How can we better prepare students for university living?
Data shows that students’ expectations for university life don’t meet with their experience. So what can universities and accommodation providers do to bridge the gap and better reflect the reality of university living to prospective students, and is upskilling the way forward?
Prospective students have never had as much information at their disposal as they currently do. A decade ago, you might be limited to university prospectuses, open days, The Student Room, and – if you were lucky – perhaps a friend of a friend’s cousin who went to the university of your choice. Today’s applicants, however, can sift through countless videos and reviews online, instantly contact universities, current students and alumni through social media, and in many cases get a remote tour of campus and local accommodation.
And yet, despite all these sources, data consistently shows that students’ expectations of university living are not being matched by the reality.
What the data tells us
The Student Academic Experience Survey, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), measures students’ expectations of university year on year. With students having largely returned to campus for in-person teaching and the ‘new normal’ looking markedly like the ‘old normal’, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of students saying that their experience has been “worse” than they expected, with just 1 in 6 (17%) saying this – although this figure remains higher than before the pandemic. More than half (51%) considered their experience to have been “better in some ways and worse in others”.
In response to this finding, HEPI Director Nick Hillman cited a lack of preparation for university living in a recent speech to the Russell Group Admissions Forum, and referenced our 2017 report ‘Reality Check’ in doing so. That research found that 47% of applicants felt ‘somewhat’ or ‘completely’ unprepared to live with people they had never met before, and that just half of students (49%) expected rent to be their biggest cost at university after tuition fees.
However, more recent research suggests that preparedness for university has declined in recent years. Our 2021 applicant survey found that last year’s applicants felt less well-informed and less prepared than 2017’s applicants did: preparedness had fallen from 45% in 2017 to 36% in 2021, while a sense of being well-informed had dropped from 33% in 2017 to 20% in 2021.
The challenges of independent living
Going to university is a significant life event – for many students, it’s the first time they’ve ever lived independently. Television and film have long portrayed university life as a non-stop party; think Fresh Meat and National Lampoon’s Animal House. I certainly went into university with that impression, and didn’t consider the day-to-day minutiae of university living such as endless washing up and laundry, and getting to grips with cleaning a shower for the first time.
Moving away from the parental home can reveal a knowledge gap when it comes to students looking after themselves. In the run-up to the 2021 academic year, we surveyed those coming to live with us to find out more about their preferences and concerns so that we could meet those needs where possible in our buildings: we found that students’ concerns included managing finances, doing household chores, cooking and getting set up with a GP. Taking on all these new responsibilities can be an additional strain at a time of much upheaval, on top of adjusting to a new location, making friends, and adapting to the demands of university-level study.
Additionally, living with strangers can be a real challenge, especially if flatmates have different expectations of (for example) acceptable noise levels and the standard of cleanliness in common areas. If these disagreements are mishandled, it can lead to conflict or a sense of isolation within the accommodation – and dissatisfaction in accommodation can have major ramifications for a student’s wider university experience.
Red Brick Research’s 2019 longitudinal research report ‘Shifting Foundations: Lessons from a Decade of Data on Student Housing’ found that 84% of students who were unhappy with their accommodation said it had negatively impacted on their overall sense of wellbeing, and were ten times more likely than those who were happy in their accommodation to feel negatively about their whole university experience. Conflict in accommodation was found to have a particularly drastic impact on the experience: just 62% of students who didn’t get on “at all” with flatmates said they were satisfied with their overall university experience, compared with 92% of those who got on “really well” with those they lived with.
Getting real about university living
Our 2019 report ‘New Realists’ identified that current and former students, friends and online forums were considered to be the most accurate sources of information about student life. Many universities have tapped into alumni and current students to help students prepare and adjust for university life, while Unite Students has a Resident Ambassador programme which offers students the opportunity to take on a leadership role, paid at the living wage, while they study.
But while this helps, a gap still remains – so what can be done to bridge it? Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the transition to university as being a process that requires upskilling. Conflict management is a skill, as is checking in on a flatmate or having the confidence to seek support.
In light of our ‘Reality Check’ findings around the gap between expectations and the reality of university life, in 2018 Unite Students launched Leapskills – a programme designed to support the ‘leap’ from school to university. Designed to be delivered through free interactive workshops in schools and colleges, Leapskills introduces applicants and prospective students to some of the real-life scenarios that can face students in their accommodation, and encourages consideration of how best to deal with these challenges. Scenarios include managing finances, disagreements with flatmates, and making new friends.
One Year 12 student who took a Leapskills workshop told us: “The Leapskills workshop was my first real taste of university life. The tour around the university dormitories and the real-life problems we were given to solve helped to make me really feel mentally prepared for university.”
Since launch, the programme – endorsed by the Department for Education – has been delivered to thousands of students, and a new partnership with UCAS will now bring it to more students than ever before. It’s just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to meeting students’ expectations for university, but it’s an important one.
Unite Students is showcasing Leapskills at UCAS events this summer – find out more here. Leapskills is free to access and can be used by universities for schools liaison work – sign up now at the Leapskills website.