially within an accommodation context but also elsewhere? We’ve honed in on some areas that were quite under-researched at the time, like the transition to university and student mental health, and now moving forward into areas like the Black experience and neurodivergence.
Our business is all about students, so we should be obsessed with understanding students, especially their transition to university. So many first year students live with us each year, and for many it’s the first time they’ve lived away from home. Our teams need to respond to that to give them the best possible experience and opportunities, so they need to understand it.
As for favourite reports, I have two. Living Black at University, just because it hadn’t been researched before but it was so needed, and it seems to have started a movement across the whole sector. We know there are wider issues around awarding gaps and non-continuation rates for Black students, it feels like there’s this part of the sector now which is aligned on actions to improve that experience, which ultimately will have an impact on Black students across the UK.
The second one is this year’s report on neurodivergent students. I had such a great time working with the students and I wish all research could be as nice as that; it didn’t feel like work at all.
It’s fair to say that student support in PBSA and Living Black at University have sparked much wider buy-in across the sector. What’s the next big thing for student accommodation to look at?
There’s still a long way to go on wellbeing and inclusion, and the way these come together will be important. Accommodation needs to support a cohort of students who are leaving home for the first time – and living all together in a way that you never do in the rest of your life – where a lot of people come in with different backgrounds and needs, including a growing number of mental health conditions and neurodivergence. That requires a really granular understanding of young people’s mental health, diversity and inclusion, and it’s going to be essential for us and anyone in student accommodation to understand this so we know how to support them.
One of the reasons for starting our annual Applicant Index is to understand how each cohort has been impacted by the Covid pandemic as well as all the other things going on in the world, and what this means for young people and their transition to university.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception about student accommodation?
People who aren’t close to student accommodation tend to assume it will be like it was when they were at university in the 1980s or 1990s, where the policy narrative was about having somewhere to sleep rather than being a valuable part of the student experience – though some universities had a more holistic view. The world is different now, young people are different, and they have different experiences and expectations. We’re almost back to where student accommodation was in the early 1960s; accommodation was seen as part of your education, a formative learning experience in its own right. But back then 18 year olds were not considered to be adults and a greater duty of care was expected from universities.
The difference is that very few people went to university then compared to now. So how do you bring that principle into the modern world, where you have a lot of young people with specific needs who are looking for that community and sense of belonging? And if we’re going to have a million applicants by the end of the decade, how are we going to do it at that sort of scale?
Finally, you’re the host of the Accommodation Matters podcast, but the audience may not know that outside of work you’re also the host of Handed Down, a music podcast. How did that come about, and what’s the secret to a great podcast?
One night I had a dream that I started a podcast about traditional songs – and the next day I started to work on it! There are thousands of traditional songs in UK and Ireland and they all have really interesting stories behind them, whether they’re based on legends or real events. I love telling stories and making music, so that’s what it’s all about for me.
For a great podcast: it sounds really obvious, but you’ve got to work really hard to be interesting, and invite interesting guests. You have to think about your audience in terms of what’s important to them and what they want to hear, but also in taking on feedback and looking at your analytics. You’ve got to have a really good editor – shout out to Ed Palmer, our producer for Accommodation Matters and part of the secret sauce! – who makes it really tight and interesting, something that people want to listen to, and feel entertained and informed by.
You can listen to Jenny hosting Accommodation Matters on all good podcast platforms, or below: