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2023 research update: What we’ve done so far – and what’s next

27 July 2023

Jenny Shaw reflects on what research and insight we’ve shared so far in 2023, the impact it’s had both at Unite Students and elsewhere, and a sneak preview of some of the exciting projects we have lined up for the 2023/24 year.

Back in January I shared our research programme for the year with more than a little trepidation. After the chaos of the Covid years we all got used to rolling with the tide, so it’s really a welcome surprise to find that most things have gone to plan. This year we’ve been focusing on student wellbeing and inclusion, two areas that have only increased in importance over the last few years.

The beginning of 2023 saw us working in partnership with a very impressive group of students, the Bristol University Neurodiversity Society. By doing so, were able to get some deep insight into the lived experiences of neurodivergent students while joining the university, living in student accommodation and socialising. This added to the data we already had from the 2022 Applicant Index.

Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students’, the report that came out of this project – co-authored by postgraduate student Freya Selman – offers a range of practical recommendation for universities and accommodation providers. Our student support team has already adopted some of these recommendations as part of their ‘reasonable adjustments’ work, while others are being considered by our central operations teams as part of our overall drive to create a more inclusive environment. We also know that several universities have adopted recommendations from the report for this coming academic year.

Working with the students has been a real highlight of the year so far, and it has made such a difference to hear the students’ own voices and words, captured in the video below:

Talking of highlights, we were blown away by the enthusiasm and determination of colleagues from across the sector at the Living Black at University Conference in February. Once again this was an opportunity to hear directly from students, as well as to learn from the work of Commissioners and the new Inclusive Leadership training by Sam Kingsley.

The Commission itself has published three toolkits so far in 2023, with more to come later this year – you can find these at the Commission’s resources page. And although the first phase of the Commission’s work is coming to a close with a summary report due towards the end of the year, we’re looking forward to announcing a brand-new phase after the summer. In the meantime, we’re holding a Living Black at University regional best practice sharing event for universities in London in August, and look forward to sharing cultural services guides for all the cities we work in, led by this year’s interns.

The 2023 Applicant Index was published earlier this month in partnership with HEPI, and provided a few welcome surprises together with cause for concern. It was encouraging to see this year’s applicants were more financially confident and less anxious than last year, but concerning to note that almost a third had been absent from school or college due to their mental health. By comparing our findings with data from the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey we were able to show that going to university tends to make some groups of students more lonely. We are doing some further work on the data over the coming months and will update in the Autumn.

In the meantime, we are responding to the findings from LGBTQ+ applicants, who experience significantly lower levels of wellbeing than average. We are committing to a substantial piece of research in 2024 that looks closely at the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in purpose built accommodation, and will offer sector-wide recommendations.

Throughout the year we have continued to support the Universities UK Taskforce on Student Drug Use – Reducing Harm and Tackling Supply. As well as working across the sector to bring an accommodation perspective into the main guidance, we have also launched a working group to produce accommodation-specific supplementary guidance. The group has made some good initial progress and identified some key areas for guidance, however with the main Taskforce report currently delayed until later in the summer we will resume work in October.

An unexpected but very welcome project during the year was UCAS’s Journey to a Million campaign. Together with Knight Frank, we were pleased to be able to support the project and to provide an overview of the changing landscape and evolving student needs over the remainder of the decade – both through our own co-authored essay, ‘What does the Journey to a Million mean for student accommodation?’, and by co-sponsoring the project.

It has been very rewarding to see how student accommodation has moved up the policy agenda over recent years. It is now a strategic consideration for many institutions, and we can see within all our research what an important role it plays in the student experience – so we look forward to bringing new accommodation-focused insights to the wider sector later this year, and in years to come.

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