University Mental Health Charter: 6 questions you should ask your accommodation providers
30 November 2023
Working towards the University Mental Health Charter? Here are (at least) six questions universities should ask their private purpose-built student accommodation partners.
On 28th November, I spoke on a panel about the role of residential accommodation in student mental health. The event was organised by Student Minds for universities working towards the University Mental Health Charter (UMHC) and focused entirely on the accommodation experience – the ‘Live’ domain within the Charter.
The event reflected two current trends very important to me – the continued focus on student mental health and wellbeing, and the importance of student accommodation and the residential experience. It was inspiring to hear expert input from Professor Rhiannon Corcoran, and good practice from fellow panellists and accommodation teams across the UK.
But I was conscious that more than half of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) offered by universities is operated by private sector. At a time when all higher education providers in England are being encouraged to work towards the Charter, private PBSA providers have a key role to play. In turn, universities have a unique opportunity to drive up standards across the sector by being more demanding of their private accommodation partners.
So, with that in mind, I shared some questions that universities could ask of their accommodation partners, aligned with the good practice principles for the Live domain. They are tough questions designed to form the basis of productive conversations about what you need from them.
1. How are you engaging students in being active participants in their own and others’ safety?
This may be a basic question, but it should lead to a broad discussion because it also gives you a sense of how proactive they are when it comes to safety, and also how they engage and communicate with students. What is their vision for safe accommodation, and what do they think it means to students? How do they engage students in safe behaviours? You’ll be looking for a broad and nuanced view of safety, and can engage them with your current or emerging concerns.
2. Which health and wellbeing campaigns did you run last year, and what was the level of engagement?
This is a deliberately specific question to ensure you don’t get a generic answer. Is their approach ad hoc or systematic? Are they responding to local priorities, perhaps working with your own teams or your students’ union? If they are running national campaigns, how were they chosen. And in each case, how was the campaign and its impact evaluated?
3. How have you set expectations for respectful and inclusive behaviour this year?
We can’t assume students know how to live with people from different backgrounds than their own, as we discovered in our Living Black at University report. Without setting expectations, it is difficult to hold students to account for discriminatory behaviour or to provide the right coaching and guidance. Every student should be able to find a sense of belonging, not just those who are part of a majority group, and the culture and community will depend just as much on what is tolerated as what is promoted.
4. How would a frontline staff member respond to a disclosure of a mental health issues?
In this case you would be looking for a clear and consistent approach. Training is very important, and you are also looking for sources of advice, systems and tools. How does this work in the middle of the night? And how are staff members supported with their own mental health, especially following a critical incident?
5. How do you respond to third party enquiries about a student’s wellbeing?
Naturally you will be looking for an informed approach to data protection, but not necessarily a blanket approach. Are students ever approached to provide consent to disclose, and is that recorded? Are there trusted contacts in place? How are staff trained to manage these situations? Are there ever circumstances in which confidentiality is breached, and if so who takes that decision and how is it recorded? Again, this probes for a process that has been well thought through and clearly embedded.
6. How has the cost-of-living crisis changed your approach to debt management?
It’s a challenging question, but one that has to be asked at this time. How is debt recovery approached? Is the process compassionate? Does it encourage students in debt to reach out for support? How do they propose to work with you to identify and signpost students who are struggling with debt?
These are not the only questions that can be asked, and I’m sure you will have many more. We have already started to have some of these conversations with our university partners and it creates a virtuous circle – it helps us to review our practice and keep it in line with student and university needs. At the same time, it adds to the business case as well as the ethical case for private providers to invest in student mental health and wellbeing. Ultimately, this drives further positive change for students, which we all want to see.
So don’t be afraid to engage with your private PBSA partners, and see how far you can go together to meet the good practice principles of the University Mental Health Charter.